I write a fortnightly column for the Great Eastern Mail. Missed an edition? Here I share past letters for you.
Dear Emma, what’s going with my emotions? I used to be able hold so much but now, I feel limited. After spending so much time with people over the holidays, I think I’m going to explode if one more person complains to me or tells me how to do something. I hate being like this, but I just want to scream. Can you please help me?
Just do it. Scream. Grab a pillow and scream into it. Or take a drive to some beautiful remote location and scream at the top of your lungs. Release all that you are holding. It sounds like it’s been a lot for you. Now, the scream is only the beginning. You also must do the hard work of processing. I suspect up until now, you have been busy suppressing your own needs and desires. Processing is always greater than suppressing.
Imagine if you will, a large mountain before you. As your eyes travel upwards, the greenery gives way to a barren landscape of boulders and its peak is tipped with snow. You are about to embark on a journey climbing this mountain. Now, your emotions are like a mountain climber. In order to fully process our emotions, we must climb to the peak and descend. If you only climb part way, stop and go back down, that is more like suppression. Your emotion is still present. You have not completed your task set before you because you didn’t reach the peak and descend the other side.
Sometimes in the name of politeness, social behaviour and people pleasing tendencies, we might do this stopping and going back down more than we realise. It keeps others travelling alongside us happy, but it never accomplishes what we need to for ourselves.
So how might you learn to climb to the peak and descend the other side?
With practice. Like all things, it takes practice to learn. Allow the emotion to take time, don’t rush yourself. Go compassionately and with acceptance. Find support if you can, co-regulation is allowed. That is someone to sit with you in the thick of your emotions. And importantly bring awareness to the story you tell yourself as you climb. Too much cautioning can cause fear to mount which will prohibit you from reaching the peak. Remember, as you come down the other side, you will be able to understand yourself in a deeper way as you accept and reflect on the emotion you have navigated.
Here’s what a practical example may sound like:
Thought: “Omg, why the hell am I feeling this way? I am so frustrated. This is so ridiculous; I can’t even use this stupid remote. My mum was right, I’m dumb, I can’t even do a simple task like turn this tv on. Look at me, can’t even turn a tv on with this new technology. My life is a waste. What a loser!”
Let’s break it down. There are some common cognitive distortions here that prohibit successful mountain climbing.
• Omg, why the hell am I feeling this way? = Suppression.
• This is ridiculous = Invalidating.
• My mum was right, I’m dumb = Overanalysing.
• I can’t even do a simple task like turn this tv on = Self-critical.
• My life is a waste = Catastrophising
• What a loser = Minimising
Many of the distortions mentioned here are invalidating. Minimizing, self-criticism, suppression, denial – they are all coping mechanisms we use to protect ourselves from hurt. But it doesn’t work. We’re just pushing it down until we explode like a volcano. And in the process, hurting ourselves the most. This type of thinking means we never reach the peak. We have placed too many barriers in our way with the cognitive distortions, stopped and turned back down.
To reach the peak, we need to tend to ourselves with compassion as we climb. Your feelings matter and are allowed to be present. You are allowed to take up space in this world. Emotions are important. They help us navigate life but giving us crucial pieces of information. They are not right or wrong. How we let them inform us or shape our story is up to us. A simple way to explore the new perspective might be to acknowledge the presence of the emotion and ask yourself what is another way of viewing this situation.
So, what might the thought in the example sound like if you were to go compassionately and reach the peak to descend the other side?
‘Wow, I can feel myself getting frustrated right now. That makes sense. Technology has often been a sore spot for me. And I have had a lot of people and change of routine around me over the holidays. I’m going to take a deep breath so it will be easier to stay calm. I might even go for a walk now instead.”
All the best, Emma