“Who would wanna look at their suffering?! I mean, why would I want do that?” A dear client of mine asked repeatedly the other day after reading the Are you a Self Esteem Junkie blog. This is such an important question because it is the most natural thing in the world to want to hold tightly to our self-estimation.
Like my client, we all desire to hold on to the pleasurable feelings, and push away the difficult ones. This is the classic human autopilot of the Castle defense. And sure, this autopilot mode can be helpful in building success and reaching our goals. So why would we want to intentionally bring to mind the difficult?
Allow me to answer this question with a few others.
Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?
a. Do you notice difficulties in your interpersonal interactions, where other’s react strongly to you for unknown reasons?
b. Does it seem like you are just meandering through life, directionless with a lingering uncertainty of what you really want?
c. Do you feel sort of disconnected, numb, or resigned to ‘not caring’ about important elements in your life?
d. Do you frequently find that you leave an interaction with someone, only hours later to realize that it really bothered you?
e. Do you sometimes find that you can be absolutely fine one minute, and unexpectedly loose your cool, with seemingly no warning!
All of these scenarios have one thing in common: missing links between your awareness and your experience in the present moment. The above scenarios are typical outcomes of blocking difficult emotions from awareness.
Allow me to explain.
The Communication Function of Emotions
Recall that emotions have a purpose. They are our primal, pre-verbal, system for communication. We have emotions to inform us, and others in the group, that something is in need of our attention. Like physical pain and pleasure, emotions tell us whether we should seek more or less of something.
So the answer to my client’s question is this: When we over practice blocking our emotions from awareness, we can loose access to this important information about what is important to us, and others. So, it is not a question of wanting to bring difficult emotions to mind. But instead one of Willingness to practice the skill of listening to these essential messengers!
Making Friends with Passengers
FACT: Difficult emotion passengers such as anger, anxiety, sadness, and shame are very uncomfortable. So the natural human reaction is to engage in some means of thinking or acting to minimize them. But we also need the skill of learning how to lean in and listen to them – so we know what is important to us.
In psychological research we call this type of practice of actively approaching difficult emotions and related bodily sensations interoceptive or imaginal exposure. With repeated practice in experiencing the difficult, it gets easier over time.
You may know something similar in your own experience. Have you ever had a fear of something that you simply had to do? Say public speaking for example. Then, after doing it a number of times, you got more used to it? This is an example of in vivo exposure. Well, because our imagination is such a powerful virtual reality, you can get the same results from practicing in your mind!
Here is a simple practice I have developed for my clients to begin practicing in small doses.
Taking Role Call: The Practice
Step I: Identify and Label your Passengers.
What are the difficult emotions you struggle with? Remember, emotions are one word descriptors such as sadness, anger, envy, shame, anxiety, etc. We all have all of the human emotions. So, you can identify all of them as a group, or practice one by one.
Step II: Take Role Call.
In your mind’s eye, imagine yourself in the driver’s seat of your Mind-Body Vehicle. Imagine a space around you, in the passenger seat and the back seat, where child versions of yourself are sitting. Each child represents one of the emotions you are working with.
Step III: Attend to Your Passengers.
Like a loving parent, give your passengers attention before they have to scream to get it. In your mind’s eye speak to each of them in a warm and kind way to simply acknowledge and validate their pain.
Remember: Validation is different than agreeing, wanting, or approving of the emotion. Nor is it reassuring, minimizing, or aimed at getting rid of it. Validation is simply honoring the presence of emotion with kind attention.
Here is a sample script:
“All right kids just checking in to see how everyone’s doing.
Sadness, you there? (Imagining a somber head down tearful me “uh huh”.) Okay, I see you.
Anger you there? (Imagining angry small me “Oh yeah!” Arms crossed angry gesture.) Okay, I see you.
Anxiety you there? (Imagining: What what what what? Yes, yes I’m here I’m here! Frazzled version of me.) OK, I see you.
Shame you there? (Imagining: Pause) Shame? You there? (Imagining: cuddled in a ball version of me hiding face whispers “yes, I’m here.”). Okay, I see you.”
“I see you all here. I know it is really hard sometimes. AND you guys are all allowed to be here, that’s OK. I’m here for you. So I’ll check in with you from time to time. AND sometimes I won’t be able to, because I have to do the driving. We are all in this together, you are part of me, so, even if you make driving difficult sometimes, you are welcome.”
Taking the Practice with You.
This self-validation practice helps us to maintain our commitment to a purpose, rather than emotion, driven life. We may not be responsible getting those passengers on our mind-body vehicles in the first place, but we are responsible for how we care for them as care for ourselves.
In our psychological growth we are all re-parenting ourselves in a way. We are learning to let go of the struggle with our vulnerable feelings by practicing building a better relationship with them.
I hope you will find this practice helpful in your life! If you have any questions or comments, I hope you will leave me a message in the comments section! You can learn more about the highlighted terms by clicking on the links. Or sign up for the Mindful-Mastery SKILL WEEKLY newsletter, follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Until next time, may you BE-WELL.
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