Honouring our emotions the mindful way
Mindfulness allows us to increase awareness of whatever is occurring in the present moment without thoughts such as judgement, over analysis, or self-doubt. The practice is about watching or witnessing our inner processes with our awareness. So when it comes to learning how to honour our emotions using mindfulness practice, it is all about learning to witness the raw emotion as it arises in our body, as well as witnessing the thoughts and urges attaches to those emotions.
The nature of emotion
When we witness emotion, it is important to differentiate between feelings, thought and actions. Our emotions are the actual feelings that arise in our body. They are sadness, anger, guilt, fear and happiness. There are a multitude of other emotions, however these are the core five feelings that most other emotion stems from. Emotions are not thoughts about our emotions, nor are they our behavioural reactions. This is a very important distinction, as when we practice mindfulness of our emotion, we are simply practicing witnessing the emotion itself. Yes, re-activity involves thoughts, feelings and actions, but for the purpose of getting to know emotion, it can be a great practice to witness the emotion itself, stay present with it and simply identify it.
Only when we are clear in our process of witnessing the emotions within our body and identifying the emotion, can we begin to understand what they are about. We may experience an awakening out of confusion as we gain clarity about which emotions are arising in response to different events. For example, I feel scared when I do not know what is going to happen. I feel angry when someone steals my property. I feel guilty when I hurt someone. I feel sad when I lose something important to me. I feel happy when things in my life are generally in balance. So this is a good place to start.
Adaptive versus reactive emotion
As we begin to become acquainted with our emotional processes we may come to notice that some emotions make intuitive sense and are in proportion to the events occurring around us. These are adaptive emotions. They are primary reactions to situations that give us information about ourselves in the world. Remember, this is simply the arising of the emotion itself and not our actions or thoughts about the event. The emotions are as simple as a child’s emotional response to the world. These emotions have an innate wisdom of their own.
We may also develop the awareness that some emotions are disproportional to events around us, and they may repetitively arise under similar circumstances in ways that are individual to ourselves. These are far more complex than adaptive emotions. These emotions are often telling us more about a psychological pattern which we have learnt as a child or from a trauma or a highly distressing event. As children we are generally conditioned to distort our emotional responses. These emotions are either intensified or suppressed due to messages we receive from significant people in our lives. We learn to suppress anger, or feel guilt in situations that are not our fault, or develop anxiety when we do not know why we are scared. In mindfulness when we witness our emotional reactions which result from psychological patterns, we treat them in similar ways as with adaptive emotions. We simply bring our conscious awareness into the emotion and remain present with the sensations in our body. As we do this, we may also become aware of memories, images or senses that tell us where these emotional reactions are really from and what they are about. In this way we gain valuable insight about our emotional selves and sometimes about what aspects of ourselves require healing.
So on one hand, there are adaptive emotions which directly emerge from a situation and tell us about how the situation impacts on us. On the other hand, there are emotional reactions from psychological patterns which tell us about current life events as well as our past conditioning, trauma and psychological wounding. As we practice regular mindfulness, we generally increase insight into our patterns as well as our adaptive responses to situations in the world.
The key is awareness. Our patterns may need healing, however we can do this through seeing them clearly with mindfulness and learning how to refrain from spontaneously reacting from emotional triggers. The journey of mindfulness supports our self-understanding with compassion. This results in honouring our emotional selves, as well as increases clarity and peace of mind.
“Embrace What Is” is an on-going relaxed group that will support your mindfulness practice and help you to integrate this practice into your everyday life.
Join us on Friday afternoons at 1pm for an hour of mindfulness based training and psycho-therapeutic insights.
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Emotional memories of the past can haunt our unconscious and sometimes conscious mind for a life time, if we do not heal our relationship with those memories. If the memories are traumatic such as child abuse, the loss of a parent, or a traumatic event, then the energy attached to these memories can be debilitating. How we work with the emotions that are attached to those memories is vital to overcoming the pain. The experience of distress, overwhelm and loss is captured in Julie’s story, as is her journey towards healing the emotional wound.
