I don’t know why, but virtually everyone I see in therapy has a story they tell themselves that is some version of the following:
“Of course, I know what my emotions are and of course, I am aware of how I manage my conflicting emotions towards others. It’s simple!”
As I re-read that passage, I think a more accurate statement is that I’m pretty sure everyone I know has some version of that story floating around in their head (yours truly included).
Things seem “simple” – if you let yourself experience your emotions in your body (notice there doesn’t have to be any action associated with this experience) there is no need to get anxious and no need for your body to come up with ways to avoid difficult emotions. Just “feel your feelings!”
So, it ends up being a real shock for people when: a) it turns out it is hard for them to identify their emotions, and b) it turns out that they were unaware of some of the unconscious, automatic, and usually self-destructive ways in which they cope with conflicting emotions towards others.
Although I won’t go into the details, I worked with one individual, call him Jerry, whose childhood, such as it was, consisted of significant abuse and neglect. Adulthood had not gone much better, with repeated abuse in each intimate relationship. Jerry had learned that the best way to deal with his personal emotions towards others (particularly his abusers) was to put themselves down and make sure that the emotional needs of others came first. Jerry had a tendency towards mentally verbally abusing himself and when things would get “really” intense with others he would “zone out” or get nauseous. Thinking and talking became difficult and even his vision became cloudy.
We had been working together for a month or so when one day he had a real “ah ha moment”. In the middle of a very poignant recollection, he looked to me and said, “It’s like all that emotional energy gets to be too much for me to handle and all of a sudden my mind and body just shuts down or gets sick!”
This statement reflected a tremendous insight into one of the unintentional ways Jerry had been dealing with mixed feelings towards others and a very heartfelt moment. However, in the very next moment, they were berating themselves. “How could I not know that? Why did it take me so long to figure that out?”
Keep in mind this is a person who has never had any emotional support. On the contrary, they have had a lifetime of learning that has taught them to avoid their emotions at all costs! They learned from the people around them that emotions, particularly anger, are inherently dangerous. They were abused at every turn, even when they were doing their best to take care of the abusers. One can only imagine what would have happened if they tried to stand up for themselves?
Given the life he had led up until this point, why on earth should he understand his emotions? Why should Jerry have understood that emotional energy seems to get channeled into his body in such a way that it made him feel sick!
Did he have any teachers? No. So, how could he know?
Somehow, Jerry still thought it was ridiculous that he hadn’t previously understood what was going on in his body and mind.
Saying to yourself that you “should just know” what your emotions are, or you “should just know “all the ways you manage your feelings, is like saying:
” Hey kid, I know you’ve never played soccer before, but jeez you’ve had those legs for ten years. You should be able to run and kick, right? Alright, suit up for Manchester United. The game starts in 20 minutes. We’re counting on you!” (For those uninitiated or uninterested in the sports word Manchester United is a premier soccer team in the UK).
Never mind that he is eight years too young to play?? Never mind that you’ve just asked him to play at the top level in the world!!!! Would you EVER put that kind of pressure on a kid who has never had the opportunity to even learn the game before?
I didn’t think so.
So, why on earth would you put that kind of pressure on yourself?
Because that’s what you are doing. Think about where you’ve come from and what you learned about feelings and how to manage them. What has your experience taught you?
The idea might be simple – feel your feelings in order to get healthy, but it has never been easy, and given what many of us have learned about experiencing and expressing our emotions it’s a miracle so many of us are still in the game.
Give yourself a break! Show yourself some compassion!
It will come. But it’s hard work and there is nothing wrong with needing some time to figure it out.