Do Your Feelings Hold You Hostage?

Perhaps it's time for some self-reflection.

Posted Dec 10, 2018

As psychotherapists we frequently ask our clients, “How do you feel?” or “How does that make you feel?” The primary reason for doing so is that feelings inform us about our inner landscape–how we are impacted by our environment as well as by our own thoughts and feelings. Reflecting on our feelings strengthens our connection with ourselves–one that increases our awareness of our core desires and what most resonates with who we are and who we wish to become. 

All too often, many of us may have some awareness of an immediate feeling but, unfortunately, fail to look deeper-beyond this initial feeling. We may instead ignore our deeper, underlying feelings. However, when we ignore these feelings, they nevertheless seek attention and can influence our behavior. In effect, without full awareness, they hold us hostage–constricting our freedom in both our thoughts and actions.

Example of being held hostage by feelings

Years ago I worked with a client who refused to make commitments to his friends in advance, regarding some upcoming event.  For example, he refused to commit to an invitation made by a friend on Tuesday, to go to a movie on Saturday. When questioned about this he responded, “How can I agree to go? I don’t know what I’ll feel like doing on Saturday.” He then wholeheartedly agreed when I suggested that making his decision based on his mood helped him to feel free and spontaneous.

Asked if he enjoyed movies, he emphatically stated, “Yes, I really like movies. Even when they’re not good, I could walk out thinking about what I would have done differently if I was the director.”

I then pointed out that he seemed controlled by his feelings–held hostage by them. I suggested that, knowing he liked movies, he could just as easily remind himself that attending a movie would put him in a good mood–rather than waiting for the good mood to inform his decision. 

Waiting to see what mood he was in before making a decision appeared to be a reactive choice–one dominated by his fear of being controlled. If he truly experienced a real sense of freedom, he could just as easily agree and then cancel at the last minute as he could wait until the last minute to agree. 

Following further discussion, it became apparent that his sensitivity to feeling controlled, even by himself, informed not only his difficulty in making commitments to others but self-discipline as well. It interfered with his following through regarding his desire to play the guitar, go to the gym and seek a new job.   

The need for reflection

Without examining our deeper feelings we are merely reacting to what we feel in the moment.  Our capacity to more freely choose how we wish to live depends on our ability to consider all of our feelings without feeling overwhelmed by them. This capacity to reflect on our thoughts and feelings is what makes us uniquely human. 

Just labeling our feelings helps us to create psychological distance from them, a capacity to stand back, observe and not be overwhelmed by them, whether they are positive or negative. For example, research indicates that being able to label those feelings behind our anger helps to reduce the intensity of anger we experience. 

123rfStockPhoto/Tashatuvango
Emotions Puzzle
Source: 123rfStockPhoto/Tashatuvango

Barriers to self-reflection–and the cost of not engaging in such reflection

My clients often state, with regard to anger, “But the feeling is just so strong! I don’t even feel like I have a choice.” I’ve also heard this same statement with regard to other feelings–such as anxiety, depression, shame, guilt, and feelings of inadequacy. 

Feelings can be strong.  Taking time to reflect on them is not always easy. Learning to sit with our feelings can be intensely difficult. Because of their potential for discomfort, we often become “experientially avoidant”, minimizing, denying or suppressing our feelings. This same tendency further contributes to our discomfort with self-reflection. Each of us varies in the degree to which we engage in self-reflection. Unfortunately, some of us have been told that such reflection is evidence of self-absorption, that it is a waste of time, that it yields little benefit to us or that it is selfish. 

In recent years, there have also been several trends that collectively form a powerful force against self-reflection in favor of overly valuing, trusting and reacting to our immediate feelings. One, for example, has been a message conveyed by some that we “let it all hang out”, say how we feel regardless of how it impacts others. In the 1970s, many therapists similarly suggested this approach as the ideal way to deal with anger. Perhaps, consistent with the rebelliousness of the ’60s and the “me” generation of the ’70s, they emphasized that it was more important to focus on “being authentic” regarding our anger, regardless of how it impacted others. 

To a great extent, this form of “authenticity” echoes early childhood–a developmental phase often marked by impulsiveness, minimal capacity for self-reflection or self-filtering and uneven consideration of others. Whereas, being truly authentic with others and with ourselves requires a deeper knowledge of ourselves–a greater presence with the details of our inner landscape–including our thoughts, feelings and body sensations.

Anti-intellectual sentiments, reduced trust in science, and the heightened encouragement to just “trust one’s gut”, taken together also diminish the need for and even denigrate the usefulness of disciplined self-reflection. This is similarly reflected in the reduction of opportunities to learn for critical thinking in our schools. 