Julie accessed counselling because her relationship with her teenage daughter was rapidly deteriorating. She was concerned for her daughter Sarah, but felt she could not even talk to her, no matter about help her from her self-destructive behaviour. Sarah was 14 years old and had adopted a new group of friends who were drinking alcohol and partying. Julie was beside herself. Her anxiety, frustration, hurt and anger were consuming her throughout the day and night. She could not focus at work and her memory was failing her. She would walk into rooms and completely forget what she had intended to do.As we explored Julie’s situation further it became apparent that while Sarah was causing some real concern, Julie’s reaction was more intense than it needed to be. Her anxiety was severe and was stopping her from thinking straight or appropriately responding to the current situation with Sarah. So we looked a little deeper.
The distress that Julie was trying to cope with was familiar to her. I asked her to feel into her emotional distress and remember the earliest time she could remember feeling that way. She soon found a time when she was 14 years old herself, where her grandmother died. She remembered her Grandma, but she was not particularly close to her. Her mum, on the other hand was incredibly close to her own mum. Julie remembered becoming very nervous and frustrated around that time. She remembers that her thoughts and dreams became very dark and she withdrew from friends and social activities. Julie did not remember too much more about that time, but she decided she would talk to her own mum about what happened back then.
The Truth Revealed
The next session, Julie emerged appearing sombre and quiet. After a short while she began to talk. She talked about her discussion with her mother. Her mum had spoken to her for the first time about becoming deeply depressed at that time, and while her mum and dad had hidden it from her conscious mind, Julie unconsciously had picked up something was happening that was very distressing. For a period of time, her mum had suicidal thoughts and had attempted suicide several times. Because Julie did not consciously know what was happening, but she could pick it up unconsciously, she had never processed it or made sense of it. So the emotional memory simply lay hidden until her own daughter hit that age, unconsciously perpetuating a new dynamic between her and her daughter based on anxiety of self destructive behaviour.
As Julie discovered more about that time and what she was feeling, she realised that her emotional reactions were more proportional to the time when she was 14 years old herself. No longer did she feel like she was going mad! Her inner-emotional landscape had a reality that made sense of her emotional reactions. Julie began to become more conscious of what was then and what is now. She learnt how to step back from her projections onto her daughter and respond to the current situation with appropriate healthy boundaries rather than distress, angry outbursts and anxiety. Over time she felt more calm and in control over her life. Her emotions made more sense to her which eventually gave her sense of mastering her reactions to situations with her daughter.
Mastering Our EmotionsLearning to understand our emotional reactions rather than remain controlled by them opens the door to taking our power back from the emotional intensity, and make effective decisions in our life. Without seeing where her emotions really stemmed from, Julie would not have been able to respond to Sarah’s needs as well as she did. Processing the emotions rather than suppressing or avoiding them is essential to learning to work with them. This takes adopting some new practices such as mindfulness and self-awareness, however the results are definitely worth it.
“Surfing the Waves of Emotion” workshop will be held on the 7th July 2012 in Coolum Beach. Don’t miss out on learning how to distinguish between adaptive emotions and emotional memories, work with your emotions, and a whole lot more!!!
Have you ever experienced emotions that were disproportional to a current event only to discover the emotional reaction was really from your past?
[Note. All stories used in this blog are fictional characters based on the wisdom I gain from working with clients. No character in this blog is an actual person or a client]
The Aftermath of Loss & Betrayal
Trust is an essential ingredient in our lives as it lays the inner foundation for taking risks, trying new things, meeting new people and generally being open to new life experiences. Without trust we close our hearts and our minds and crawl into a hole, hoping to avoid any more pain. However trust is easily broken on many levels, and when major breaches of trust occur, we not only learn not to trust other people, but also ourselves and life. Rebuilding trust is a healing process, whether it is within an intimate relationship, a family or after a series of harrowing life experiences.
