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Shame and Contempt, Part 3: The Flipside

By Jonathan Hart, LPC

In an earlier blog, I explored Shame and Contempt as unhealthy and unproductive mutations of Guilt and Judgment, respectively, and how we live as though we believe them even though they are profoundly untrue.

Here, I would like to discuss the ground that Shame and Contempt grow from.

Self-Righteousness

The most obvious and familiar feeling that engenders shame or contempt is self-righteousness.  We are most often aware of self-righteousness in others, especially when it is directed at us.  It is identifiable by our reactions to it: “How dare you look down your nose at me!?”  “Little Miss (Mr.) Goody-Two-Shoes” (I know I’m dating myself here.)  “What a stuck-up jerk!”  “Think you’re better than everyone else, do you?”

It seems apparent to me that we would regard self-righteousness as a negative character trait or behavior when we see it or experience it from anyone.

However, most of us actually practice this at some point ourselves. We experience self-righteousness in ourselves when we say or think things like, “I would never…” or “How could you…”.  When we shake our heads and “cluck our tongues” to say “Tsk, tsk, for shame.”  When we say, “THAT person deserves to be…” . It is at its core an internal feeling of being better than the other person.

What makes self-righteousness distinct from contempt?  Self-Righteousness is the soil from which Contempt grows and flourishes.

Contempt is the external expression of the fundamental (and often unquestioned) internal belief in our own goodness (self-righteousness).

The trap of it is that we tend to highlight the things we are good at or things that we think make us look good, and exclude the things we are less good at or embarrass us.  When we operate from self-righteousness, we act as though we have the right to determine the worth of another person.

Other-Righteousness

Other-Righteousness is a term that I am pretty sure I made up.  I use it to describe the sensation that others are by nature better than oneself.  It functions in relationships when we “know” that our significant other is smarter, better, wiser, etc.  We put them on a pedestal that says, “You know more about XYZ than I do, so I will always yield to your opinion on this.” Socially, we experience the sensation that everyone who sees us is judging us or pitying us.  We feel that they are worth more than us.

Not only do we have this feeling, we believe it.  Not only are we judged, but we deserve to be judged.   We automatically believe that others have no real compassion when we make a mistake, that they are laughing at us or scorning us, and that we deserve it.  It is the core belief in our defectiveness and shame.  It is a wearisome way to live.

What makes “other-righteousness” distinct from shame?  The answer is the same as to the similar question above:  Other Righteousness is the soil from which our sense of defectiveness grows.

Shame is the external or surface expression of the core (often unquestioned) belief in others’ superiority.

Also similar is the trap.  When we believe in our own worthlessness, we highlight and expect all the screw ups and shortcomings and exclude examples of our genuine goodness.  When we operate from other-righteousness, we live as though everyone around us has the right to condemn us.

My next blog will look at how to counter these formidable foes.

Shame and Contempt, Part 1: What are they?

By Jonathan Hart, LPC

Shame and Contempt.  These are feelings we have a hard time making sense of.   Both are loaded words, powerful concepts to consider.  As internal feelings, they are more common than we realize, and often shape our worlds more than we know.

Shame (v. Guilt)  (see this blog for a more long-winded examination of this distinction)

Shame is a feeling of being defective.  This is different than guilt.  Guilt is the knowledge of having done wrong.  Shame is the sense that “I am wrong,” or that “Something is wrong with me.”

The clue to distinguishing these two feelings from each other is the verb.  

Guilt uses action verbs: did/didn’t, acted, failed to act, etc.  Shame uses State-of-Being verbs: am, is, was, were, can/can’t, etc.  Guilt says “I did [a thing that was wrong].  I crossed a line, I lied, I acted in this way or that”.  Shame says, “What was I thinking?  What is the matter with me?  Why can’t I …?”.

Distinguishing between shame and guilt is important for two reasons:

  1. Guilt is a healthy emotion that leads us to learning to do better things and resist doing harmful things.  We appropriately don’t like how guilt feels, and because we don’t want to feel that way, we make different choices.
  2. Shame is always a lie.  Shame never results in real change or learning, it only self-reinforces.  “What did I expect?  This is what I get.  I am such a screw up.”  Most often when we evaluate ourselves in this way, we are evaluating our whole being on the basis of our bloopers reel.  It is to feel worthless, pointless, and without value to the world at large.

