Learning to Process Emotions
by Gary Reiss, LCSW
One of the biggest problems that people bring to therapy is not knowing what to do with a wide range of feelings, including sadness, anger, ecstasy, fear, and depression. Many visits to medical doctors are attempts to deal with feelings unable to be expressed or released. For example, imagine a woman getting a divorce. She is in favor of the divorce, but can't stop crying for days. Many men have similar problems after their relationships break up. Such feeling problems are quite common. Learning how to work with our feelings is a basic area of growth. What does one do with sadness to help it complete itself?
Some somatic problems are actually feeling problems. I once was going through a time of rapid change in my life where I wasn't interested in feeling much in my body, particularly any pain. I just wanted to keep going and not deal with all that was happening. At that time I went to get some dental work. The dentist made me a crown that was a bit high, and my jaw muscles went into terrible spasms. Suddenly, I was in incredible pain, feeling all of the different parts of my life that were painful, not just my jaw.
One night when the pain was the worst, I was supposed to meet some people with whom I had painful relationship issues. They showed up at our house and I had so much pain in my jaw I literally couldn't open my eyes for several minutes. When we finally talked, all I could focus on was my pain. I began to tell them about my pain -- my jaw pain, then all my pain in our relationship. At that point, the jaw pain left and didn't return for months. A few months later I was avoiding a painful relationship process, and my jaw hurt so much that I had to let out my feelings in the relationship and feel them completely. Again the pain got better. These were body sensations and emotions needing to be felt and released.
There are many ways to help people express their feelings. The simplest thing to say and the most difficult to do is just have them and believe in them. There is definitely a moment of choice when you notice you are having a feeling and then can do something with it. Imagine that you are feeling sad. What if, instead of turning on the television, you really go into that sadness and feel it in your body. Focus on the physical sensation of sadness. Often this is enough to let the tears flow. Or let's say that you are feeling scared. You can take a drink, call a friend to avoid these feelings, or really have them and learn about them. How do you experience the fear? Do you feel hot, cold, do you shake? Can you let yourself shake a little bit? These are simple ways to begin to notice and experience our feelings.
Dealing With Anger
Anger is often the hardest feeling for people. Sometimes doing something physical helps with anger. I have helped teenagers stay in school and out of juvenile hall by finding a way to deal with anger. Popular ways include splitting wood, pounding on a pillow or boxing bag, getting involved in contact sports, throwing rocks or wood in the forest, and practicing verbal skills to express anger. I remember one boy who progressed from hitting teachers to pounding lockers. Later he was able to walk away from conflict and finally he could stay and process verbally. Many of these skills can be practiced at home. Like any art, dealing with anger requires practice to be perfected. Many people use their cars as private places to let out their feelings. Screaming in your car when going down the highway offers some privacy if you can drive and scream at the same time. Individuals process their feelings in the style that best suits their personality. Some people do best by hiding in their room and quietly suffering. Other people need to write or draw. I have a friend who can always release blocked feelings by writing songs. My closest friend in junior high school worked out his frustration on his drum set.
Let the River Flow
When feelings are present, why not let them flow? One of the problems with therapy is that many people only get to certain feelings with the support of a therapist. This doesn't work if feelings are ready to be released on a day and time different from one's appointment. I say, let the river flow. I myself am against pushing feelings out. Certain therapies access strong feelings through breathing exercises, pounding, or standing in certain physical postures. This could be helpful if a person needs to access feelings and can't reach the feelings on their own. For example, someone might be unable to cry and mourn a death. In such a case, any approach that helps the person release these feelings will be a relief.
For a more regular self-maintenance program, it can be helpful to express feelings as they arise naturally. Have a bad day at work? Find a way to consciously release those feelings, rather than taking them out on yourself, at the local bar, or on your spouse or child or dog. Give yourself a therapy session at home -- go to your private space and let loose with whatever wants to come out. This is also a useful tactic during a fight. Let's say you are really in a terribly upset mood with your partner and just about to explode. Why not assess for a minute if this is really what you want to do. Are the feelings with your partner, or are they perhaps with someone else, or with yourself? Are they leftover feelings from last night's dream? If so, why not release them yourself?
At home we are lucky to have a separate space where I see clients. I have saved myself a lot of relationship grief by giving myself a session in that room. It is also soundproof enough that the only ones who hear me are the horses, so I can really let go. If the feelings are really with our spouse, or with a child or a friend, it is useful to deal with them directly, but it is a relief not to have to work something out with a person if the river isn't flowing that way.
Myths About Anger
In Co-Dependent No More, Melody Beattie lists several assumptions that keep people from expressing their anger. They include:
* It's not okay to feel angry.
* Anger is a waste of time and energy.
