To a great extent, we live in a culture that resists and fears emotion. From the time we’re babies we’re taught to quickly shut off “negative” feelings like anger, sadness or pain. Yet, learning to suppress or overly control our emotions has serious consequences. When we avoid our feelings, we tune out important clues as to who we are. We limit our capacity for self-understanding and fail to fully experience or shape our lives.
The methods we adopt to numb ourselves to interpersonal pain from our earliest relationships tend to become engrained in us and solidified as early as 5 years old when we start to develop an awareness of loss and death. These psychological defenses may have originally been created to protect us stressful circumstances, but they can go on to hurt us in our adult lives. My father, Dr. Robert Firestone, in his comprehensive theory of human behavior, Separation Theory, contends that the core conflict for all human beings is whether to live a life of feeling or to attempt to suppress our feelings in an effort to block out pain, from both interpersonal relationships and from existential issues.
The problems that arise from attempting to deny our pain are many fold. For one, we cannot selectively cut out “negative emotions,” such as anger and sadness, while maintain the ability to feel joy and happiness. When we cut off our emotions, we become numb to life. We lack direction or meaning. We lose touch with our desires that could result in goal-directed behavior. We often relive our past or live out prescriptions for our lives created in our childhoods.
In order to make sense of our current actions and reactions, we must be willing to recognize and explore our emotions. Emotions can be healthy or unhealthy, adaptive or maladaptive, primary or secondary. Primary emotions are healthy, adaptive and function to help us survive and thrive. Secondary, non-adaptive, unhealthy emotions result from the judgments and internalized negative thoughts and beliefs we learn in the process of growing up. When we attempt to suppress or control our emotions rather than experience and work with them, they contribute significantly to our distress and maladaptive behaviors.
Last summer, I had the opportunity to take a workshop with Dr. Leslie Greenberg, the primary developer of Emotion-Focused Therapy. His approach focuses on the importance of emotions for creating psychological change. He believes that any attempt to help a person that does not put a strong emphasis on emotion is incomplete and inadequate. His method is designed to help people, accept, express, regulate, understand and transform emotion.
Although certain emotions can feel threatening, as Dr. Greenberg’s work has shown, it’s possible to stay in touch with our feelings, while allowing them to serve a positive, adaptive purpose. Although many people are afraid of being overwhelmed by them, our emotions aren’t actually as menacing as we make them out to be. They can be felt and released safely without overtaking us. As Dr. Greenberg said, “Emotion is not opposed to reason. Emotions guide and manage thought in fundamental ways and complement the deficiencies of thinking.”
Allowing ourselves to fully experience our feelings can help us sort out what we really want and think, and how we can make our behavior consistent with those desires. Feeling our emotions is very different from allowing them to rule our behavior. When we feel even our most unacceptable-seeming feelings in a safe and healthy forum, we’re actually less likely to act on them in destructive ways. It’s possible to feel hurt without acting victimized and to feel anger without lashing out. It’s possible to feel fear without going into hiding and to feel heartbreak without breaking in two.
Being able to feel our feelings actually makes us stronger and more resilient. However, none of us are born with the ability to regulate our emotions. We learn this from our earliest caretakers, so if they hadn’t mastered this ability themselves, it was difficult for them to model or teach us to regulate emotions in ourselves. If we didn’t learn adaptive and healthy ways of dealing with our feelings as kids, it can continue to limit us in many areas of our lives, especially those that hold particular meaning. That is why it’s so important to learn these skills at any stage in life.
Emotion-Focused Therapy offers a way for people to work through their feelings by emphasizing awareness, acceptance, understanding and transformation. This method can help individuals learn to tolerate and regulate their emotions. Through this approach, which Dr. Greenberg will discuss in his forthcoming Webinar “Importance of Emotion in Therapy,” people can learn to neither deny their emotions nor feed them until they feel overpowering. As Dr. Greenberg put it, we can learn to live in “mindful harmony with our feelings, not attempt to control them.” We can all learn strategies to increase our tolerance for emotion. These include:
1. Sit with a feeling and breathe. One technique they teach people with chronic pain is to stop trying to avoid feeling discomfort. This attempt at evading pain backfires, because the tension of warding off the sensation increases the pain. When an emotion arises, try not to resist or keep it down. Instead, try to relax and let yourself accept and feel whatever you feel. It’s okay to let yourself fully experience feelings of anger, sadness, pain or wanting. Resist the temptation to judge these emotions or label them. If you can sit with these feelings, you can actually learn to be more comfortable with them.
2. Don’t judge your emotions. No emotion is “bad.” Feelings are just feelings; they sometimes offer clues into your past and insight into what specific adaptations you made to cope early in your life. For example, say you feel enraged whenever someone tells you to smile or to speak up. This emotion may not be a rational response in the present, but statements like these could be triggering something old in you such as the memory of a parent who wanted you to perform or put on a happy face. Remember our emotions don’t have to dictate our actions. We can be curious and open to what we feel, while actually becoming less likely to be controlled by these triggered emotions.
3. Find ways to calm the feeling instead of feeding it. In other words, you shouldn’t avoid the feeling, but you also shouldn’t indulge in processes that would intensify it. So, if you’re furious, or hurt, don’t spend time building a case or exaggerating the situation. Feel the emotion and stay with it until the wave builds and subsides. Then, let it go. Don’t over-identify with it or allow it to keep building and building by feeding it extra ammunition or trying to justify the feelings with thoughts. You can feel the full feeling without allowing it to skew or distort your rational point of view.
Emotions shape every area of our lives, including who we are and how we function. When we’re willing to open ourselves up and experience our emotions fully, we gain insight and awareness into ourselves. Even maladaptive, negative feelings toward ourselves are important to express in order to experience the natural response of adaptive anger toward the source of the thought and the empathy and self-compassion that will follow. Often, only after expressing these feelings are we able to make a meaningful shift in our self-perception that would be difficult to achieve otherwise.
Remember, emotions will come and go, and all feelings are acceptable. We can learn to feel all of our feelings, while at the same time making rational decisions as to how we want to behave. In order to evolve or change, we have to feel our pain fully and make sense of it. This helps integrate our brain and allows us to build stronger relationships in the present. Though it may seem counterintuitive, if we delve in and feel our sadness, we’re more likely to feel love, gratitude and happiness as well. Thus, acquiring the ability to process and regulate our emotions in healthy ways is one of the most important skills to live our best life.
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org
Join Dr. Les Greenberg for the Webinar "Importance of Emotion in Therapy."