Contempt (vs. Judgment) (see this blog for a more long-winded examination of this distinction)

Contempt is at its core the shaming of another.  In similar fashion to Shame, Contempt uses being verbs, whereas (like Guilt) Judgment uses action verbs.

It is to measure the person or thing as inherently defective.

Judgment is objectively or subjectively describing something.  “I like/don’t like this thing/person”, or “You hurt me when you said…”, or “I like/don’t like how you talked to me.”    Contempt makes the evaluation about the being of the person or thing itself.  “You are such a fool.”, or, “What is wrong with you?”, or “What were you thinking?”

Again, this distinction is important for two reasons:

  1. Judgment itself is not a bad or hurtful thing.  Contempt is the sentiment most folks are referring to when they say “don’t judge”.  We all make judgments every day, and these are healthy and needful assessments of our world.
  2. Like shame, Contempt is always a lie.  It is to speak as though we are authorized or have the capacity to determine the worth of another human’s existence.  To express contempt is to say that the person or thing is worthless, without value, and that destroying them would be a non-issue.

So What?

Shame and contempt shape our worlds more than we know.  My next blog in this series will look at how we use shame and contempt in our daily lives to describe ourselves and others.

Stopping the Runaway Train – Part II: The Importance of Naming Our Experience

by Jason Pogue, PLPC

This is the third blog in a series. So far, we’ve explored the very real experience of relational chaos and trying circumstances and looked at our ability to choose how we want to be in response to them, and we’ve discussed how the first step to stopping the runaway train is slowing down through relaxation exercises like the breathing one we tried together. Today we will explore the importance of naming our experience.

[Remember, this all takes time, patience, and practice. So, though our blog series chugs along, stopping the runaway train usually takes some serious time and discipline and perhaps help from a friend, mentor, or therapist. If you want to take the next step in this regard, feel free to email or call and setup an appointment.]

“You can’t just change plans last minute! I have studies, and work, and a life to plan of my own!” I shouted over the phone. My brother’s wife wisely jumped in, “This is getting unsafe – we need to have this conversation when we aren’t driving through this crazy weather.” She was right, and I was out of control. And, I wish I could say I realized it in that moment and stopped the runaway train of my anger – but I didn’t. I did hang up, but I was still furious.

My brother and his wife were taking a cross-country road trip for their honeymoon. Based on a number of legitimate reasons including weather, they had to change the days in which they were arriving to visit me in St. Louis where I was working my way through my graduate studies. When my brother delivered the message, I was in the midst of a hectic life – running from work, to class, to work, to making dinner, to studying through the night, and so on. I was moving so fast, that I didn’t skip a beat when my anger overtook me – I just let it fly without a moment’s delay.

Now, after the fact, I can look back and realize that anger wasn’t primarily about what was going on. I was feeling overwhelmed with life, and feeling like my schedule and anxieties were invisible to my brother and his wife.

This experience hit on threads in my story of times when I felt like my experience took the back seat to others, and I was so tired of that feeling of being trampled or not worth people noticing my needs.

All of this was actually pretty removed from anything my brother or his wife did, but I was moving so fast that in the moment I had no capacity to understand this because I had no ability to name my own experience.

We live in a culture that values ‘busy-ness’ – where being on the go is often a status symbol of our success.

There’s nothing wrong with a healthy ambition in your career or life, and yet sometimes we are moving so fast we entirely lose touch with ourselves – with what is actually going on inside our minds and hearts. We enter autopilot.

Autopilot isn’t always bad either, but when it comes to relationships it becomes a barrier to knowing others and being known. It’s like trying to be in relationship with a robot. So, after we’ve incorporated various relaxation exercises into our life to help manage our big emotions like deep breathing or mindfulness, another crucial step is putting words to what is going on in our internal world without judgment.

The last part can trip many up because we want to justify ourselves. Maybe a small piece of us wonders if it’s okay what we’re feeling? Perhaps we shame ourselves that we should never feel such things, or we blame others for what we are experiencing internally. Much of this comes out of what we’ve learned about emotions from both our families of origin and our experiences along the way. These areas are another step of exploration, but for now we must simply name our experience.

