Getting emotionally better


By David Joel Miller.

How do we get better emotionally?

There are so many people telling us we should do this or not do that it is hard to know what to do to really see emotional recovery. Which method works the best?  Recovery is a process. So is resilience. Most of the self-help blogs and books focus on one of the things you need to do to get better but not many integrate all three processes.

1. Become aware that you are feeling something.

This is the providence of mindfulness. Dan Siegel calls this “monitoring.” People who had unhappy experiences in early childhood, we sometimes call this “attachment problems” – they often are numb. Ask someone with emotional numbness what they are feeling and they can’t tell you. So the first step in emotional recovery is simply to become aware that you are feeling something.

Ask yourself where in your body are you feeling this sensation? Is it pleasant or unpleasant? It is not important to name this feeling just yet. Sit with the feeling a while. What else is associated with this feeling? Is it memories? Do you see pictures from your past? Maybe the feeling is part of a story in your head.

In anger management or impulse control treatment this is a common first step. Often people react to an outside event with no realization that they have had a feeling that propelled them into action.

There is also an important connection between feelings and thoughts. We interpret events based on a “schema” or blueprint that is stored in our nervous system. We rarely recognize that this emotional blueprint was created a long time ago and has been biasing our reactions in one direction or another.

Becoming aware of your feelings can involve a variety of data collection techniques. Mindful meditation, thought records and journals can all be used to capture the fact that you are having feelings. Not sure what you are feeling? Try drawing a picture of your feeling. Crayons are not just for our kids anymore.

2. Find a label for what you are feeling.

In group therapy, particularly with men’s only groups, we find that people have a limited vocabulary to describe their feelings. Developing a larger vocabulary for feelings allows you to discriminate between the various shades of feeling. Many groups use a chart that shows drawings of people’s faces which portray a variety of feelings; all neatly labeled under the picture with a name we can call this expression.

Many people have only three names for their feelings, good, bad and pissed off. Good and bad are judgments about the feelings not really names of feelings. Does good mean content or excited? There is a world of difference between those two. People have a need for security but too much security may become boredom. We all like a little excitement but too much coming at us can be terrifying.

3. Transform or modify the feeling

This is the tricky part. As long as you insist that you don’t feel but that others “make you feel” you are in a reactive victim place. It is likely that there are some feelings that are primary biological functions but our responses to those sensations are learned. The CBT therapists tell us that our thoughts heavily influence our feelings.

For example when your stomach has a non-pleasant sensation we try to do something to relieve that feeling. Most people who have that feeling think they are hungry and they eat. Research has shown that more than a third of people who think they are hungry are in fact thirsty, they are dehydrated. If they learn to try drinking water first, wait a while, say thirty minutes, many times what they thought was hunger goes away, dissolved by the water.

We learn to interpret body sensations and we also learn to interpret emotional ones. If we have limited names for these feelings we start putting the wrong label on the feeling and we respond incorrectly.

Narrative therapists think we create stories for ourselves about how we “should be” or how things “are.” Creating new stories for ourselves allows us to do new behaviors. So if the schema or blueprint in our head is fuzzy we need to take another look at how it was drawn, correct the faulty parts and develop a new way of relating to our feelings.

Most thinking is done with words. The more words you know the more potential thoughts you might have. Most of us have learned a lot of technical words, about our jobs, sports and hobbies. But we lack the vocabulary to talk about feelings.

This three-step process, feel, identify and transform can go a long way to help us heal from emotional pain.

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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog check out my Google+ page or the Facebook author’s page, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books

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