Unblocking the emotional dam - slowly!
November 22, 2009 8:30 AM   Subscribe

How can I make space for my emotions and feel safe letting myself feel them?

I've recently started seeing a psychologist, who pointed out last week that despite being female, I have a very "masculine" way of dealing with things - or rather, not dealing with them. I hadn't actually noticed until she said it, but my entire life I've kind of shut off any "weak" emotions - even as a child I only cried once in primary school - and tried to just be stoic about things. I used to think this was a good thing but I'm beginning to realise it's not really helping me. I am now in recovery for an eating disorder which for a long time I didn't even realise I had, and now that I am not using starvation as a coping method, I'm aware that a lot of painful stuff is bubbling just beneath the surface and it's going to have to come out some time but I'm afraid to go there - meanwhile, I'm getting bouts of depression etc. A year ago I left a very unhealthy relationship totally heartbroken and destroyed. I tried to deal with this in the way a guy would (never speak of it again + conquests) but I know it's just a temporary measure and I'm STILL not over it. All the hurtful things in my life I've always just acted like they didn't affect me and belittled with jokes if anyone asked. But underneath I feel like something is broken inside me and I'm too scared to touch it in case I fall right apart. I have trouble sleeping and lots of bad dreams. I know I have to face this but my therapist appointments are a week apart.

I'm looking for any tips on how to go about this (I have tried journalling and writing unsent letters but am looking for other ideas, especially for when it's dark and quiet and these thoughts start to come up) - just blocking it out and trying to hurriedly move on with my life doesn't seem to be working anymore but I don't want to get "stuck" in this stuff either. Meditation techniques or something might be good. Maybe if I can set aside a half hour each day or something? There are some things that I almost start to think about but then it feels like putting my hand back in a fire that burnt me once so I quickly change the subject in my head. What would happen if I allow myself to go there? Should I? Can one really "process" past hurt or is it masochistic to revisit it in your head? Is it necessary?

What's worked for you? How do you process really painful stuff? Were you scared that you'd lose yourself in the grief? Is it a good or bad idea to talk to people (friends) about this stuff or better to just continue to pretend to be ok? Anecdotes and advice appreciated!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I just wanted to come in with a practical thing - if you're having bad thoughts at down times, listen to audiobooks and podcasts during those times. Fall asleep to them. I have a rule for myself, I'm only allowed to think about the difficult stuff at times I've set up to think about it. Thinking is always for a purpose, otherwise no thinking!
posted by By The Grace of God at 8:37 AM on November 22, 2009 [5 favorites]

It may or may not be necessary for you (though judging from the fact that you've bothered to write a post about it, I'd say it probably is). I spent a summer in exile after a really shitty semester, and found that the thing that helped me the most (aside from writing sad metafilter posts and journaling and occasionally having traumatic conversations with friends) was going to yoga every other day.

Why? Because it's a designated space where you can be in your head, quietly, in a roomful of people, concentrating on something that is both very much internal (how to arrange your body, how to breathe, how to hold a position) and totally unrelated to what you're actually thinking about. The ONLY thing you are focusing on is yourself, your body, your position, your breathing -- in a space where you are basically being quiet, and yet are surrounded by people in a very loving and supportive environment.

Note that I used it as a space to be in my head. That's the opposite of what meditation is supposed to do. I found that toward the end of every session, I would have this cathartic (sometimes really happy, sometimes really sad) moment that came from having this space to both think and be preoccupied. This was very helpful for me.
posted by puckish at 8:43 AM on November 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

Could you get one of the mods to add an email address to the post?
posted by Solomon at 9:05 AM on November 22, 2009

I know kind of what you're talking about. Most times, I don't feel much. When I talk about it, it comes roaring in. That's all I can think of.

Starvation-as-coping is interesting. Thanks.
posted by krilli at 9:16 AM on November 22, 2009

I'm going to used a tired metaphor, but try and see past the cliche and focus on the message.

