I think the trouble starts when some of us have been taught by those who cared for us growing up that certain emotions are bad or negative when the fact we have them at all means they must serve some useful purpose otherwise evolution would have got rid of them a long time ago.
Rather than working like mad to get away from “negative” feelings how about getting curious rather than judgemental and asking ourselves “hmmm, what just happened there, what is this emotion about? What is it trying to tell me?”
Perhaps a more helpful way to look at this group of emotions is to see them for what they are, as earnest and determined messengers desperately trying to do their job of alerting us to the fact that our unconscious systems for monitoring data coming in from our senses have picked up something which may not be OK. Creating this sense of unease is a means of getting our conscious mind’s attention so we can assess the incoming message, the data, decide if action is required (and what that might be) whilst at the same time having been placed “on guard” by our monitoring station for the duration of this assessment process lest things escalate whilst we are deliberating.
In the past some Clients on my (now virtual) chaise longue have said when I ask what they’d like to be different at the end of our work together to the beginning, with varying degrees of desperation or exasperation, “I want to get rid of my anxiety” or “I want to get rid of my anger”, “can you help with guilt?” or “whatever I do I can’t seem to shift this low mood”.
The thing is, if we did get rid of anxiety (say) completely, we’d have no protection at all and keep lurching from situation to situation where a bit of “hang on a minute, am I affording this person my default level of trust when actually I don’t know them?” caution may have prevented us being mugged, swindled or otherwise hurt. What such a comment means is we want to recalibrate the general resting, background threshold at which that feeling of unease is triggered so we get jolts of anxiety only when something really does merit attention and then be able to work with, to manage, anxiety better. We want to be its master and stop it constantly bursting in like an overzealous personal protection officer bundling us off to the panic room every 5 minutes in response to what we consciously feel are acceptable levels of conflict and stress as we go about everyday life.
I often suggest people think of emotions like motorcycle couriers trying to get a vital message to us and that they’ll chase us all round town until they get the message through. Just as a motorcycle courier, face obscured so we can’t read their expression and gain insight into their intention, wordlessly and determinedly tracking us wherever we go and lying in wait for us as we come out of meetings or wake up in the morning appears quite threatening so do feelings like anxiety, anger or depression. We want to get away from them which just seems to make them more determined to catch up with us rather than reframing the poor feeling as desperately trying to do is its job and get a message to us.
Anger can ride into town when a boundary has been crossed, when something has gone from being OK to not OK, anxiety when we fear something horrible that happened to us in the past is about to happen again in the present, boredom when we need variety and low mood when actually we are not doing in our life what WE want to do (rather like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life”).
So, next time you feel an emotional motorcycle courier roaring up beside you in response to something someone says, does or does NOT do please consider pausing by mentally signing for the envelope you are delivering to yourself, reading it by which I mean being curious about what message the emotion is trying to give you and why this situation may be prompting this particular emotional messenger and in so doing you create a bit of space in which you can choose what you do (or don’t do) next.
What you do may be, having established in that pause why this situation is triggering, to perhaps decide it’s time to soothe or let go of something bad that happened in the past in a similar situation which is, actually, on closer inspection not happening now in the present. Time to let go of, to throw off the bonds of, the influence that some childhood bully or thoughtless comment by a teacher, parent, caregiver or ex-partner still has in your life when there is so much evidence in the here and now that what they said or did back then was untrue, unjustified or just cruel.
Equally you may decide that your emotional response is entirely appropriate in this situation and can then act in a calm and objective manner rather than re-acting (which of course brings with it the risk of OVER-reacting).
Either way, at this point, the emotional messenger can turn, swing its leg over its ‘bike and go on its way released from its obligation, job done and you will feel at ease once more.
Claire Dyson is a BACP accredited Integrative Relational Counsellor based on the outskirts of Weybridge, Surrey. Claire helps individuals, couples and those seeking freedon from eating they experience as compulsive, addictive even, through her practice Untangle Your Life. To find out more please visit http://www.untangleyourlife.co.uk, call +44 (0)7950 986 085 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you.
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