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How to deal with difficult emotions and feelings?

Yelling Man by Paul Cross
Yelling Man by Paul Cross

One of the most common problems I observe with people who come for couples counseling is fighting. A lot of times, the fighting starts or escalates due to intense emotions and feelings that one or both partners experience during (or before) their fights. The question is raised: where do these emotions come from and what can anyone do to minimize their negative effects on the relationship?

How does it happen?

Sometimes small children experience intense emotions which are difficult for them to tolerate, especially when there are no supporting adults nearby. In that case they have a tendency to suppress them. This suppression is achieved by a physical tension in the body. If these intense emotions arise often enough (as when parent is emotionally unavailable, absent, neglectful, depressed or abusive), this pattern of suppressing or disconnecting from emotions becomes automatic and entrenched. Eventually any emotion that is labeled as “negative,” gets suppressed – often before we even become conscious of it. Later in life this pattern turns into resistance. We often hear people say, “I don’t want to feel this way”, or “I hate the way I feel.”

By the time we become adults we’ve stored a huge chunk of unfinished, unprocessed and suppressed feelings and emotions. They all reside somewhere in the body. We often refer to these stored emotions in our body with expressions like “my heart is broken,” or “there’s a lump in my throat.” Unfortunately, we devote a tremendous amount of energy to hold these feelings inside and keep them from rising to the surface of our awareness. This emotional obligation consumes precious energy which we could use for something constructive or creative.

No matter how hard we try to keep these suppressed feelings in check, they periodically explode to the surface and overwhelm our ability to think rationally. It happens whenever a live situation consciously or unconsciously reminds us of what hurt us in our childhood. For example, if our parents left us alone or were not available, we felt abandoned. If it happened often enough, this feeling became habitual.
Imagine what happens when this child grows up, gets married and her husband is running late from work and didn’t call. This pattern of feeling abandoned will be triggered and she will lash out at her poor, unsuspecting husband. These feelings from the past are usually more intense than would be expected in current situation.

What to do?

In essence, working with suppressed feelings means learning to let go of your resistance to your feelings and emotions. This resistance expresses itself as “I don’t want to feel this way” as well as a tension you can feel in your body.

The next time something sets you off try to become extremely aware of what is happening. Try to sense if there’s an actual place in your body where you feel this emotion. Is it in your stomach? Your chest? Maybe even your knees? Try to describe exactly what sensations you are aware of. Is it a general tightness? Do you feel “needles?” Heat? Do you feel stretched? What else can you sense in your body? Maybe a rapid heartbeat, a trembling, clenched fists or teeth? Observe what your body does. Can you feel how it becomes tense and contracted?

Now try to relax your body. Open your mouth a little bit and drop your lower jaw. Breathe in deeply through your nose and exhale slowly through your mouth. Look around the place you are in, what surrounds you? Now, pay attention to what happens with your sensations? Are you aware of any change in them? You can practice it with any feelings and emotions. While you’re doing this, try to give a name to what you’re feeling. Daniel J. Siegel, a professor of clinical psychiatry at the UCLA, suggests that you “name it to tame it.” Just naming the emotion can have a calming effect on the body.

When people first begin dealing with their emotions, it might seem difficult. Emotions can be so intense that all awareness disappears and people forget their original intention to work with those emotions. But don’t worry, you can always return to where you left off. Every time you’re able to relax during an intense emotional reaction and not resist it, your brain and nervous system become more resilient and are able to tolerate even more intense emotions without being flooded by them and losing awareness.

Every time we can “sit” with feelings and emotions from the past and relax and breathe through them, they become less and less intense. Eventually, those emotions will stop flooding you. You’ll stop losing your awareness and become able to decide how you want to react outwardly. You’ll be able to decide whether to tell the people in your life how you feel, or get over them on your own. You’ll make decisions using that rational part of your brain which will no longer be under the influence of wild emotions.

This is what freedom looks like.

You can also learn how to create more happiness in your life:
How to create a happy life

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