Think of the experiences you've gone through (both good and bad) as individual hands of poker. While you're going though these experiences (playing these hands) it's important, even necessary, to keep your guard up. It's the only way to play.

Once the game is over, as is in your recent unhealthy relationship, you are allowed to put your guard down and deconstruct how you played your hand. This is the only way to ensure you don't make the same mistakes over and over again, and it is necessary.

The most important facet of deconstructing your past experiences is honesty. Be honest with yourself and with others. If you screwed up, own up to it and learn from it. If someone else treated you poorly, acknowledge that this isn't your fault and filter similar people out of your future.

So really boiled down: once the poker hand is over, reflect, be honest, get stronger, get smarter, regroup and get back out there and win some damn money!
posted by pwally at 9:45 AM on November 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

It's amazing how emotions find a way out, isn't it? I've eventually come to see that many of my seemingly irrational actions in the past has been correlated to something that brings up very negative emotions ( ie. I often seem to have huge fights with my friends or have problems at work around my dad's birthday). After my divorce, I spent a lot of time trying to just feel these things, and realized that they were locked down very tightly, very far inside my psyche. Letting them out is not a simple process and not one to be taken lightly or all at once. My method is what I call the "controlled bleed" - it's much like letting built up steam out in controlled bursts. Take some time to just think. As these emotions come up, decide how long you want to experience them. It takes practice, but I'm getting better at just feeling bad for a while and then getting on with my life. The important thing is to recognize that you feel bad and that it's ok, it's part of the process. Feel it and then go for a walk, it's amazing how much can be worked out during a walk.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 9:54 AM on November 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

This may sound glib, and I truly don't mean it to be. But I have found that feeling emotions, even grief, is essential to good mental health. And moreover, that letting them in, even the dark ones like jealousy or feelings of revenge, does no harm whatsoever. The key, and you seem to have it, is someone to help you manage the rest of what happens, whether it be shame at the intensity of some really unsavory emotion, or unwanted thoughts (esp needlessly repeating ones or ones that cause auxiety). You have that in a counselor, so you are set. As far as practical advice for times when a counselor can't be there to help, give in some time, see what happens. Listen to a song of loss (or anger or whatever hits the mark). Start feeling something. It might feel like you'll go somewhere bad with emotin and never come back, but it has been my experience that that is not what happens. I found a "cry song" by accident and gave in to feeling the grief at losing my mother when I was a child (the song, incidentally was not about a mother at all). I listed to it over and over and cried and cried and came to a very essential understanding of my loss as a result. To identify what I learned would sound kind of trite, so I'll not share if you don't mind. Good luck!
posted by Prayless at 10:26 AM on November 22, 2009

It sounds like you're scared of doing something irreversible. You're talking about breaking a dam that's holding these thoughts back, and you're worried that you'll fall apart if you let yourself think them. I've been there. I know the feeling. I like the dam analogy because that really is how it feels sometimes — like there's an endless river of bad feelings behind that wall, and if you let the wall crack the bad stuff will just keep pouring out into you forever.

But in my experience, that's not actually how it goes. You let one of these thoughts in, and for a minute it feels awful and endless and unmanageable and.... then it feels a little less awful, and a little more manageable, and anyway isn't that movie you wanted to see coming on soon? And so you put the bad shit away, wash your face, look around, go do something pleasant and get on with your life.

The trick is to think the bad thoughts one at a time, without dwelling on them or letting them all rush in at once. And that's a trick you have to learn for yourself — although FWIW a good therapist can coach you on it. But practice helps, and experience helps. It's like learning to catch a fastball, or shave your legs, or take out a splinter: the more you flinch and jitter and tense up, the harder it is, but the more often you do it successfully, the less you'll flinch and the easier it will get.

