One of the most common themes I have noticed since working as a counsellor and a mentor relates to how difficult people find it to fully acknowledge and process their emotions. I believe this to be a widespread problem in modern society, with roots not only in our system of education but also in our cultural norms and practices. Throughout our lives we are told by the people around us how we must deal with our emotions, with comments such as ‘get over it’, ‘ don’t be upset’, ‘calm down’, ‘pull yourself together’ or ‘stop attention seeking’. If we accept any of this advise we do not actually deal with our emotions, we simply deny and repress them due to the socially inherited belief that they are somehow not valid or acceptable. Over time we become more and more full of these unprocessed emotions, which can ultimately lead to an increased likelihood of experiencing depression, overwhelming anxiety or even an emotional break-down.
Distraction, Suppression & Identity Confusion
So what does it actually mean to process our emotions? And how does this differ to intellectual processing? Whenever we think about a pressing problem, we use our minds to process the information in order to create a solution and find clarity. Once we have ‘worked it out’ we can let the problem go and focus on something else, an activity known as intellectual processing. However, when we feel a strong emotion it requires a completely different process to let it go. The issue here is that we have never been taught how to do this effectively. Although some people learn how to do this intuitively, it is not commonly understood and has never been clearly explained to us. Listed below are the common ways we usually interact with our emotions:
- We distract ourselves (avoidance strategy) using sensory stimulation such as TV, food, alcohol, shopping etc. leading to emotional suppression
- We intellectually suppress our emotions by telling ourselves that they aren’t valid or useful (coping mechanism). This may help us cope in the short term but it may lead to the creation of new, equally uncomfortable emotions such as guilt and shame (i.e. ‘Why am I feeling this way when other people have things much harder than me?’)
- We identify with our emotions as an inherent part of our sense of self and our reality (as opposed to a temporary experience). This leads to becoming lost in the emotions and can lead to highly anxious or depressed states and volatile behaviour swings
What’s the process?
So what are the ways in which we can actually process our emotions? The first point to recognise is that emotional information must be processed through the sensations and movements of the body, rather than through a purely intellectual process. What is actually required is to develop a fuller awareness and acceptance of our emotional state as it is, without identifying with it as a fixed state and without seeking to change, analyse or resist it. This process takes us out of our alert, problem-solving mode of consciousness and helps us to become more present and aware of our body sensations, also known as our ‘felt sense’. Once we do this, the innate intelligence of the body takes over and it does whatever it must in order to let go of the emotional charge. This could mean anything from crying to shaking or even holding ourselves compassionately. The intellectual analysis of what our body is doing and why it is doing it is not necessary and will inevitably interrupt the process. The most important element is to trust in the intelligence of our body to do whatever it needs to do without us giving in to our own self-judgement and fear of the unknown.
It is also important to understand that we can actually use our intellect to support this work with a tool known as inquiry. When we are experiencing an emotional state we can learn to ask prudent questions which help us get to the root of why we feel this way. This can help us to make connections between feeling, behaviours and experiences and help us to feel and process deeper layers of emotion that dwell within our subconscious. This may be difficult at first, so it may be better to seek the guidance of an experienced therapist or mentor.
Unprocessed emotions are a heavy burden to carry
We have been deeply misguided into believing that allowing ourselves to feel the full spectrum of human emotion is wrong and that we must seek to repress our grief, sadness, anger and shame in order for us to get us back to work as soon as possible and thus meet our societal expectations. The problems this causes for individuals and society as a whole is monumental, leading to heightened levels of mental and physical sickness for people of all ages. How many of you reading this have your own issues with emotional processing? How many of you sense an underlying unease within yourself when you are without any form of stimulation in the form of food, alcohol, caffeine, sex, pharmaceutical drugs, TV or the internet? These distractions may well be useful in the short-term to help us cope and can help remove uncomfortable or painful emotions from our conscious minds. However, these emotions stay within our subconscious and add to the weight of emotions we are already carrying from our past experiences. These repressed emotions may not be conscious, but they can still exert a strong influence over our thoughts and behaviours in the form of insecurities, negative beliefs and a lack of self-worth. One way to know if you are carrying a lot of unprocessed emotion is how easy it is for a certain emotion to be triggered. If you become easily angered it is a sign you are carrying a lot of unprocessed anger (as well as the other emotions that anger protects you from). If you become easily scared, it is a sign you are carrying a lot of unprocessed fear. If you become easily upset, it is a sign you are carrying a lot of unprocessed sadness. This may not be a comfortable realisation, however whenever you are able to reflect and you become more aware it will ultimately support you on the path towards emotional freedom and inner peace.
Openness and seeking support
So what can we do if we feel motivated to change our unconscious habits and take ownership of ourselves and our inner state of being? Initially it may be helpful to open up to people that we trust and feel safe with. It may also be beneficial to find a counsellor, mentor or therapist that you can develop a therapeutic relationship with and is able to create the environment needed for you to acknowledge and process your emotions. The therapist you choose and the type of therapy being offered are also important considerations. Cognitive approaches like CBT can be a helpful way to rationalise your ‘irrational’ thoughts, feeling and behaviours but they may not always help you to process the emotional root of why they are present in the first place. Therapists who understand the mind-body connection are arguably better equipped, however approaches such as person-centred and psychodynamic can also be highly effective when practiced by a skilled and sensitive practitioner. Another practice that is extremely useful is mindfulness, which helps us to become more aware and present within our bodies. This also insures we stay grounded in the ‘here and now’ and do not become lost and overwhelmed when experiencing strong emotions.
It is also important to recognise that you are never alone. Everyone to some extent carries their own emotional pain. Everyone has at times felt shame, anger, guilt and sadness. Everyone has felt at a loss as to what to do to heal and feel well again. But you are not a victim and you are not powerless. There are people and groups you can seek out to guide you and there are practices you can learn to support yourself. All it takes is the honesty to admit you need help and the courage to seek it.
Tara Brach: Psychologist and mindfulness/meditation teacher – https://www.youtube.com/user/tarabrach
Eckhart Tolle: Mindfulness teacher
Ram Dass: Psychologist and mindfulness/meditation teacher –