So many people are puzzled by their emotional state when they come to see me for therapy. They understand the difficulty of their situation and how best to respond. When upset, they tell themselves how to proceed and that their emotions are irrational, unproductive, and unnecessary. Yet, they remain depressed, anxious, or distressed.
What they don't realize is that this kind of self-talk can be like speaking English to someone who only speaks Chinese. No matter how explicitly you provide good directions on the way to get somewhere, they won't understand. However, they can sense your emotions. So, if you are angry with them, they might feel afraid and withdraw, or go on the attack. On the other hand, if you approach them with kindness and patience, they will likely respond by listening more closely and working with you to bridge the language gap.
Similarly, when people are critical of, or try to talk themselves out of, their emotions, that emotional part of their experience responds to the inherent hostility. It perceives itself as invalidated or attacked-just as you would if someone told you that you don't make sense or are stupid. So, it defends itself by becoming more emotional or by retreating.
In contrast, kindness brings emotions in more closely. Acceptance calms them and dispenses with their need to defend against a critical adversary. Then, when a person experiences - in an accepting way - their painful emotion, they become more comfortable with it and less upset by it. It still hurts, but they are no longer also feeling distress about having the emotion.
In trying to understand how this works, you might find it helpful to think about the natural course of grief. At first a person is terribly distressed by their loss and their pain runs deep. Sometimes they feel swallowed up by their grief. At other times, they fight the loss (Why did this have to happen?); and the sadness (Enough crying already. Just focus on what you have to do next.). With time, however, they usually heal from the distress, though not the sadness. That is, they never lose the sadness about their loss, but they are more accepting of its place in their hearts and lives.
When you get tired of fighting your emotions, when you've had enough of not being able to force yourself to snap out of it, it might be time for you to befriend them -- to accept them and have compassion for them. Many people fear that this will only leave them more at the mercy of their emotions, swallowed up by their intensity. But it really puts them on the same 'side' as their emotions, providing the opportunity for them to comfort their own pain - rather than intensifying it through harsh judgment and rejection. And, through this comfort and compassion, they can work through to an emotionally better place.
Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ. She also writes a blog for WebMD (The Art of Relationships) and is the relationship expert on WebMD's Relationships and Coping Community.
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