On preview, The Light Fantastic said it a lot more succinctly. Take it slow, start with something little, mull it over as much as you can handle, and then put it down and go take a walk or pet a kitten or something. What I'd add to her advice is, remember that feeling of putting it down and walking away, because that memory and the sense of power it gives you will make the whole thing easier the next time you do it.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:26 AM on November 22, 2009 [3 favorites]

Your description sounds a lot like what I used to do... still do sometimes. It's easier to shut down emotions than to experience them, but maintaining that kind of control is difficult - especially at 3am when you're lying wide awake trying to fight off a panic attack triggered by an onslaught of memories and bad decisions.

I made about 5 different attempts at therapy over a decade before finding something that worked for me, which ended up being acceptance and commitment therapy. Initially I tried talk therapy, and found that going over and over these experiences sharpened my focus on them and fed my tendency to shut everything down. I kept trying to control my reactions and responses, where ACT taught me to recognize the feelings for what they are, to acknowledge them without judgment, and to try to incorporate these feelings into who I am. Although it's not a spiritual approach, there is a decidedly buddhist/meditative bent to it all - embracing that life is suffering, and all that. Some people take issue with that, but it sounds like it may work for you?

If this sounds like something you may be interested in, consider asking your therapist about it. There are also some self-help books on amazon with an ACT approach, although I've not read/used any of them and am loathe to make a specific recommendation.
posted by lilnublet at 10:28 AM on November 22, 2009 [3 favorites]

You don't mention what kind of therapist you have. You might want to look into Cognitive Behaviour Therapy if your current therapist is of a different school, since it has a strong emphasis on practical ways of dealing with emotions and behaviour.

I think you're using "stoic" in the casual sense of the word. Stoic philosophy itself isn't about denying your emotions, but dealing with them rationally. A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine is a good introduction if you're interested.

Setting aside a certain time per day to think about your problems, like you thought, is one of the techniques stoics recommend.

I think you need to draw a distinction between acknowledging your emotions, and surrendering to your emotions. If you feel an emotion, you should admit that you feel it. But admitting it doesn't mean you have to immediately act on it. Instead, according to stoic philosophy, you should think rationally about it. If it's an irrational negative emotion, just reminding yourself that it's irrational will cause it to diminish.

In terms of talking to other people, and spending time thinking about it, I think you need to draw a balance. Up to a point, it can be helpful as a way of sorting through your feelings. But beyond a certain point, it can be a temptation to start wallowing in self-pity.

I'm not sure how much of your post comes from you and how much comes from your therapist. I'm a bit skeptical about the idea that there's a right/feminine and a wrong/masculine way of dealing with emotional problems. You don't have to sob into a tub of Häagen-Dazs with your girlfriends passing you kleenexes if you don't want to. Maybe a more "masculine" approach where you think to yourself "OK, I got knocked down, I got hurt, now I'm getting up and going on" suits you better.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 1:08 PM on November 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I had a similar coping strategy ("just stuff it down") for much of my life. A couple of things I found helpful: if you've got a friend to vent at and/or who can hang out and be sympathetic if you need to cry, that's good. not just because sympathy is good, but because it can be helpful to have a way to deal with the emotional reactions outside of therapy so that therapy can be more about analyzing the emotions rather than just experiencing them.

also, reframing the 'breaking the dam' way of thinking about it helped me. my emotions were not a dam to burst and then be completely unleashed -- i tried to think of it more like the safety valve on a steam system. it blows off excess pressure, sometimes rather dramatically, and then i can keep going, often better for having had the catharsis. also, sometimes i found therapy involved talking about things that happened years or even decades ago. the way i framed that was that it was like turning the compost pile in my head -- emotions and experiences have been dumped in there and there are places where it's turned into noxious fetid stinky stuff, and after that's been turned and exposed and aerated, it eventually rots down into fertile soil for my life to flourish in. (yeah, that's kind of a woo-woo way to think about it, but i found it really resonated for me.)

