How can I successfully identify and release my emotions?
April 6, 2010 7:19 AM   Subscribe

How can I successfully identify and release my emotions?

I experienced a very controlled childhood during which I needed to suppress my emotions and wants in order to avoid conflict. As a result I find it difficult to identify emotions inside of myself and to find a satisfying way of releasing them. I've tried some techniques like sitting down with focused breathing and listening inward, but I often find the emotions to be too intense and I avoid doing it. It's not that I am incapable of feelings emotions, but that I have difficulty identifying exactly which emotion I'm feeling and why.

I particularly feel scared of mixed emotions and try to avoid thinking about them without even realizing I'm doing it. My current method of dealing with a stressful mix of emotions is drinking more than I would like and/or crying for brief periods of time to try to release something. Sometimes I don't even know why I'm crying, I just feel sadness or frustration which I can't identify the cause of. (I recovered from depression several years ago and fall under the category of problem drinker, not alcoholic, so no answers trying to diagnose me with something, please.)

I found a website listing a technique of identifying emotions using a "feeling vocabulary list" that you can pull words from and make sentences out of which seems fairly approachable to me.
I'm looking for similar techniques which would make more manageable the torrent of emotions I tend to feel from listening inward. Any anecdotal information from people who have experienced similar problems would also be great. Thanks.
posted by fan_of_all_things_small to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
People who practice meditation (e.g. Vipassana) claim that it helps them do this. I believe them, but I can't speak from personal experience.

If you started meditating, I doubt that you would be able to do it immediately; I think it's more that meditating gradually helps you develop the kind of skill at paying attention to things that would enable you to detect emotions more easily.
posted by k. at 7:26 AM on April 6, 2010

I really identify with a lot of what you're saying. I had/have a lot of trouble labeling and tolerating emotions, but I've made a lot of progress (through intensive therapy) through the last few months. Therapy would, of course, be helpful - either standard talk therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy (group or individual). It could be just for a limited time with a specific goal of helping you identify and tolerate emotions, if you prefer.

In terms of what you can do on your own, you could try working through the book Mind Over Mood. It's very similar to what we did in my cognitive therapy group, and I've also used the book on my own.
posted by insectosaurus at 7:52 AM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've tried some techniques like sitting down with focused breathing and listening inward, but I often find the emotions to be too intense and I avoid doing it.

You have to power through this. There is no other way. To release the difficult emotions, you must experience them, difficult as it is.

My personal experience is so much like yours I can't even begin to tell you. And I've had to go to therapy to deal with it. I've learned you have three choices with emotions you don't want to feel: (1) repress; (2) Strike out at others; (3) distract with food, sex, fantasy or drugs; (4) experience without reacting. (4) is the way to go. Every other way results in the emotions chasing you around your life until they come out.

So how to do? First, seek out physical symptoms of your emotions, such as back tension, headaches, you name it. Concentrate on those things and when other things enter your mind, just return to the physical feeling again and again. It will be uncomfortable, it will be hard, it will be no fun. But you must learn to do it.

Second, every time you feel one of these emotions stop for a second and ask yourself what was I just thinking about? Find out what thoughts trigger what things. Once you become aware of those things, start to watch out for the emotion before it starts or at least just after it. You will start to see through the emotions and the situation. And then they will begin to fade.

One of the things that has helped me is my prior experience with meditation practice. I used to have an extensive practice, about 6 years straight every day for 45 minutes, with probably less than 15 days missed during that period, including 2 1/2 years straight without any missed days at all. That's helped me incredibly.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:23 AM on April 6, 2010 [8 favorites]

I grew up in a similar situation and have dealt with the same problem. The most useful advice I ever got was to start with letting myself experience the emotions when they arise and without analyzing them. When I first notice anger, fear, joy, etc bubbling up, I just sit back and let it wash over me. Don't fight it or think about it really at all - just experience your feelings. It's pretty uncomfortable initially, but lasts only a short time and it feels cathartic in a way that suppression obviously doesn't.

This gets much easier and more natural feeling over time.

Then wait until you're feeling stable and spend some time writing. I write on the computer so I can do a stream of consciousness thing quickly. I start with which ever event of the day I think might be the catalyst - but the stream of writing always ends up somewhere else. I just type and type, going with tangential thoughts as they arise until I reach one that seems directly related to my recent emotions. This is usually signaled by the dredging up of some long ago suppressed emotion.

