Giving emotions attention

Giving a particular emotion (or experience of it, the story behind it, the feelings about the feeling) is incredibly hard for people who have been socialized like me — the left-brain types, analytical, logical, cognitively focused and attuned usually have a hard time just “feeling their feelings.”

The attached caption is a symbol in reference to the practice of giving an emotion some attention. Within the DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy), EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy), IFS (Internal Family Systems) and other modalities, the “emotions” can stand on their own. Emotions don’t come out of nowhere, they have an origin, they flow from what came before, they are feelings about other feelings, they are “parts” who are attached and experiencing and knowing in themselves. Emotions have content, in and of themselves, they are volitional (willful, have desires, a will / mind of their own), they hold meaning and are interpretive in themselves.

I used to give a few examples to bring the “experience of emotions” into relief.
Someone is sitting next to you. They put their hand on your upper thigh. How do you feel?
The proper response is, it depends — do I know this person? Are they pickpocketing me, coming onto me, comforting me, harassing me? Am I locked up in county jail, or am I next to my partner on the bus?

The point with the “hand on thigh” story is to illustrate that one need not create left-brain cognitions, words, or seek out evidence in order to manifest (and then notice, attune to) the feeling of “hand on my thigh.” If this is your intimate partner, and you are going to feel (before words) “good.” You may take the next step of mindfully noticing the good feeling, but the feeling / emotion will be there nevertheless. If this is a stranger on the bus, you’re going to feel whatever feeling comes up there and you’ll act accordingly.

The feeling of “anxiety” is usually some version of “I’m worried about the future,” and “depression” is the inverse, “I’m worried about the past.” Then, the related emotions about past / future worry — the past-oriented list includes guilt, regret, shame, and these overlap into the future-oriented feelings, such as fear, caution, on-guard, hyper-vigilant, avoidant, hopeless. Anxiety can be free-floating, which is why the cognitive-behavioral therapies can be so effective for treating anxiety — let’s put reference, objects, subjects to the worry. What are you worried will happen? Can we quantify the level of worry, the likelihood of the fear coming to fruition, and the level of trust you have in your resources (inner and outer) to deal with the anxiety?

In so much of my work with anxious clients, there is a strong part of them that is working hard to prevent in the future that which happened in the past. The emotion, anxiety in this case, has a function. At a certain point, the emotion (that is, the process by which one will constantly plan, predict, control, manage the future) takes over the whole nervous system — there’s no room, no use for “play” or “rest.” And curiosity around the anxiety can lead down the road to healing: What happened to you? ‘It feels like part of you really can’t let the guard down, like something bad is going to happen, I wonder what the history of that is for you.’

Another example runs through families.
For people who have experienced being the “black sheep,” the response flowing from the story of “my brother graduated” can lead to a whole mix of emotions — envy, exclusion or rejection, shame, bitterness and resentment, pride, guilt. And all these emotions come with a “because…” or a story attached to them.

What we can do in therapy, and what can be such a beautiful, healing experience for people, is to slow down and be curious about those emotions. How long have you felt this way? Sometimes this question can lead to a hundred little ‘cuts’ or ‘slights’ in the family history. It could be anxiety protecting from failure. It could be hopelessness protecting from wasting what precious little energy remains in the depressed energy bank. Sometimes, this emotion’s history intersects with other emotions — “I just wanted to belong, so I conformed, until I couldn’t anymore, so I went from being terrified of being rejected (first emotion) to feeling rejection (the next one) to feeling …” and so on. To shine light on the emotional experience is to attune to all of it — emotions touch everything, similar to the religious / spiritual conception of “the soul.”

Another example, similar to the ‘hand on thigh’ is similar to the types of situations that show up in therapy. “I got a message from (a person), and it stirred up everything.” This friend, family member, relative, current or former partner. There is emotional content attached to the literal play-by-play, and those emotions are rich with story, needs, goals, sometimes protective or safety-oriented functioning. The history is in the room, and the emotional piece is ‘that which touches the whole history.’ If, in the therapeutic space, we can safely touch and be curious with the emotion, we can find those points of hurt in whatever form they take.

When you’re with a therapist, at some point there will be some talk about ’emotions.’ Speaking as a client of therapy myself, I love when a good therapist can go straight at it. “You feel ___ because ___” is the base, “I hear and understand you” that therapists start out with, and built upon. The “being seen and being understood” in reference to feelings is in itself a feeling. And it’s a wonderful, wonderful feeling, to have one’s emotions seen and hard.

In order to best to summarize the visual concept shown here, as well as the overall concept as it relates to emotions in therapy, I’ll leave this post with a list of ideas in order to point readers towards a deeper reflection. This post is meant less as advice or a resolution to the emotional process, and more like a celebration, a welcome for those who want to explore their emotions — and particularly in the most difficult areas, around those difficult emotions. What is there to say about emotions? This is not an meant as exhaustive list, but more of a signpost in order to invite further exploration into what’s happening within.
Emotions have history
Emotions have goals
Emotions have weight, volume, mass, size, texture, shape, etc
Emotions have relationships
Emotions have an attachment style
Emotions have content
Emotions have will, volition, desire
Emotions have a direction
Emotions have function(s)
Emotions react to each other
Emotions can push, pull, motivate, de-motivate

What’s happening within you as it relates to feelings and emotions? What’s your relationship like with your emotions? Do you attach strongly to them? Ignore them? Give them careful, curious consideration? How’s your feelings vocabulary? How well can you the difference between “I’m angry (because I stubbed my toe)” and “I’m angry (my kids aren’t listening)?”

For you who are thinking about therapy to continue this deep work, please reach out. We have therapists with immediate openings who would be happy to set up a free consultation call with you.

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