By: Jalynn Johnson, CSW, MSW
Picture this; you’ve just had a long day at work, you got a somewhat rude text from your brother telling you that something you’re doing isn’t right, the commute was horrible, and you just arrived home. What’s the first thing you do? Sit down and turn on the T.V.? Start scrolling through Instagram? Eat chocolate? I am sure there are many responses that I could put here, but you get the idea. A lot of times we numb out our emotions without even realizing it. We say that we’re too tired to think about the day, too much happened to even want to process the events, or the emotions are too big and scary we don’t want to face them. We then let our emotions sit inside, fester, and we don’t give them the time and attention needed. This can result in poor health and negative somatic symptoms such as fatigue or pain, it can result in losing touch with our needs and feelings, and it can result in big emotional outbursts that take us by surprise and we wonder where they came from. Properly handling our emotions can take work, but it is work that pays off.
So why is this even important? Let me explain with an example. Back in my younger dating years a lot of my conversations took place over text (I know, such a millennial). I remember one time that a guy I was dating really hurt my feelings. I read the text, tears started to well up in my eyes, and I ran to my room. As soon as I plopped down on the bed I opened my phone and went to Instagram. As I was scrolling through the feed, barely able to see through the tears, I thought to myself “What in the world am I doing?” It was a huge “Aha” moment for me. Here I was, clearly sad and hurt, and I tried to use my phone to just forget and ignore the emotions. Who wants to deal with sadness and hurt? No one obviously! I see this time and time again in the lives of friends, families, and clients. We keep busy, we don’t take time to sit and ponder, and we develop negative habits of coping and a lack of desire to sit still and be with our emotions. Why is this important? Because what you experience is important. I like to see the emotions inside of us as little red flags popping up and telling us that something isn’t right, that a need isn’t being met and we need to address it. If we keep ignoring those flags, eventually they’ll stop popping up, and we won’t be able to understand our internal experience, and that can be a scary thing. Feeling numb is scary, not understanding ourselves is scary, but we can start now to prevent that.
Now, I don’t want to focus on just the negative emotions. There are many of us that can’t tolerate positive emotions, such as joy, feeling proud or successful, etc. There are many factors that go into this intolerance, and those can be addressed in therapy as you are curious about your internal experience. We can however start to build our tolerance with a few tips that I will share in this article. I am a big believer in not going from 0 to 60, but rather going step by step so we can enjoy the small accomplishments along the way.
Teaspoon by Teaspoon
In EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing) therapy with kids, I have learned to use an analogy with measuring cups when it comes to learning how much feeling they can tolerate. When I can tell it’s getting hard for a kiddo to talk or express themselves, or they’re feeling uncomfortable with the topic or the feeling, I get out my measuring cups. With the measuring cups, I have them show me how much of the emotion they are OK with holding for let’s say 30 seconds. They grab the measuring spoon that speaks to them, and they hold on to that much of the feeling while I sit with them and time them for 30 seconds. How much of an emotion can you hold? Can you hold it for 30 seconds? If your tolerance is low, there is no need to worry. As you practice sitting with your emotions teaspoon by teaspoon your tolerance will grow. As you sit there you can get curious about the emotion, which I will discuss next, and that will open up your perspective and insight into your internal experience, and perhaps why you can’t tolerate certain emotions or what triggers that intolerance.
Take the shame out of feelings and be curious
Brene Brown has a wonderful book called Rising Strong. In it, she talks about being curious about our emotions. She first states that we need to recognize the emotion. We are emotional beings! We are going to have feelings, so first recognize that you do. Then instead of locking the feeling away, be curious about it, even if it’s just for a moment. As you are curious about your emotions you can ask yourselves questions such as, “What triggered this feeling?” “Does this happen in similar circumstances?” “How did this feeling influence my behaviors or thoughts?” We are moving from a judgemental and shameful state of mind to a mindset of curiosity and openness.
The next big step is to communicate what you feel, out loud. Whether it’s to yourself or a trusted friend or loved one, saying it out loud helps to externalize the feeling, reminding you that your feelings are just temporary, rather than who you are.
Take a breath, allow yourself to feel. When we allow ourselves to sit with our emotions, it’s as if we are confronting ourselves, which can be scary. We don’t want to see what’s behind that locked door, but the truth is, when we don’t address our feelings they grow and fester. It can impact our health, our relationships, and our ability to enjoy life and see things as they really are. Be curious, allow yourself to wonder and question, and do it without judgement or shame.
Brene Brown gives a great example about not living mindfully in one of her many presentations. One evening she stood in the doorway of one of her kid’s room. She was filled with overwhelming joy at how amazing it was to be a parent, at how amazing her child was. Then suddenly, she started thinking of all the terrible things that could happen to her child, and suddenly her joy was replaced with panic and the moment was over. She states that not living in the present robs us of joy, and to that I’ll add really experiencing any other emotion as well. When we learn to be present, meaning having our mind, feelings, and body where we are physically, we can experience life deeply and fully. As we are mindfully living, we learn to recognize what we’re feeling in the moment, and that can help us learn to tolerate and fully experience the emotions presented to us in life. You can start by putting your phone aside and just watching your kids as they play, you can turn the radio off in the car and notice your thoughts or the world around you, you can taste each bite of food, or you can walk outside by yourself without any distractions. Life is full of feeling, and we rob ourselves of it if we are not paying attention to the present.
Emotions are POWERFUL. This is one of the biggest lessons I have learned as a therapist. We have emotions for a reason, and we can’t ignore them. As we learn to explore our emotions, to be curious about them, and remove the shame from them, our lives become rich and we can fully experience what life has to offer, the good and the bad, in order to help us grow and learn.