Feeling big emotions

How do we listen to ourselves and our feelings? I was talking to a friend recently who is going through a tough patch and I was reminded of a pattern that I see a lot in myself and others when going through emotional pain: the thinking that it is not a big deal, that I should focus in what needs to be done and that I can handle it on my own.

I suspect in most of us this way of dealing with emotional processes was learned at a young age, when our well-meaning but unknowing parents felt overwhelmed by the emotions of the children we were and told us, in one way or another, to “get over it”. In the best of cases, we were distracted, therefore learning to use food, activity (doing things, TV, etc.) or muscular tension to keep those emotions at bay. This installs the belief that “I cannot cope with such big emotions and the best thing to do is sweep them under the carpet”. In the worst of cases we were punished for being angry, sad, or needy, therefore adding a belief on the lines of “I am not lovable when I feel like that”.

There is a lot of reflection, lately, with the sudden stop that this pandemic has thrown us into, about what kind of world we would like to create when we go back to regular activity. I would like to see emotional intelligence high in the priority list of “the new world”, because I believe that the reason our current world is in such turmoil is, in big part, due to the fact that we do not know how to hold emotions. And the first step can be slowing down when we are feeling something we wish was not there, looking at it and giving it space. It can be scary, but if you are reading this you provably know by now that we fare better when we face the elephant in the room than when we try to ignore it. Here is my suggestion for what to do next:

  1. Recognise this is big. Your mind will tell you it isn’t, because that is what our parents did: wave it away with a “you’ll be all right”. So diminishing the importance of our feelings is an old record and I believe it is not useful. I recommend you ditch that record and invest in a new one that says, “I am listening, I hear you are upset, I am here to support you” in the very gentle, loving voice that will soothe your inner child.
  2. Recognise this is important. Society thinks productivity is what matters most, and even when we mentally don’t agree, that belief is installed in our system and extremely hard to shake off. It shows in our difficulty to take the time to stop and listen in; or listening in a hurry and getting on with something else. But when we act from a non-centred space, we are less effective, our unheard emotions sabotage our actions, and we invest time and effort in things that are just not a wise idea because we don’t make good decisions from a stressed state.
  3. Resource yourself. When big waves of emotion come crushing it is crucial to have a part of us inside that feels safe in order to process them in a healthy way (as opposed to reinforcing unresourceful patterns). This inner calm part is an essential resource, but it grows when a supportive and wise “other” guides us through the process. Many of us never had wise good listeners to show us how to deal with emotions, so we don’t know how to go about it. If you don’t have that inner resource, find it outside. Good therapists and emotionally intelligent friends can provide this external support till you can internalise it.

This is what I try to do, and it yields enormously positive results. It is also what I teach because I believe it makes a better world. If you feel drawn to try it out, I would love to hear how it works out for you or if you have any questions!

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