Most of us are “phobic” of our negative feelings. We do all that we can to cling to the positive, happy ones. But when a negative emotion sails through, we panic—heading for the self-help books, Oprah, substance abuse to numb. (“Snap out of it.” “Pull yourself up by the boot straps.”) We are afraid to feel sadness, grief, disappointment. It might hurt.
Diagnosable chemical imbalances are a different animal—clinical depression, bipolar disorder, etc. They can benefit from a combination of talk therapy, medication, and psychological testing to tease out symptoms and patterns.
But for the vast majority of us, we tend to under react or over react to our negative feelings. And the under reaction itself can lead to over reaction, as feelings build up inside as we get busy blocking, denying, drinking down, and stuffing ourselves for what’s eating us.
Feelings are like food. We don’t swallow big chunks of food. We chew and break down food into manageable chunks in our mouths so that it can be more easily digested in our stomachs. So too with feelings. They need to be chewed up, prodded, broken down into manageable chunks in order to be digested and metabolized in our system. To eventually diffuse. So we can then decide how to cope, problem solve, and take action.
Therapy based on Mindfulness Skills and other theories can guide as through the middle way—not under reacting or over reacting—to assist with the very human task of working feelings through. To come to grips with the notion that strong negative feelings are passing through (some may take longer than others like grief-loss reactions) and don’t need to be over reacted to. Anger can be processed and deescalated in therapy vs. “rehearsed” by repetitious play backs or “acted out” in aggressive behaviors. (Anger is often a cloak emotion for some other unpleasant feelings we are phobic of expressing, such as hurt, loss, rejection, insecurity.) Therapy can help us develop pro-social behaviors “after” we have processed and understood our feelings: assertiveness skills vs. aggression, communications skills vs. maladaptive conflictual interactions, problem solving for solutions, and relaxation skills vs. ruminations (useless, multiple movie-type “rewinds” that just cause escalation).
Feelings are just passing through. That tends to be good news for the negative ones but bad news for the positive ones. But it’s the human condition. And sometimes, with a little therapeutic assistance, we can be coached how to handle it all. And make it to the other side.
Kay Allen LPC