I generally end up with some insight on the reasons I was sad an hour ago & that sadness's link to (and maybe release of?) a similar decades old unexpressed emotion.

This method really works for me -- I am sooooo much better at being a normal-ish emotional person since I starting this years ago. Hopefully it will help you.
posted by jenmakes at 8:25 AM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I understand your predicament, and share it, to some degree.
First, I want to tell you that there's no correct (or, as you put it, "successful") way of dealing with emotions. They are not something you can "release" in the sense of getting rid of them, dealing with them once and for all, conquering them. Because that is what your question reads like, to me. Neither is there a objective or correct way of "identifying" them. There's no such thing as "pure" or "mixed" emotions - they are your emotions, they are unique to the moment and to your experience, they are valuable, all of them. I don't mean this as a put-down ("You're doing it wrong!"), on the contrary, I want to tell you that you should go easier on yourself and stop thinking of emotional development as a field where you're somehow failing. You can't do it wrong. It's what you're feeling or not feeling, and it's all good. It's you. (Behaviors - like drinking - can obviously be wrong, OTOH)

Actual anwers to your question:

- In my experience, one gets closer to the aim you describe by treating oneself well and doing stuff that makes one feel good and whole, and by having patience. I mean years of patience. Trying to assess, evaluate, identify and "get over" your emotions by tackling them head-on is counterproductive; at least for the type of analytical, conscientious, objective person we seem to be. Whenever I tried it myself, it has just lead to further alienation.

- Writing has helped me, but again, not writing directly about emotions, head on, but writing about fictional characters, nature, whatever you like and whatever calms your mind. Strangely enough, chess also works for me, as does everything creative.

- Another counterintuitive trick: Allow yourself, from time to time, to consciously disregard certain emotions. Tell yourself: "OK, I'm not dealing with this now!" Pretend they're not there, ignore them, and be OK with it. This sounds like chickening out, but it has made me much more balanced, and in the long term, it actually gives you more emotional power and control. Don't see it as "failing", though, see it as "taking control" and do it consciously.
posted by The Toad at 8:39 AM on April 6, 2010

i have no idea how to do links on askmefi yet, but someone that i worked for was really into the sedona method, which was created by hale dwoskin. it's sedona dot com.
posted by lakersfan1222 at 8:45 AM on April 6, 2010

does this work?
posted by lakersfan1222 at 8:50 AM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I can relate to your problem very much. I took a little class in personal management skills recently that was helpful. One of the best parts was having everyone give their responses to things and seeing how different they were, and how different mine often were. The handouts were from this book which goes into a lot of detail, though the presenters stressed it's not only for people with the disorder in the book title. It's just very detailed and good for people who have little clue about emotions, I think.

I also participated in an interpersonal process group, which means using the interpersonal process to work through whatever it is you want to work through. Being able to have my feelings heard and validated, or just to have a chance to feel and process them while also paying attention to other people (in a nonrisky situation, ie not the wider world) was helpful. Having other people express openly kind of modelled what feeling and expressing look like, again without all the layers in the outside world. If you have a chance to do that, I think it's worth it.

But as others have said, you have to keep at it and feel whatever comes through. Meditation is great for that. At the same time, I want to understand emotions some, and it sounds like you do, too.

I found the first concept in the course very useful, but I couldn't find a diagram of it for you on the web. Basically, imagine a Venn diagram, two overlapping circles. One is reasoning mind, one is emotional mind. The overlap is wise mind, when you can balance the other two which can be very active in opposite directions, be aware of both, and work from that stable base. It's an interesting framework for meditation, because you can just categorize the content of your mind as it appears and go back to paying attention.

It's also less scary to go into intense emotions if you know you can choose to come out of them. Having a planned distraction or something to ground you out of it afterwards is very useful. If you cut down alcohol, or as I did cut it out, some other methods of soothing and distraction are critical, because emotions can get quite overwhelming sometimes.

I've also found Marshall Rosenberg's stuff about
feelings and relating them to needs quite valuable over the years. Even though it's about relating to people in the present, it's useful for relating to your own feelings in the present, too.