Just as a doctor cannot move forward with treatment without fully understanding all of the symptoms, so we cannot move through our internal emotional experience without fully understanding it from a distance – without judgment. What is there, is there. To jump to judgment before fully understanding it would be to like the doctor treating you without asking any questions about symptoms – yikes! To avoid naming it, is to brush it under the rug and give what control we have over how we want to be back to the runaway train. This is why naming our experience, and the accompanying emotions, is so vital to not being ruled by them.

 

Relaxation Part 1: Stopping the Runaway Train

by Jason Pogue, PLPC

Relaxation is an important and often overlooked skill that is helpful in dealing with anxiety, stress, and anger.

I could barely see straight as I grunted out some breaths. My friend had tackled me and pulled me aside in an effort to stop me. I remember being so overwhelmed with anger I was crying, hyperventilating, and scraping bark off the tree next to me with my fingernails. I was maybe 12 years old, and I had lost it in the middle of a pickup football game.

I looked crazy to my friends. I felt crazy to myself. But, the anger I was feeling was not crazy, and the rejection and humiliation underneath that anger was very, very real. One of the other boys, I’ll call him Jimmy, had been picking on me and suggesting I was cheating. In my escalating anger I blitzed him, and Jimmy threw the football as hard as he could at my face. In that moment, my interpretation of what was going on fueled a neurochemical takeover of my body – it felt like I could see what I was doing, was horrified by it, but could not stop this stranger I found myself inhabiting from pummeling Jimmy into the ground.

There are real reasons why my body felt this way that will be the fodder for another blog. There are also real reasons why this moment, though seemingly small, triggered an enormous amount of rejection and anger that – though valid – did not entirely come from the situation at hand. But, the question today is, what do we do when we find ourselves in a similar spot? Though it won’t treat the roots of these thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, how can we at least slow down the runaway train and function in a healthier way?

One of the first tools in slowing down the runaway train is slowing down period.

It sounds silly. Or obvious. But, an incredible difference can be had if in these moments we can learn to slow our bodies down. One way we can do this is by learning and practicing breathing exercises designed to relax your body.

You’ve probably heard someone say to you or others before, “Now, just take some deep breaths!” In the moment, you might have found yourself wanting to pummel them, too! Our emotions can be big and feel overpowering in the moment, which is often why it feels impossible to stop. This is why it is so important for us to regularly practice things like relaxation breathing when we are not entirely overwhelmed – so that it becomes more and more natural.

So, right now, why don’t you take a minute wherever you are – literally take 60 seconds to try this. Find a quiet place or some headphones (check out Calm.com for soothing background noise), sit comfortably, with your back straight, your feet flat on the ground. You can have your hands in your lap, or on your thighs. Set an alarm for 1 minute, close your eyes, and begin with some deep breaths – breathing in through your nose, and out through your mouth. These breaths should be nice and slow, and from your gut not your chest – act like your belly is a balloon and you are trying to inflate it and deflate it. In – and out. In – and out. Practice just focusing on your breathing, slowly, consistently, from your diaphragm.

Once your minute is up, take stock in how you feel. What does this moment feel like, versus the moments you were reading this blog just before? Try this exercise every day for a week when you get home from work. What do you notice? Then, maybe try it as you notice some situations that activate some mild emotion.

As you gradually practice this breathing with increasingly challenging moments, you will find this tool is actually an available choice to you when your body tries to take you over with the runaway train.

It really works! It doesn’t answer the questions of why we are feeling and thinking these things to begin with – these questions need answers and healing if we want to live as whole people. But, it does help us survive the runaway train with less damage to ourselves and others. If you want some help, some more tools, or to delve more deeply into the roots behind these thoughts and emotions, send me an email or give me a call. I’d be glad to join you on this journey to take back control and discover who you really are.

How a Children’s Book Made Me Think About Cultivating Emotional Intelligence

Smile, Pout-Pout Fish…Or Don’t: How a Children’s Book Made Me Think About Cultivating Emotional Intelligence

by Melinda Seley, PLPC

Do the books we read to our children cultivate emotional intelligence, or communicate subtle messages discouraging awareness and honest expression of feelings?

Smile, Mr. Fish! You look so down. With your glum-glum face and your pout-pout frown. No need to be worried. No need to be sad. No need to be scared. No need to be mad! How about a smooch? And a cheer-up wish? Now you look happy: what a smile, Mr. Fish!