The tendency to impulsively react to our feelings is further revealed on the Internet–often used as a playground, populated by many individuals whose anonymity provides them the freedom to be demeaning, judgmental or threatening. Such anonymity undermines the use of filters and further inhibits the motivation for self-reflection. Rather than reflect on and address the potential pain behind their anger, they act out their anger and by doing so, further disempower rather than empower themselves.

The best movies are intended to play on and evoke certain of our feelings. Similarly, playing on emotions is inherently the driving force in much of advertising–conveyed by images as well as in words. Think of the many commercials that play on the fear of what might happen if we fail to purchase the promoted product. Or, think of how marketing plays on our desires to belong and to feel happy. Clearly, evoking strong feelings can help to expand the probability of closing the deal. Becoming hostage to these feelings, absent of reflection, can leave us highly vulnerable to separating from our money.

Heightening fear and anger during election cycles is another example of how messages appeal to emotions rather than critical thought and self-reflection. And while this has always been a part of political campaigns, in recent years this appeal has no bounds. The formula is well known. Fuel fear in an electorate and you can more easily become the pied piper for a very dedicated following. Without self-reflection, we become hostage to our immediate feelings, feelings that, at times, may even be evoked by others to meet their desires–their agenda–rather than what is truly in our best interest. 

Whether induced by others or as reactions to our own underlying feelings, being hostage to our immediate feelings undermines our freedom to make informed choices in our lives. This can impact the choices we make in our relationships, at work and in our free time. Not being fully informed about our core desires, and what we find to be truly meaningful to us, makes us more vulnerable to feel controlled in a relationship. It can lead to surges of anxiety or anger just to have a difference of opinion.

A lack of self-reflection can often lead to making career choices that are disappointing and unfulfilling. I’ve heard lawyers admit that they chose to be lawyers because their fathers were lawyers. They never took the time to become sufficiently acquainted with themselves to make a choice that was grounded in what truly gave them meaning and purpose. 

And being reactive to our immediate feelings holds us hostage from engaging in so many activities that can yield pleasure and fulfillment. This is the case, for example, when our fears keep us from volunteering an idea at work, pursuing guitar practice even though we feel disappointed in our performance and trying our hand at any one of a variety of creative endeavors.

One approach to enhance self-reflection

When inquiring about how they feel, I often hear clients state “I don’t know”. I have found it extremely important to help clients reflect on what they were experiencing at such moments. I share with them strategies to help them to more slowly review events and reflect on their reactions surrounding them. 

For example, I met with a young woman who reported experiencing feelings of depression following a visit to her parents over Thanksgiving. She reported that she became depressed sometime toward the end of the visit, although she was in an “ok” mood upon her arrival.  I asked her to review, as if on an imaginary video in her mind, the events of the day. She immediately gave a thumbnail sketch of the afternoon, reported. “Well, we sat around and talked for a while, then we had dinner…that was really good. We then played a board game and then we watched television for a while.”

I then suggested that we more slowly, and in greater detail, review the scenes of her video–helping her to pause and replay certain scenes in her mind. I asked her to specifically identify who was there, what they discussed during the early part of the visit, details regarding the dinner, interactions that occurred during it as well as her “self-talk”, her inner dialogue, throughout it. I continued to help her explore the unfolding of the afternoon, with similar attention to details of her experience. 

This took some time. But by encouraging her reflection, she became more aware of feelings of inadequacy, triggered by not doing well in the game. My client was quite competitive and especially so with her younger sister, who happened to do extremely well in the game. This small interaction triggered her feelings of depression. Only by reflecting on the details of her experience was she able to become aware of her feelings of inadequacy, anger with herself and subsequent feelings of isolation that contributed to her feeling depressed for the balance of the afternoon.

Skills that support self-reflection

Self-reflection isn’t always easy. We’re all creatures of habit. And, it’s often the case that we have feelings we really don’t wish to experience. Such reflection depends on learning skills for self-soothing, which we can practice when we come across feelings that are uncomfortable. Developing skills for self-soothing entails finding ways to create calmness in our body, strategies to reduce the tension so that we can more regularly engage the rational rather than the emotional brain, to respond to our feelings rather than act them out.

The capacity to self-reflect is a gift, a part of our humanity that we need to honor. Meeting this challenge calls for cultivating intentionality to pause to reflect. This strategy calls for recognizing our feelings and to look beyond our initial feelings, if we are to more fully know ourselves. 

There are many different approaches that assist this endeavor. Skills in emotional intelligence, mindfulness and mindfulness meditation and compassion, cognitive behavioral approaches and others are just a few that help to support this task.

Meeting this challenge requires strengthening our commitment to reflect rather than react. And with each moment of pause and reflection comes increased wisdom, a major component of resilience against being held hostage by our feelings.