Episode 25: 4 Steps to Validating (and Releasing) Our Emotions
Emotions are a messenger from our body to our brain; designed to keep us safe. And if we ignore these signals when they are a whisper, they will get louder and more pronounced; ultimately resulting in illness and injury. So, how do we create the conditions to support the healthy processing and discharge of emotions? This podcast explores 4 steps to validating and releasing our own emotions (and providing the gift of validation to others) so that we can respond, rather than ignore or react, to the emotional cues our bodies are sending.
Welcome to the Freedom from Empty Podcast: Building Strong, Effective, Resilient Leaders and Humans. My name is Booth Andrews, and I am your host. Thank you so much for joining me for this episode.
I am currently booking clients for 2020 speaking engagements and workshops. If you would like more information about bringing me to your company or organization, you can go to my website boothandrews.com or email me at email@example.com.
So, have you ever wondered where the content for my blogs and podcasts comes from? Do you want to know the super secret formula???? Yeah I do too . . .
Part of me would love to say that my content is based on a carefully curated content calendar. But the truth is slightly less structured (if you read “slightly” as a gross understatement).
My content comes from my observations and reflections of life “in real time” so to speak. I generate content based on questions, observations, conversations I am having with friends, colleagues and clients. Usually, if a topic comes up in conversation two or three or more times in a short period, I will try to make note and consider if what I am experiencing or sharing with others is a gift that can bear fruit for other people as well.
So, now that you know the method to my madness as it relates to content creation, I want to dive more into this episode:
One of the most profound things I have learned in the last five years is that unprocessed emotions get stuck in our body; ultimately resulting in pain, injury, illness and possibly even death if we do not find a way to release them. There is an extraordinary body of research, much of it emerging, about the interconnectedness of our body and our brain--our physical, mental, and emotional systems.
I used to believe that if I controlled my thoughts, I could control my pain. And to some degree, that was true, in the short-term anyway. And there is certainly a segment of the self-help culture that encourages you to control your thoughts as the panacea to our human experience. If we just control our thoughts, we won’t have to suffer.
Hmmmmmmmm, not quite . . .
If that were true, I would still be strongly ensconced in my pre-2012 life . . . super-powering it through the world, bulletproof and larger than life . . . .
Here is the actual truth--when we try to control our emotions in order to avoid pain, a few things are actually happening:
One, we cannot numb our pain without numbing our joy. In other words, we don’t get to selectively decide what to feel. If we numb the bad stuff, we numb the good stuff too. This is me (the pot) calling the kettle black. I spent decades doing this.
Two, just because we have disassociated from our pain, or numbed it, doesn’t mean that our body didn’t pay the price. So what happens in our body when we experience emotions? The following is a passage from Ruby Wax’s book How to be Human:
When we get a scary vibe, which you will recognize because your hair is standing on end, you’ve broken out in goose pimples, your heart is pounding, it means you are pumped to the max ready to scram, kick ass, or just stand there like a frozen statue. If you stay in that state, the first thing to go down will be your memory, then your immune, digestive and reproductive systems. At that point, what with the missing memories, you won’t even remember what your options are. This is all happening under your radar, so you won’t be aware that your system is deteriorating or why your brain cells are beginning to atrophy. Trust me on this, we all have myelin sheaths that cover each of your nerve cells or neurons to speed up the signals to each other. If those sheaths get damaged, the neurons connecting different regions of your brain get weaker and the result is you can no longer put your thoughts together, and your ability to be rational goes AWOL. In effect, you’ve been dumbed down. If we can’t think straight or be rational, we begin to feel threatened, even if there is nothing nearby that can harm us. We start to blame other people for making us feel paranoid, and so begins the “them and us syndrome”. We stop thinking of them as fellow humans. Another result of neuronal atrophy is that our thinking becomes narrow and rigid and we begin to think that anyone different from us is the enemy. We all have specific fear triggers embedded in our memories which we react to emotionally without knowing why, especially when we’re stressed. We’re at the mercy of old associations.
I could spend more time on fear triggers and us vs. them, but for today, I want you to reflect for a moment on everything that is happening on our body--without us having any idea--when we are experiencing an emotion. Our body feels the emotion first, and then our brain translates it. SOOOOOOOO, if we control our thoughts, we may keep our brain from translating what happened, but that doesn’t mean that our body did not feel the full onslaught of the emotion. In fact, according to one of the experts in Ruby’s book, “The body and the emotions are one and the same.”
3. When we disassociate--perpetuating a disconnect between the emotional and physical signals that our body is sending to us and the brain--we essentially make ourselves more prone to illness and injury. Eventually our brain may stop processing that we are feeling anything at all. I have an incredibly high pain tolerance, but that isn’t necessarily a good thing! Our body sends us signals for a reason. Because something is wrong.
One of the other quotes I love from Ruby’s book (from one of the experts she engaged who was a Buddhist monk) is this: “Our body never lies. Our mind can play all kinds of avoidance tricks on us, but the body always lets us know how we feel. . . . For example, sickness is a kind of messenger. It could be a wake up call to get us to see what’s really going on . . ..” But if we do not listen, we do not get the benefit of responding to the body’s signals with attention and care. So, for example, the stress on a muscle might become a tear, the stress on a bone might become a break, the stress on the body may result in illness . . . or in my case, multiple infections/illnesses at once . . . and ultimately, chronic disease. Here is the thing, waiting to address our pain points doesn’t make them go away . . . it just makes them worse. . . . sometimes resulting in chronic, permanent or terminal illness. The body’s signals (or screams) will get louder and louder the longer we wait to respond.
