Matt thought he was experiencing a resurgence of his depression. He wondered whether he needed to adjust his medications. For two weeks, he noticed he had little motivation during the day, wanted to isolate, watch movies on TV and do the minimum at work. After careful assessment, it was clear that he was not experiencing a major depressive episode. So why was he feeling so lethargic?
As we continued on in our conversation Matt began to talk about a concern related to a coworker that was on his mind. The more he spoke about it, the angrier he realized he was. After sharing and experiencing how he was feeling, he was able to determine how he wanted to handle the situation and was surprised at how much better he felt.
We laughed as he looked at me and said “It’s those darn feelings again!”
In our work together over the last year, it had become clear that Matt learned early on to detach from his own emotional experience. In his family, his expression of emotion was met with anger, dismissal and he was told he was too sensitive. He internalized that it was not emotionally safe to share what he was feeling. In his adult life, he experienced anxiety and lethargy, which unbeknownst to him were indicators of core emotions that he had learned to distance from. With time, in our work together, Matt was able to identify and experience a range of emotions. His anxiety decreased, his energy level improved and his relationship with himself and others felt more authentic.
Your emotions are your compass.
Lack of awareness of one’s emotions is often a learned adaptation to messages one has received early in life.
So how do we lose our direction and learn to detach from our emotional selves? Our earliest and significant relationships have a profound impact on how we navigate our world. We receive direct or indirect messages about what is acceptable to feel and to express.
You might have experienced walking on eggshells around others unpredictable moods and learned to appease others, having to suppress your own worry and distress. Or you could have been shamed for crying and not being able to “pull yourself together.” In these and other scenarios, you develop adaptive ways to survive and make the most of your situation. You learn to suppress your feelings and internalize that what you are experiencing is selfish, wrong or shameful. You eventually lose touch with your emotions and become detached from your internal emotional experience. You aren’t aware that you are suppressing what you feel.
Rather, you are responding to your environment and doing the best that you can.
Those adaptations are helpful for you at the time. Later in life, you continue to respond in the same protective way, as that has become your template. Those defenses, which help you to avoid your feelings, are no longer needed and rather than being adaptive, no longer serve you well.
Let’s look at how your core emotions are your best guide. Remember, a compass gives you direction and helps you get your bearings.
1. Your core emotions such as fear, anger, disgust, joy and pleasure are your compass. They guide and inform you on how to best take care of yourself. They tell you what you might need. They create a path to resolving dilemmas you are facing. They help you to connect with others and have more meaningful relationships.
2. Identifying your emotions gives you choices. Yes, that’s right, choices. Choices to ride the waves for a while, choices to address a bothersome situation, choices in how you want to live your life.
3. A key to identifying your emotions is that they are manifested physically. For instance when you have to speak publicly, you may become anxious. If you can tune into where in your body you are feeling the anxiety, you can probe further. What is the anxious feeling telling me? What emotions are underlying my anxiety? How do I want to be able to move through it?
4. Being aware of your emotional experience and spending time in that space gives you autonomy and direction. No one knows better what is best for you than you. For example, rather than not wanting to rock the boat and take a stance of “It doesn’t matter what we do,” you open yourself up to options and pleasurable experiences.
Emotional experiences become less frightening when you are able to identify and express them.
Try experimenting next time you are anxious or unable to identify what you are feeling.
Take a few deep breaths; notice where you might be experiencing tension in your body and ask yourself what emotions might be underlying the physical sensation. You might be surprised to get in touch with some emotions that can then clarify a situation for you.
Knowing and experiencing what you are feeling is the first step.
I would love to hear how the experimenting goes for you. If you have comments or questions, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
*This case study is an amalgamation of several clients. All identifying information has been changed or removed so as not to divulge the identity of any client, while still retaining the pertinence of the issues.