Priya* described herself as an anxious person who was always worried about everything.
She harmed herself as a way of managing her anxiety.
As a therapist, working with her involved helping her in understanding her triggers, learning healthier coping strategies and challenging unhelpful thinking patterns. The strategies were not working for her. These did not help her feel better. The strategies helped her manage her unhelpful thinking and behaviours but the anxiety was still there.
She could feel it in her stomach every day.
So we moved from a problem solving approach to an exploratory approach. As we began to talk about her childhood experiences and experiences of emotions, it became evident that her limited understanding and experiences of emotions was the underlying cause of her anxiety. Priya’s parents managed their emotions in very different ways. Priya’s mother was perhaps too expressive with her anger which often lead to conflict in the household whilst Priya’s father was emotionally unavailable and tended to avoid conflict. It didn’t take Priya long to look into herself and find that this combination taught her to avoid her own emotions as she saw them as a weakness and capable of producing conflict, which she preferred avoiding.
In one extremely meaningful conversation, I once asked her if she had ever felt happy and she replied “I don’t know how it feels to be happy”.
In response to her difficult childhood, she had blocked her difficult emotions for fear of them leading to negative consequences. This was an adaptive response at the time as it had helped her cope. However, blocking difficult emotions had a domino effect on all of her other emotions. The end result was a complicated, misunderstood mess: the anxiety.
The therapeutic work slowly helped her focus on feeling and connecting with all of her emotions and challenge her beliefs about emotions. This included learning ways of acknowledging her emotions, letting them just ‘be’ and managing the consequences of this being. With time, she reported feeling less anxious, more in control and happier.
She discovered that what had led to the negative consequences was the way the emotions were expressed and managed, not the emotion itself.
Neither Priya nor her parents were “at fault” for Priya’s problems. We learn about ourselves, others, the world and about concepts like emotions and coping strategies based on our social interactions with others, starting with our parents. The important thing to remember is that change is possible but only through self awareness and the motivation to change.
And that’s what I wanted to share.
Emotions by themselves aren’t positive or negative.
Emotions are confusing. Sometimes we understand how we feel and sometimes we don’t. They can be a complete mess like a bowl full of tangled up Maggi noodles. We tend to favour “positive” emotions like happiness, love, excitement over “negative” emotions such as sadness, fear, and of course, anger. And it seems only obvious that we should.
This is actually counter to our natural instincts. We need to feel a whole range of emotions to be “normal”, to experience life in it’s full form. The problem is when we try to avoid particular emotions, we end up blocking them all or they come out in other ways. You cannot stop yourself from feeling an emotion just as though you cannot live without oxygen.
I observed this first hand in the therapy with my clients and it changed my outlook on emotions too. On reflection, I noticed that I myself used the “negative” and “positive” split to differentiate between emotions and am also guilty of using avoidant strategies at times. For me, my upbringing influenced me to be non-judgemental and to provide unconditional care and love towards others. This came in the way of allowing myself to feel sad, hurt and angry by the actions of others when they fell short of my ideals. In working with Priya, I taught myself to practice what I preach.
Our ability to think, reason and analyse can sometimes hinder our ability to feel.
We always feel like we need to justify why we feel the way we do. The truth is, we don’t need to. Every emotion we have tells us something unique about ourselves. Happiness tells us what we want in life, what is important to us, whereas sadness tells us that something is not quite right. Anxiety motivates us to take action. Anger is usually a secondary emotion (not always of course) which seems to be more acceptable to show in society. Quite often, sadness or hurt is the primary emotion underlying our anger. Anger when channelled in the right way can also be very productive. Understanding our emotions can help us choose the way we respond to them. We can’t choose our feelings but we can choose our actions.
I am not saying sit and analyse every emotion you feel – that would be just as unhealthy as avoiding emotions. It’s about finding a balance. Everyone, with or without a mental health issue can benefit from self awareness. Recognise when you are avoiding “negative” emotions and try and just understand the emotion and also why you would want to run away from it. Acknowledge its presence, give yourself permission to feel it and then work towards managing it in a way that makes you be at peace with it. I know it sounds like a load of rubbish but it works.
*the name of the client has been changed for confidentiality
Sonia is a trainee clinical psychologist in England with a passion for mental health and helping people who are experiencing mental health issues. Outside of mental health, Sonia likes spending time with family and friends, watching Bollywood movies and Indian serials, writing shayari, dancing and visiting Panjab, a place close to her heart. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org