Of all the books my little one loves, this one most often gets relentlessly stuck in my head! With its well-crafted rhyme and adorable pictures, it captivates its little (and big) audience quite well. But the subtle message of the book has always made me a bit uneasy: you shouldn’t be sad, worried, or scared; there, you’re happy, that’s acceptable and good.  I realize there is a strong possibility that I am over-analyzing the book, but at the same time, I think subtle messages like this are important to be mindful of – both that we have been taught and that we are passing along to our kids (or nieces/nephews, friends’ kids, etc.).

If taken too far, a child can internalize that the only acceptable emotion is to be happy…which will have great consequences in his or her ability cultivate emotional intelligence and to healthily navigate life.

Accordingly, I found this article, published by the Gottman Institute, to be very helpful in identifying the following three do’s and don’ts for developing a child’s emotional intelligence:

  • Do recognize negative emotions as an opportunity to connect. Don’t punish, dismiss, or scold your child for being emotional.

    Do help your child label their emotions. — Don’t convey judgment or frustration.

  • Do set limits and problem-solve. — Don’t underestimate your child’s ability to learn and grow.

 

Given these guides, perhaps a helpful re-write of the book might read like this:

Hey, Mr. Fish, you look so down. With your glum, glum face and your pout, pout frown. Come sit beside me, I see your broken toy has made you sad. I would be, too, if it was the favorite toy I had. It’s okay to cry, it’s okay to be mad. But we cannot hit and we cannot squeal. How else can you show the sadness you feel?

 

 

 

Why am I so angry?

By: Andy Gear, LPC, EMDR Trained Therapist

Why am I so angry? 

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Do you ever ask yourself “why am I so angry?” Or maybe your life just feels way too frustrating and stressful. If so, this may be a sign of a deeper issue.

It’s tempting to blame others for our frustration, but irritants don’t have to cause outbursts. There are other choices; you don’t have to live like this. Here are four ways to change your life:

1. Notice the difference between the emotion of anger and our response to it. 

Anger is an appropriate response to legitimate injustice. But most of us don’t notice the transition from emotion to reaction.

That is where we can get ourselves into trouble. We feel like it is one big reflex that we have little or no control over. But that is generally untrue.

Slowing down our response allows us to notice the choices we are making. 

This is where anger management techniques can be useful. Breathing exercises, mindfulness, and other such skills can help us slow down our physical reactions and choose how we want to respond.

2. Notice your expectations.

Anger often springs from our unrealistic expectations. We are not entitled to a problem-free life, and life rarely goes as planned. As obvious as that sounds, our anger often reflects these illogical expectations.

It is important to objectively examine our expectations. If we find ourselves consistently frustrated by traffic, it is likely we have unrealistic expectations of what driving in a city is like.

Cars will cut us off, lines will be long, people will make mistakes, and customer service will be laughable. Accepting these as a given will drastically improve our enjoyment of life. The world isn’t out to get us, even if it feels that way sometimes.

People (even close friends and family) are not required to respond the way we prefer. If your pet peeve causes you consistent irritation, consider giving it up. It is unlikely that people will suddenly change.

3. Notice what anger tells us about our boundaries.

Anger can be a useful sign that our boundaries are being invaded. It warns us that something needs to change.

You may be too busy, too tired, or living an inauthentic life. Stress and exhaustion can significantly impact outlook. We may need to learn to say ‘no,’ pursue healthier relationship, or live more in line with our values. 

This may involve downsizing to what you really care about or pursuing a goal that is truly significant to you. Otherwise our deep seeded discontent may come out in unexpected and sometimes violent ways.

4. Notice what’s behind the anger.

Anger is often a secondary emotion. It is generally not the first emotion we feel. It is a reaction to softer emotions like anxiety, sadness, or hurt. But we often prefer anger over admitting that we are hurting.

Anger allows us to feel more powerful or in control, but it prevents us from dealing with the real problem. We neglect the roots of our problem—such as anxiety, depression, grief, or trauma.

Going straight to anger stops us from communicating with our loved ones about what’s really going on. Sharing our feelings of hurt or rejection would allow them to reassure and comfort us. We could have healing conversations that lead to greater connection. But communicating surface anger leads only to defensiveness.

