We live in an age of distraction. If you feel even the most minute pain, there is a shiny object waiting for you to divert your attention. Take your pick! Shopping, scrolling online, gambling, drugs, alcohol, Netflix, podcasts, and quick, sugary, easy, processed food to name a few. Not only are distractions abundant, but they are easy and readily available… many at the simple touch of our finger tips.
So what would be our motivation to feel feelings?
Isn’t it a lot of painful and unnecessary work?
I think all of us to some extent possess a deep knowing that bottling up or pushing away emotions as they arise only creates more problems for us in the long run. Some of us suffer from the unfortunate effects. I like to use the metaphor that just because you turned your computer’s monitor off, it doesn’t mean the computer isn’t still running. In the same vein, just because you choose to not feel your emotions, it doesn’t mean they aren’t there, aren’t real, and aren’t having an effect on your mind and body. Our bodies crave emotional release, or else those pent up emotions will find ways to manifest physically.
Did you know your tears physically contain the stress hormone cortisol?
You are literally releasing stress from your body when you shed tears!
Our bodies and minds are extremely intelligent. We don’t have to will a cut to close. Given the proper environment (cleaned, obstructions like a splinter removed, bandaged, etc.), our bodies know how to heal themselves. The same is true of our emotions, but similarly we have to provide the proper healing environment.
Although it is necessary for healing, the resistance or reluctance to experience emotions as they come to us is a common topic in the therapy room. Not only is our culture increasingly resistant to dwelling in our own emotional depths, we are also faced with a stark lack of community to hold our pain. As we rely on the aforementioned distractions, we become more and more isolated. Emotions like grief, pain, loss, fear, sadness, anger are treacherous, and some may argue, nearly impossible to navigate on our own.
Francis Weller, MFT, psychotherapist and author of The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief beautifully highlights both the importance of feeling emotions, as well as the fading social infrastructure necessary in which to hold a space for our emotions as we move through them:
“Right now your heart is beating in utter darkness inside your chest. You were conceived in the dark of your mother’s womb. Everything that is happening aboveground is because of what’s happening below, in the shadows. We have to descend into the dark, yet we are continually trying to climb out of it…So we have to go into the shadows and bring it back out. Our hyperpositive tendencies want us to do a spiritual bypass around the mess of it all, but it’s there in that mess that we are most human…
Ascent and descent should vitalize each other: when you polarize them, you end up splitting off what is ‘good’ from what is ‘bad.’ We praise success and despise failure. We value strength and devalue weakness. But then every time we encounter defeat, inadequacy, or loss, we’re at war with ourselves, and that’s a bitter fight. A client apologized to me the other day for ‘going backward’ in his work with me, as if forward were the only acceptable direction. But the psyche moves every which way. It’s our job to follow its lead and be curious about where it is taking us.
Think about how much energy we expend trying to deny and avoid these parts of ourselves. What if all that energy were available to us again? We would laugh more. We’d know more joy. Life is asking us to meet it on its terms, not ours. We try to control every minute detail, but life is too rambunctious, too wild. We simply can’t avoid the losses, wounds, and failures that come into our lives. What we can do is bring compassion to what arrives at our door and meet it with kindness and affection. We can become a good host.”
Being with these feelings is being fully human. In EMDR work, and many other forms of therapy, the basis is not to change the past or what has happened to us. It is to safely hold space for and be present with whatever arises for us emotionally, cognitively, and physically. When we simply allow ourselves to be present to it while staying firmly grounded in the safety of the present with a trusted helper or community, let it wash over us as we notice, we can learn heaps about ourselves, and transform that pain into meaning and power. But we can’t jump straight to positivity and meaning and power, and the process cannot be rushed or micromanaged. What needs to come up must be allowed to come up in its full, hairy form. It can, however, be gently approached, and gently held by a person or community of persons who aren’t afraid of emotions themselves. If it sounds daunting to be with emotions, don’t worry. There are many ways in preparation that you can build up your tolerance with small steps at your own pace.
These are the reasons I love doing what I do: creating a space where such noble and deep work can take place. Whether the space is created one-on-one with EMDR therapy, or in building communities with various group work, I am humbled and in awe daily of the work my clients do. It is some of the most meaningful and courageous work one can do in a lifetime, and the work can affect generations to come. I’d love to speak in greater detail with you about my practice, and explore whether your concerns may be a good fit!
Helen Thomas MC, RCC, LPC