by Sarah Hunter, LCSW
A significant portion of the work of a therapist involves helping clients understand emotion. Human beings initially learn about emotion from experiences in their first family. Most of these lessons are not explicitly taught but were learned implicitly through observing parents or siblings navigating their emotional experiences.
People who grow up in families that model healthy ways of coping with emotion tend to develop healthy ways of coping as adults. People who grow up in families who demonstrated maladaptive ways of responding to emotion often struggle with emotion as adults. They find themselves responding to emotion in ways that make it difficult to function at an optimal level. These unhelpful responses tend to land on the more extreme ends of a spectrum where avoidance of emotion is on one end and becoming completely swept away by emotion is on the other end.
Because of this, many people struggle to find the sweet spot in the middle where one can be present with emotion, allowing herself to feel it fully without becoming fused to the emotion letting it take over and overwhelm the system.
When emotions are not understood, they can feel scary and complex. When people lack the skills to navigate the inner experience of emotion, they come to see certain feelings as bad. In fact, some people come to therapy so they can get rid of the “bad” feelings they are experiencing. They want the pain and distress to stop. They have tried everything they know how to do including using avoidance and numbing to escape upsetting thoughts and feelings. But, instead of helping, these strategies cause more problems.
People who numb find themselves unable to experience life as fulling and joyful. They often get stuck engaging in problematic behaviors such as over eating, spending hours scrolling online, shopping for things they don’t need and can’t afford, spending extra hours at the office, and the list goes on.
People who avoid find themselves structuring their lives around avoiding all things unpleasant. When this happens, their world quickly gets small and it can become difficult to do meaningful things because fear gets in the way.
Research has shown that these ways of dealing with emotion are problematic because avoidance behaviors maintain and enhance anxiety and numbing can never be selective. When you choose to numb difficult emotions you also chose to numb the emotions that are the most fulfilling such as love and joy.
If you are one who struggles with experiencing emotion, or you have a child who struggles, consider learning all you can about emotions. Here are a few suggestions you can try for yourself or practice with a child who is struggling.
- Practice naming feelings. If naming feelings is hard, try using a list of emotions (I like emotion wheels which can be found online) and choose what fits. Remember, it is common to feel more that one feeling at a time so continue to look for words to describe what you’re feeling until it feels like you’ve fully captured the emotional experience.
- Practice noticing the felt body sensation of different emotions. After you name a feeling you are experiencing, ask yourself “Where am I feeling this in my body?” See if you can locate areas of the body where the emotion is most intense. See if you can find words to describe the sensation. Words like light, heavy, hot, cold, knots, butterflies, tight, loose, tingling, open, caged are some of the ways people describe sensations.
- Practice noticing thoughts that are connected with emotion. Ask yourself “What is going through my head right now?” You may find one thought that is on repeat running through your head over and over again. You may find thoughts racing through you mind so quickly that it is hard to slow them down enough to notice them. You may notice yourself having thoughts about your thoughts. Don’t worry about doing anything with the thoughts, simply notice that they are there.
- To tie it all together, practice approaching experiences with a curious observer attitude. Use phrases like “I’m feeling ________.” “I’m noticing a sensation in my ________that feels _______.” “I’m having the thought that ________.”
If you practice navigating emotions in this way, you will notice that emotions become less frightening, mysterious and overwhelming. This is an important step forward in improving your emotional literacy which will help you create a more rich and meaningful life.