Friday, August 21, 2015

Hope... and other emotions

My birthday was this week. For the most part, it passed pleasantly and quietly. My family was generous and thoughtful. When I left my office today, however, I decided I wanted to treat myself to a lunch out. This does not happen often, and I thought it would be a gift of self-care to me.

So, I went to Olive Garden. It isn't overly swanky, but I don't have to cook, and I don't have to clean it up, and I don't have to take care of  kid crises while I'm there.  I had an excellent server, and I enjoyed my lunch.  Somewhere in the midst of all of that, I realized I was feeling hopeful.  I have been working hard lately to make changes in my practice and to grow both as a professional and as a person, and this can be stressful and daunting at times. Today, though, I had a sense of calm and of hope. This does not happen as often as I might like, so I decided to take the moment and just let it sink in. I didn't question why it was there or how long it would last. I just accepted the gift.

Funny, isn't it, how we tend to go on auto-pilot with our emotions? We go through the day focused on the next thing we have to do, telling ourselves we don't have time to think about how we feel. (Thinking about how we feel is a strange statement, no?) Often, when I ask my clients how they have felt in the last week, the answer is "I don't know."  That answer can come up for a number of different reasons.

Sometimes people say they don't know because they don't want to face the question. When that comes up, we have to work through the discomfort, and sometimes accept the discomfort as a feeling. Other times, they haven't stopped to notice their feelings, and the question takes them by surprise. Still other times, my clients don't have the answer because they have stopped paying attention to their feelings.  This last is particularly true of my clients who are in recovery from trauma.

Many times, survivors of trauma -- particularly childhood and/or chronic trauma -- have lost their emotional vocabulary. When they went through the traumas they survived, their feelings were ignored, devalued, or suppressed. At that time/those times the feelings were not useful to survival. When survival is the focus, emotions just add confusion and detract from the function of staying alive.  The problem is that survivors often struggle to reconnect with the emotions when the trauma has ended.  They learn to focus on other people and read them and to ignore themselves and their own needs.  Recovery involves reconnecting with oneself, and this means getting to know and listen to one's emotions.

I remember a comedian from the 80's (yes, I'm dating myself) who joked that he had figured out how to solve the problem of the blinking 12:00 on his VCR. He simply took a piece of black electrical tape and put it over the display. Voila! He didn't have to see it anymore. We do this with emotions as well. We tend to fear anger, sadness, and shame, in particular. These so-called negative emotions seem overwhelming, and we tend to avoid them until we cannot do so anymore.

The fact is that emotions are not good or bad in themselves. Their purpose is to give us messages. I equate them with the "dummy lights" in a car ("check engine," that glowing red gas pump, etc.). Those lights tell us when there is something we need to attend to in the car to keep it running safely. If I put electrical tape over the gas gauge because I don't have the money or the time to stop for gas, I will eventually end up on the side of the road with a problem. If, however, I can find a way to put gas in my car (taking the time, and/or asking a friend or family member for support) and I keep an eye on the gauge, I will find that the red gas pump stops glowing, and I know that the situation is managed for now.

Emotions are the same.  If we listen to them and respond to their messages, we can make changes we need to make and know how we are doing internally.  If we attend to our feelings, they will pass on their own. If we shove them down, we miss important information, and we start experiencing secondary issues like depression, anxiety, and physical health issues such as headaches, stomachaches, and other digestive issues.

It takes courage to look at those feelings, and this is where therapy comes in handy. It provides a safe space to explore how you are feeling and what messages your feelings are giving you.  When you have that information, you can make an informed decision. Therapy can help you identify your feelings, learn to trust them and respond to them appropriately, and learn to trust yourself. I enjoy doing this work with my clients, and I feel honored when I have that opportunity.

I wonder what you are feeling right now and what it is telling you? I'd love to help you figure it out. Until then, I will enjoy my feeling of hope and hold on to some hope for you, too.

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