Noticing what comes before the anger helps us to deepen our relationships through those healing conversations. This awareness also allows us to seek healing of the root issues that are driving our anger.

When we pursue this healing, we find that anger no longer holds power over us. We now have the capacity to respond differently.

Healing from Domestic Violence: The Struggle to Find Clarity

Healing From Domestic Violence:  Struggling to Find Clarity

One universal truth of all those who have been abused is the struggle to find clarity.

Abusers love to cause confusion.  They tend to do this by distorting reality through lies and manipulation.  Years of this type of relating can cause the abused to feel crazy.  Being lied to over and over again is not only crazy-making but it begins to make untruth’s seem like truths.

Abusers also love to make themselves the victim.  Abusers will claim they are actually the ones being abused and will make their mate out to be the “bad one.”  This can prove very difficult because abusers are usually eloquent speakers who are well-liked in their community.  They are very believable people – skilled in the art of lies, deception, and spinning the truth to accommodate their agenda.  Once the abuser begins relating in these ways it causes much confusion – for both the victim and those trying to care for the couple.

In the midst of these realities how can clarity be achieved?

Stop second guessing yourself.  A person who has lived in an abusive setting for any length of time has become a second-guesser of themselves because their abuser has constantly re-written and changed reality to meet their agenda.

When you find yourself second-guessing how you remember a situation or something you said, because your abuser is telling you you’re wrong, choose to BELIEVE what you KNOW happened.  Not what your abuser is telling you.  Overtime this will get easier, but in the beginning it is very difficult.  Inviting safe and healthy people into your life (family, friend(s), pastor, counselor, etc.) to help you process through your second-guessing will prove very beneficial.

Learn from others who have been where you are.  Many times clarity is achieved by simply listening to other abuse survivors share their story and struggles.  You will begin to feel less crazy.  Trust me on this one.  You will soon be able to identify more of the scope and magnitude of your abuse. All of a sudden memories and stories you have never been able to fully understand or make sense of will fall into place as you hear from others.  Many cities have support groups that are run by professional counselors to provide this sort of care to abuse survivors.  If you are located in St. Louis, MO and would like this information please contact me and I will be happy to assist you.

Learn from the experts.  Finding clarity through learning and gaining understanding about your abuse, and more broadly about abusers, will be beneficial when seeking clarity.  A book that many victims of abuse find helpful is Why Does He Do That? by Lundy Bancroft.  This book will provide insight into the minds and ways of abusive men.  It will also help bring understanding and insight into the life you are still living or have broken free from.  Another book equally as helpful is written by Patricia Evans, and it is called The Verbally Abusive Relationship.

If you choose to go to counseling (which I think is extremely beneficial!) be sure to find a counselor that has experience working with abuse/abuse survivors.  Going to a counselor that does not have this sort of experience can prove to only further your confusion.

These suggestions are the first steps in your journey to find clarity in the midst of confusion.  Each of these suggestions have one aspect in common – finding clarity and healing is best achieved in community and not alone.

-by: Lianne Johnson, LPC

Finding My New Normal After Divorce

By:  Lianne Johnson, LPC

I have seen, and personally experienced, a tendency to overlook the impact of relational trauma on our functioning. Why is it that even when our life circumstances change – we live through a relational trauma or betrayal, we are separated from our spouse, we unexpectedly become a single-parent, we go through a divorce, we discover abusive realities in our partner – Why do we keep living (or pressuring ourselves to live) as though these changes haven’t happened?  Why do we keep living as though our bandwidth for interacting with life hasn’t changed?

Sometimes when I realize I am pressuring myself to live as though my life hasn’t radically changed, I just sit and shake my head at myself.  I ask myself in these moments, “Why am I pressuring myself?  What am I fearing?”  The answers to these questions are usually the same, no matter the circumstance.  Part of the answer is that I desperately want to live like I was living, before my life changed without my permission.  I want my normal back.  I want what was known to me.  The other part of my answer is that it saddens me to feel like I am letting people down by no longer being able to perform as I had been.  I fear others won’t understand, or won’t care to take the time to learn, the basic equation I now have to live by: My life radically changing when I experienced trauma and betrayal in my marriage + an unexpected long season of separation and suffering + ultimately getting divorced + being a single mom + running a business = having less bandwidth for life.