* We shouldn't feel angry when we do.
* We'll lose control and go crazy if we get angry.
* People will go away if we get angry at them.
* Other people should never feel anger toward us.
* If others get angry at us, we must have done something wrong.
* If other people are angry at us, we made them feel that way and we're responsible for their feelings.
* If we feel angry, someone else made us feel that way and that person is responsible for fixing our feelings.
* If we feel angry at someone, the relationship is over and that person has to go away.
* If we feel angry at someone, we should punish that person for making us feel angry.
* If we feel angry at someone, that person has to change what he or she is doing so we don't feel angry any more.
* If we feel angry, we have to hit someone or break something.
* If we feel angry, we have to shout and holler.
* If we feel angry at someone, it means we don't love that person any more.
* If someone feels angry at us, it means that person doesn't love us any more.
* Anger is a sinful emotion. It's okay to feel angry only when we can justify our feelings.
Like all myths, on occasions some of these reasons may have some truth, but most often they do not. However, many of us live as if these are facts. There are similar assumptions about other feelings, such as: men who cry are weak, men shouldn't be scared, women shouldn't be too aggressive, if you go into your sadness you might not be able to function, and so forth.
Positive Effects of Expressing Feelings
I have created a summary of positive effects of expressing feelings to balance some of our ideas about negative effects. Finding a healthy way to express feelings is good for your health and can prevent psychosomatic ailments. There is evidence linking emotional factors to a range of physical problems including asthma, arthritis, cancer, ulcers, allergies, and other conditions.
One of the most dramatic improvements I have seen was with a woman who came to one of my classes when I first started teaching dreamwork. She had developed a problem in one of her legs when she was taking her daughter to meet a plane. Suddenly, she couldn't walk on one leg. She was scheduled for surgery the following week. We worked on her feelings about her daughter, and as the anger and hurt came out, her leg suddenly got better.
Another time a man carried his wife, who was a client of mine, into the office. She was having such terrible back pain she couldn't walk. After releasing a lot of feelings and making some decisions about a job situation, she walked out of the office. Another time I was working with a teenager who was scheduled for surgery for an abdominal problem. We worked on this symptom. She began pounding on a pillow and letting out incredible rage against her father. That week when she went to the doctor for a pre-surgery exam, the condition was gone and didn't return. This instant disappearance of a symptom is certainly not the norm -- sometimes it takes a very long time for psychological work like this to help move physical symptoms, in cooperation with physicians, chiropractors, and other healing practitioners. Sometimes conditions don't get better at all, but these few cases are powerful enough to point out the positive effects of emotional expression.
Expressing emotions can help make for rich and interesting relationship experiences, and emotions are an important part of forming intimate connections. In fact, for many people, being able to freely express their feelings with someone is the turning point in having a deeper connection.
People who can express their emotions free up energy to do other things in life. Being open with one's feelings is often an important ingredient in accessing one's own creativity.
People who are able to express their emotions freely are less likely to become addicted to alcohol or drugs. Many of the addicts I have worked with needed their drugs or alcohol to help them deal or not deal with difficult feelings.
People who can process emotions deal more constructively with grieving. Losing people close to you through someone dying or the death of a relationship is difficult for everyone, but people who can feel and express their feelings handle these situations much more effectively than those who can't express them.
Those who process emotions regularly are less prone to emotions coming out in uncontrolled ways, so these people tend to feel more in control of themselves. This is in contrast with people who are without emotionality until they explode in ways that are inappropriate and cause pain and damage in their lives.
Whether it is emotional development, learning to work with dreams, spiritual development, or developing the health of one's physical body, I have found people make incredible progress just by learning to value and give time and energy to the growing aspect of one's life. Once I was at a conference on different methods of working with symptoms. I noticed all the teachers deferring to the wisdom of one man, Sun Bear, a Native American teacher. This experience led me to study with Sun Bear and other Native American teachers whose traditions have a tremendous wealth of knowledge in the fields of healing body, mind, and spirit. Sun Bear teaches people the importance of keeping emotionally clear. He has a beautiful method that I recommend to everybody. He tells people to go out, preferably into the forest for privacy, or wherever you feel comfortable in nature, and dig yourself a hole in the ground. Then you lay flat on the ground with your head over the hole and scream your feelings and cry and speak whatever needs to come out into that hole. The final step is to take a seed, place it in the hole, and cover it up with dirt, therefore symbolically composting your negative feelings and helping plant something that can grow. I have tried this method and at times have found it very effective.
One time my wife and I were visiting another medicine man who told us that, in his tradition, people go up on in the mountains and scream out all of their pain. These healing traditions have helped people for centuries. The catharsis that goes on in a modern therapist's office is no different than screaming on a mountain. I find all of these approaches useful, and as emotionally repressed as our culture is, any or all of these approaches offer important ways to balance and compensate for too much importance placed on intellectual development and material well-being.