I'm still not great at knowing my feelings, but I know them more often and am not thrown off by them as much.
posted by Listener at 9:12 AM on April 6, 2010

What does "too intense" mean? What about the intensity scares you? What will (in your imagination) happen if you allowed yourself to feel something "too intense?"
posted by Obscure Reference at 9:21 AM on April 6, 2010

This technique is deceptively simple, but the thinking that went into it is incredibly sophisticated:

(I've done talk therapy, sedona method, CBT, EFT, etc., etc.)
posted by zeek321 at 9:30 AM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Your story also sounds very similar to mine and I can tell you that I wasn't able to do it by myself. The drinking part took a very bad turn for me, but ultimately led me find a support group which enabled me to get the help I needed. Learning how to let go and identify those feelings, and especially where they are coming from was a long process for me but was well worth the effort. It really helped me when I was able to identify why certain things would trigger certain emotions. Just having an awareness seemed to resolve a lot of the problem. Reaching out to others seemed to be the hardest for thing for me, but I'm so glad today that I did.
I applaud you reaching out here and asking, and encourage you to keep trying until you find whatever works for you.
posted by heatherly at 9:41 AM on April 6, 2010

When I first notice anger, fear, joy, etc bubbling up, I just sit back and let it wash over me. Don't fight it or think about it really at all - just experience your feelings. It's pretty uncomfortable initially, but lasts only a short time and it feels cathartic in a way that suppression obviously doesn't.

This is exactly what I said but more directly and in fewer sentences. Don't run. Just feel it. There is no escape from your feelings. They built the system this way.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:07 AM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I had a very similar childhood to yours and spent many years confused by and scared of my feelings. After several months of therapy, I started to play a game called 'what am I feeling right now?', wherever I was, whatever I was doing, I worked to identify the various emotions going on.

I slowly realised that I could have big bits of one feeling, little bits of another feeling - and they could conflict with each other and change rapidly. The more I got used to that, the less scared and uncertain I felt. But I couldn't have done it without therapy which gave me a safe environment to start to talk about my past. Whatever choice you make, I wish you the best.
posted by poissonrouge at 11:41 AM on April 6, 2010

Yeah, mindfulness stuff helps.

But also, stop thinking of feelings as steam trapped in a boiler that must be "released" in order to avoid exploding. This makes no evolutionary sense: feelings are decision-making shortcuts aimed at getting us to behave in ways that make evolutionary sense (ie, successfully avoiding death and reproducing). They aren't always adaptive in the modern world but doing things like hitting pillows to "release" anger actually intensifies anger because it isn't some constant quality that needs to go before you can feel better.

The only time emotions are "bottled up" is when you have to suppress them and the situation in which you are suppressing them isn't changing. So, say, you're mad at your boss. You resent how he treats you. Until you either confront him or reframe the situation such that you don't need to do so (ie, I need this job and he's stressed too and I don't have to take it personally), the anger will linger. Once you take action to fix the situation that emotion represents, the emotion should resolve (unless you are depressed).

Past emotions can reappear in situations that trigger those memories, but it doesn't mean that they are "stored" and must be "released" for you to get better. It means that you need to deal with those situations recognizing that they remind you of past experiences and dealing with your responses that way. And yeah, sometimes you just have to cry for no reason because the sadness of life overtakes you.
posted by Maias at 1:58 PM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Try The Feeling Wheel to help you identify your emotions. Google feeling + wheel for other slightly different versions. It helped me over a rough patch.
posted by feelinggood at 5:57 PM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry you had a childhood where you weren't allowed to have or express your feelings. I got through mine by writing. I've had a diary since I was 9 and that was my chance to write whatever the hell I wanted with no one ever having to "check" it for spelling and grammar, etc. I wrote about frivolous things ("Yay hotdogs!") and things I was angry about ("I hate mom! Nothing I do is ever good enough!").

So you could try writing. There are no rules when writing. Get some paper and a pen (I prefer that to the computer, it feels more intimate with myself) and write about anything. It doesn't even have to be about your feelings to start. What did you do today? What was the weather like? What do you think about the responses to your post? etc.
posted by foxjacket at 8:09 PM on April 6, 2010

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