also, if you have spent much of your life avoiding your emotions, it can feel like letting it out even just a little bit will be a tsunami of doom -- that if you ever released your anger or sadness, it would be fierce and bright enough to be visible from orbit. it won't. and the more you can work with those emotions, the easier it gets to do. but you don't have to dive in all at once -- you can just go near it a bit, then go away from it; then maybe poke at it a little bit and see how that is. the overpressure valve metaphor worked for me, here. blow off a little bit of pressure. then things get a bit easier to work on, so i can let a bit more pressure off. lather, rinse, repeat.

and, yeah, there are times when you have to just man woman up and put all of that emotional experience aside and go deal with stuff in your life - keep going to work or school or whatever. but working through it is probably better than keeping it buttoned up forever.
posted by rmd1023 at 2:38 PM on November 22, 2009

How can I make space for my emotions and feel safe letting myself feel them?

. . . and now that I am not using starvation as a coping method, I'm aware that a lot of painful stuff is bubbling just beneath the surface and it's going to have to come out some time but I'm afraid to go there - meanwhile, I'm getting bouts of depression etc.

You've already seen how your coping mechanism was hurting you and that it was protecting you from something that really has hurt you. You are now aware of the feelings it was designed to mask. You've already made the hardest step, by far.

So what do you do now? How do you deal with what you've been avoiding?

You (1) look for the triggers; (2) pay attention to the thought you had right when you saw the trigger; and (3) learn to ride on top of the feelings.

Central to doing all of these three is realizing that your emotions do not reflect any reality other than what is going on in your head--that you can feel them and still function.0

Looking for the triggers means learning what sets you off, how the thoughts come up. When that happens, think of what you were thinking about just then. Finally riding on top of the feelings means that you experience the physical symptoms of them without reacting. You don't reach for any behavior, you don't reach for a calming thought, you just experience it. Feel that lump in your throat, back, or wherever it is.

Best of luck and memail me if you need more explanation.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:01 PM on November 22, 2009

Don't suppose you have access to some manual labor -- say, chopping wood or hoeing weeds? Some activity with a sort of constructively violent physical component that lets you blow off steam? It's amazing how much better you feel after.

Also, I found that martial arts training was a really interesting way of dealing with stress and emotional problems. Not because you get to hit people or "tap into" the hurt you're feeling, but because the things you learn in the class subtly constrict your focus to the task at hand and help you formally build a calm center from which you can take on nearly any challenge.
posted by hermitosis at 3:25 PM on November 22, 2009

I recommend Pema Chodron's When Things Fall Apart, which has a lot of really practical, applicable advice for just sitting with and feeling difficult and painful feelings. She has other books about meditation and Buddhism in general, but I think this one is the most applicable to your current situation.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 5:02 PM on November 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Something that has really helped me is really exploring feelings. It can be done as a meditation, or you can write it down.

You name the feeling, and you describe it, in every detail you can think of. What is it's color, it's texture, it's size, how is it affecting your body, etc. If it could talk to you what would it say? Or ask for? Don't worry so much about the"why" - just really experience the feeling.

Instead of avoiding the feeling, you explore every inch of it, you get really familiar with it, and what it is doing for you or what it represents. Suddenly, it´s not so horrible. Or it is, but you know exactly what makes it so horrible.

I think it´s only hard at first - as you are going through the process of identifying, exploring and cataloging all those feelings you weren't letting yourself experience. But afterward, when you get the hang of feeling, it's no longer so tough.

Suddenly something happens, and you are overwhelmed with a feeling, but then you think, "oh yeah! YOU, I recognize you. You mean this! And this is what we're going to do with you today! " And it´s ok, ´cause you know what that feeling is all about and what to do with it.

I like to think of it as "making friends" with my feelings:)
posted by Locochona at 5:03 PM on November 22, 2009

I second Pema Chodron, but also, check out the book Focusing for another step-by-step guide to a process for getting in touch with what's really going on.
posted by salvia at 1:59 AM on November 23, 2009

Don't agree with the response that suggested Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is great for many things but I think it can get a person further entrenched into the practical rather than the feeling way of dealing with things, which this person seems to be trying to get out of.
posted by y6t5r4e3w2q1 at 6:34 PM on January 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

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