4. And here’s another kicker . . . the more we avoid and disassociate from our emotions, ultimately the more power we give them--because we reach a place where we are no longer responding to our emotions, we are reacting to them . . . often without even realizing that it is happening.
So, why do we disassociate and deny how we are feeling. Well . . .
One reason we don’t want to feel our emotions is because we are conditioned that way. Many of us have been raised to think of emotion as weakness, vulnerability, unsafe, and something to be ashamed of. Where do we get these messages? Well, first we get them from our parents and our peers. How many of these phrases have you heard in your life?
Suck it up
Shake it off
You shouldn’t feel that way because . . .
You don’t have the right to feel that way because . . .
You are just wrong.
And these statements don’t scratch the surface of the insults that people use to deride emotion or vulnerability on the internet these days. TROLLS anyone??
Eventually, we adopt these beliefs for ourselves. We replay these messages in our heads when we start to feel a certain way.
Another reason we avoid feeling our emotions is because we never learned to process them safely. If we grew up in an environment where emotions were not allowed, were derided or even punished, we have become to believe that emotions are bad and scary and wrong.
And if the people around us will do anything to avoid feeling. . . we learn from their behavior.
Emotions, particularly negative ones, can be overwhelming. They can feel like a flood to our system, which I guess they really are based on the research. And when we do not trust our ability to navigate difficult emotions, we avoid them at all costs; using all sorts of behaviors and coping strategies to push them away.
And in the avoidance, we actually do ourselves a disservice. If we don’t practice feeling (and surviving) scary emotions, then we don’t have the opportunity to prove to ourselves that we CAN survive them. That they cannot actually swallow us whole . . . even though sometimes it feels like they can. In essence, we don’t develop resilience in the face of challenging emotions.
So here is the opportunity I bring to you today. When someone you know is feeling a tough emotion, validate it. When YOU are feeling a tough emotion, validate it.
So what do I mean by “validating” your emotions.
Begin with noticing . . . . I feel a sensation or emotion in my body . . . often our emotions create sensations in our body . . . I remember that one of the first steps I learned when re-integrating with my emotions was to observe the sensations . . . I could actually feel the sensation before I could articulate the corresponding emotions . . . maybe your chest feels heavy, or your heart hurts, or your face is flushed, or you have butterflies in your stomach, or a knot somewhere in a muscle, or your throat feels tight, or tension in your head . . .
If you can, name the emotion . . . I feel sad, I feel angry, I feel lonely, I feel happy, I feel afraid . . .
Now, here comes the CHALLENGE . . . resist the temptation to fix, change, squash or tell yourself all the reasons you shouldn’t be feeling what you are feeling. Also resist the temptation to ruminate about why you are feeling this way and whose fault it is. NOTICE and NAME the emotion.
Give the emotion space to BREATHE and move while resisting the temptation to DO anything. If we notice and name an emotion and just sit with it; giving it space to be and to breathe; the emotion will naturally discharge; ultimately moving out of your energy field and your cells. The more we hold on, resist, ruminate and repress, the longer it stays with us!
Remember that we have a choice about how we RESPOND to our emotions. I think one of the ways we have gotten our wires crossed as a society is in believing that, in order to control our response to an emotion, or someone else’s behavior based on an emotion, that we have to control the emotion itself. Imagine a child who breaks something out of anger. The problem isn’t that the child was angry. The problem is that the child hasn’t developed the skills yet to feel angry and choose to respond to that anger in a way that helps discharge the emotion without causing harm. But we tell the child not to be angry. Or that the emotion of anger was the problem. Instead of the action that followed the emotion.
With this is mind, here is the rest of the strategy if we are validating someone else’s emotion. Please note that this strategy is very similar to if we are acknowledging our own. First, notice it. Identify it with language. Particularly with someone who isn’t comfortable we can say: “Are you feeling sad? Are you feeling angry? Are you feeling . . . ? Or, do you want to tell me how you are feeling . . . .?” The next step is to say something like this: “I am so sorry you feel that way. It is really hard to feel...” . . . and then give space. Without fixing or trying to change or force or shut down . . . .
And then, if and as needed, a gentle reminder that while the person cannot control how they are feeling, acknowledging that their feeling is totally valid, that they STILL HAVE CHOICES . . .
When I moved back in with my ex-husband last summer, based on financial pressure that was on both of us for different reasons, I went through a brief phase of FREEZE. So if the trauma response or fear response is fight, flight, or freeze or maybe flop, I literally felt like a dead possum. Like I had just rolled over and I was playing dead. I had a friend who helped me remember that the situation that I was in, that had me move back in with my ex-husband was only temporary. And that even though I had found myself in a place I had never expected to be again, I still had choices. And that that feeling of being totally frozen, was not going to last forever.
For the next 2 weeks, I challenge you to observe how you respond to your own emotions and to the emotions of others. Are there sensations in your body that you have been ignoring? Do you see someone you know whose eyes or body language tell a different story than the words coming out of their mouth? Or someones’s behavior is telling a different story than what they are allowing themselves to express. Is someone’s emotions coming out sideways?
When you become aware of emotions in yourself or in others . . . do you validate them or shut them down? Do you acknowledge and give space? Do you decide how you will respond or do your emotions take over?
I encourage you to practice the steps I have outlined in this podcast for navigating emotions for yourself and others and see what difference it makes.
For more information about the work that I do with individuals, groups and organizations go to boothandrews.com. You can also find me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter @theboothandrews.
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I look forward to being back with you next time!