When I first moved to my small town, I met with a doctor who was known for his progressive views. He asked me how I could help some of his patients who were depressed. Most of the people he was talking about worked in the mills. When I talked with him about helping his patients explore and express the feelings in their depression and then to make life changes based on this work, he looked at me with distress and said "You can't do this with these people." The doctor believed in the old myth that if people get in touch with their emotional reality, they would not be able to continue in their present lives. He believed that I might help them emotionally, but only at the cost of their lives falling apart. After several years of working with people in situations similar to the ones he described to me, I find that his concerns were more myth than fact. When people are in touch with their feelings, they have more choices. They can make wholesale changes in their lives, or incremental changes, or no change at all. They know, though, what they are feeling, and this helps them live their lives in ways that give them more satisfaction.
For example, I'm thinking of a man who told me he didn't like his job. He even knew what kind of feeling the job tended to produce in him that made him want to change jobs. He did not fall apart and stop functioning. Instead he made some very intelligent decisions. He decided to keep working, since he had to feed his family, but to remain aware of his unhappiness and begin searching for new job possibilities. He began researching the outer job market and searching in his heart for a career that was really right for him.
There are many stories like this one. People who process their feelings are better employees, not worse ones. They take fewer sick days and tend to stay with their jobs longer because they don't need to leave just because they have some negative feelings towards the job or their supervisor.
Dealing With Body-Centered Feelings
Another part of dealing with feelings is to be aware of and find the meaning locked in sensations and feelings in our physical bodies. In process work we call this the proprioceptive channel.
There are several ways to deal with this when working on yourself. One way I have learned is common both to Gestalt work and process work. This is the simple method of feeling and amplifying the feeling. One way to do this is to get comfortable and start feeling what is happening in your body. When you find something interesting -- maybe a tight spot, or a place you feel heat, or an itch, make this feeling happen even more. If you feel tightness, tighten more. If something itches, focus on the itch. If you feel heat, experiment with letting the heat spread throughout your body. In Gestalt, one just lets whatever happens go along on its own. In process work, there are some ideas about structure that can guide us. One can try switching channels. If you have a feeling, try making a picture of this feeling, or let the feeling go into movement, or maybe sound. Let the feeling move through all the different channels.
The difficulty with switching channels is why people often get stuck in one form of expression, such as always being angry, or always crying. People are stuck in one channel -- they can hit but not say angry things, they can cry but not talk about their sadness, they can have lots of pictures of confronting someone but not do it.
Another useful concept in inner work is that of the edge. Let's say you are feeling your body and suddenly you feel an itch. As you focus on the itch, you start to feel a bit sexual, and then you get feel like going to make a phone call rather than have that uncomfortable feeling. This was an edge. Something became uncomfortable or unknown. Experiment with holding yourself at that point, finding out what exactly the edge is, for you. If it is right for you, try going over that edge, having those feelings, and finding out what they are about.
I remember one of the most shocking pieces of work I ever did on myself. I started working on myself by just noticing what I was feeling. Then I started feeling scared, and suddenly I started feeling turned on sexually. It felt really uncomfortable, and I was about to go read a book to avoid the feeling, but somehow I held myself at this edge. Suddenly I began to feel the most amazing love for all the people of the world, for every human being on this planet. I was shocked by the intensity of the experience. When we work on ourselves, holding down our edges is important. Uncomfortable feelings will come up, and behind these feelings are rich experiences trying to come forth.
You can also work on your physical problems with this same method of meditating on a problem, feeling it, and taking it into other channels. Draw it, sculpt it in clay, or make visual images. Take the symptom into movement, or sound. Sometimes just working in this way can help symptoms improve. When material is accessed, understood, and integrated, whether the original material is a dream, a body symptom, or a relationship problem, the boat starts moving down the river again.
If you want to go even a step further in working with your symptoms, imagine that you were not the victim but the creator of the symptom. What kind of force are you who is creating the symptom? Are you a monster, a witch, a disciplinarian? What is the meaning behind the symptom? How do you want the part of yourself that is a victim of this symptom to change? Now you have gone beyond processing the details of the problem; you are picking up the deeper meaning behind your symptom.
This article is excerpted from:
Changing Ourselves, Changing the World
by Gary Reiss.
About the Author
Gary Reiss, LCSW, is a licensed clinical social worker and has his diploma in process-oriented psychology. One of Gary's special interest in process work includes conflict work. He regularly appears on radio shows to talk about working on issues of racism, diversity and many other topics. Visit his website at www.GaryReiss.com