For a long time, I angrily fought the equation I now had to live my life by.  I didn’t fight it by taking on more than I could, I fought it by being angry with life and retreating.  It wasn’t until I started to accept my new normal that I started to enjoy life.

Part of accepting my new normal was learning to like the person I am now.  To accept the me I am now.  I am different.  My traumatic experience changed me.  Learning to be a single mom, a divorced woman, changed me.  I am not quite sure how I could live through all of that unchanged.  But I guess the biggest thing I had to learn to do was accept the new me, my new normal, and learn who I had now become.

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Emotional Reflexes, Bees, and the Artillery of the Soul

Emotional Reflexes, Bees, and the Artillery of the Soul

As children, we build ideas about how the world and relationships work. After an injury when I was small, I was getting stitches in the emergency room. My parents tell the story that while the medical team worked on me, I was happily explaining to them about how nurses grow up to be doctors. That was how I thought the world worked. Someone eventually informed me that doctors and nurses are not developmentally related, and what I understood about doctors and nurses shifted.

A lot of times, we develop beliefs about relationship based on how relationships happen around and to us. As young children when we got into trouble, Mom or Dad might have said, “What were you thinking!? What’s wrong with you?” Being children, we don’t have the ability to challenge the notion that there might be something wrong with us. To a child, Adults define what “Normal” is. So we begin to believe that when we make a mistake, it is because we are defective somehow. If we were “normal”, we would have known better.

Fast-forward to adulthood. If nobody ever explains this scenario to us, if no one ever reshapes that belief or tells us otherwise, chances are that we still believe it on some level. We likely operate as though what we do is a direct indication of who we are. If I lie, then I must be a liar. If I fall for a trick, I must be a fool. If you don’t like me, it’s because I’ve caused you to dislike me. If you hit me, I did something to deserve it.

These defaults operate consistently and automatically. When I was small, I got stung twice in the eyelid by a yellow-jacket. It was very painful, and my eye was swelled shut by the next morning. I have never liked anything with wings and a stinger ever since. I still have a powerful physical reflex when I hear a buzz near my ear. I learned that bees are dangerous.
As an adult, I know that bee stings are not as painful as my emotional reflex tells me, but I do know that they can still hurt pretty bad. What I know, however, does not matter when I hear that buzzing sound, especially when it’s close to my head. I still have a tendency to run away while swatting at whatever was making that noise.

These defaults are powerful things. We don’t choose them, we just live by them. The trouble is that sometimes, these defaults are simply not true. They are real, and they are potent, but they are often based on faulty information. The fact is that the mom or dad mentioned above was wrong: making a mistake or doing something foolish was not matter of something being wrong with me. It was a matter of being a child and not knowing how the world works. They reacted and spoke as though the child should have had the knowledge and foresight of an adult.

When I was in the military, I was assigned to an artillery unit. My first night on a live-fire mission was pretty awful. Every time the crews fired the cannons, I nearly jumped out of my skin. After a while, I could anticipate the commands that led up to the pull of the trigger, but try as I might, I just couldn’t get my body to quit jerking around when the shot went off. My body was reflexing to the concussion as if to say, “Something is coming for you, kid. You are gonna die.” It took a while of rehearsing and experiencing the concussion and the jumping, but eventually the jump reflex passed. My body had to learn that this sudden noise and the accompanying shockwave were not actually a threat to me.

Unlearning our emotional reflexes can follow a similar pattern. We can come to understand and truly believe that mom or dad was wrong, but the emotional reflex is still there, and it is still powerful. The feeling will still kick in, and sometimes we have a hard time remembering that it is real but not true.

The unlearning happens through practice. We can eventually grow to recognize the lie and speak the truth to it: (my identity is not actually based on my performance). We will still have the reflex, and after a while, we learn that this feeling does not actually have the power to define me. I can make mistakes. I can even look like a fool, and I will still be OK. All of our efforts to avoid the feeling actually prolong it. I *have* to feel the concussion over and over again in order to learn that it doesn’t actually have the power to harm me.

I’ll say it plainly: this process sucks. It almost never happens as quickly as we want it to, and it is almost never linear in healing. We go back and forth. We continually recognize new areas where this same old thing is in play. We have to keep fighting with this painful feeling, and we often feel like the fact that we have to fight this hard with it means that we are somehow defective. Then we realize we’re doing it again.

But eventually, with work, with awareness, and with the help of trustworthy friends and lovers, we come to believe the truth, and the reflex fades in potency. We experience a freedom and confidence that we never imagined, and eventually that freedom becomes our new “Normal”.

By Jonathan Hart, LPC

3 Essential Questions to Ask Yourself When Big Feelings Happen

3 Essential Questions to Ask Yourself When Big Feelings Happen

(#3 is the real kicker!)

If you’re looking for a way to keep from losing your mind when big feelings happen, I’m going to suggest these 3 essential questions to ask yourself.

First let’s define “Big Feelings”. These are feelings that swell up and burst in a nanosecond. It happens as quickly as a reflex (because they usually *are* reflexes, not choices!).   A sudden, very intense feeling of anger, offense, rejection, hurt, or other similar powerful emotions.   Often you may be able to recognize that the intensity you are feeling seems out of proportion to the thing that seems to have caused it.

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The Big Feeling is generally accompanied by a strong reaction of some kind: you erupt in anger, you run and hide, or maybe you shut down and withdraw. Whatever you do, it seems automatic.

So the three questions are a tool you can use to get underneath the reflex and understand what is pushing you around. The end goal is to gain enough understanding and distance from the feeling that you can intelligently choose what you are going to do next, rather than letting the feeling dictate your actions.

Question #1: What is the feeling? This seems simple at first: “I’m ANGRY, you idiot!! Isn’t that obvious?!”   Not so fast. Usually with an emotion like anger or offense, there is a softer feeling that comes first. Think of a parent that sees their child playing in the street. They react in anger: “What have I told you about playing in the street??” But the first feeling is fear: “I’m afraid you are going to get hurt or killed!!”

The key to mastering Question #1 is volume: wrap *a lot* of words around the feeling. Go into as much detail as you can. What does it physically feel like? Where do I feel it in my body? Is there motion to it? Does it rise or fall? Move forward or retreat? Burst or crush? It’s probably more than just one feeling, so what else is there? How many synonyms or clarifying words can you come up with to describe this feeling? These are just some examples, but hopefully it’s enough to get started.

Question #2: Why is it there? This question moves from what’s happening inside you to your immediate surroundings. What just happened to trigger this feeling?   Again, it seems obvious at first. “I’m pissed because you’re a jerk.” This part may be true, but let’s go a bit deeper, shall we? Get into the layer of meaning. What is it about that word, that action, that tone of voice that makes it so intense? Does it tell you they think you’re worthless? That they don’t respect you? That they’re not going to hear anything you have to say no matter what? Again, get into as much detail as you can.

Question #3: Where does it come from? We’re still dealing with the feeling that you named in question #1. Answering this question can be extremely informative, as well as kind of scary. The goal of this question is to discover where in your story, as far back as you can remember, have you felt this feeling before? Often, as you think about the physical sensation of the feeling, the answer comes quickly. It may be a specific story or event. A moment that, though it happened 10 years ago or 30 years ago, is crystallized in your mind so clearly you can remember what you were wearing.

It may not be a specific moment, but rather a type of moment. The feeling might be connected to something that happened often enough that specific moments are lost in the sheer number of them. What remains is the impression of “always”. “We always had to… He always said… It was always like this… Whenever I saw/heard/felt this, I knew…”.

Discovering your answer to Question #3 can sometimes be like a bomb going off in your mind and heart. All of a sudden you realize that you are connecting two different stories together, and that the old story is what you’re really angry at (or afraid of). Maybe the two stories are similar enough that they feel the same, and it’s the kind of story you never want to be a part of ever again.

Gaining this understanding is absolutely essential to developing the capacity to thoughtfully respond to the triggering situation rather than reacting out of the power of your emotions. Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not suggesting you ignore what you feel, but that you seek to understand what you feel clearly so that you can deal with it intelligently.

Big Feelings are tough to handle. They always will be. But you don’t have to blow up or disappear when they happen. The Three Questions are intended to help you be able to stand up, speak your peace, and seek resolution in a healthier way. Rather than getting lost in the fog of confusion, fear, or anger, you can engage with openness, clarity, and self-control.

-by Jonathan Hart, LPC