When we lose trust in life or in significant relationships, we lose trust in ourselves. In significant relationships such as couple’s relationships or family relationships, this can happen following sexual, physical and emotional abuse, personal violations, abandonment, or prolonged destructive patterns. In terms of general life events, loss of trust can follow trauma such as a plane crash, a serious car crash or natural disasters. These all lead to a loss of trust in our ability to protect ourselves and ensure safety and security. A loss of trust in ourselves and life is disorientating and feeds anxiety and depression. If the loss of trust is pervasive in life then we can start to heal by learning to trust ourselves.
Re-Building Trust in Perceptions & Emotions
The healing process to re-build trust in ourselves involves learning to reconnect to adaptive emotions, as part of the loss of trust is in our emotional guidance mechanism. Generally, after experiencing emotionally painful circumstances that rock our world and faith in life, our emotions become distorted. We can become very distressed and susceptible to depression and anxiety. Extreme circumstances lead to extreme emotions, which can mislead us if we do not understand the nature of emotions. Relearning to accurately listen to our emotions can result in re-engaging in self-trust.
When we do not trust our emotions, it is disorientating, confusing and impairs decision making. We do not believe that we will know how to cope with new situations. This is especially hard if the lack of trust of emotions resulted from childhood abuse, as there was never trust in emotions. If the abuse has been severe, it may be the case that the person also needs to learn to trust their own thoughts and perceptions as well as emotions. So learning to read emotions and distinguish between what are adaptive emotions as opposed to trauma emotions is vital to learning to trust ourselves.
Another important aspect of learning to trust ourselves is knowing how to establish and maintain healthy boundaries. Interpersonal boundaries are our ability to let in good, healthy experiences and keep out the destructive and painful experiences. Boundaries are about or ability to say “yes” and “no”.
When there have been interpersonal breaches of trust, abuse or personal violations, then trust can be difficult to maintain. We often question ourselves, such as “could /I have seen it in advance”, “why did they do this to me”, “what was so bad about me that they could have done this to me” etc. However, if someone has broken another person’s trust deliberately then they are responsible for their actions. Our only say in the situation is to stay or leave, and if the choice is to stay, then under what circumstances. For example, the criteria that may be put to a person who has abused the other that they seek therapy and that the relationship can only continue under safe circumstances. So establishing and maintaining safe and secure boundaries leads to increased trust in ourselves.
Trusting in Life
The final important aspect of re-building trust in ourselves that I will mention today is re-building trust in life. This can be very difficult after prolonged and severe abusive circumstances or a natural disaster. A counsellor once said to me “most of us live life under the illusion of safety” … of course, until it is devastated by traumatic experiences. The hard thing is that without trust there is a general foreshortened sense of future, disconnection with happiness and increased stress and anxiety. This is some of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. So re-building trust under these circumstances is about creating new meaning of safety, security or purpose in life or even death.
It is interesting that one population that is particularly resilient to post-traumatic stress disorder is the Buddhist monks. Psychologist found that even after the atrocities that the Chinese Government inflicted on the Buddhist monk population in Tibet, which included torture and murder, most monks who survived were not traumatised.
When we look at the reasons behind the monk’s resilience, we find that their meaning of life and death is quite unique. Death is something they work towards their whole lives. A deep practice in meditation and mindfulness combined with a lifelong goal of reaching enlightenment buffers them from fearing death. Therefore they have a deep trust in life and death that many of us struggle with. Their trust is also not associated with physical safety and security. Rather they learn to detach from desire, including the desire to stay alive. In their detachment from the desire to live, they also lose their attachment to the emotions anxiety or fear that are usually associated with dying. Finally, with a loss of anxiety related to dying and powerful meanings about death that are positive, they also would not experience a loss of control in their lives or a sense of not coping. They are likely to experience some emotions, however they would not be consumed in the emotion nor would they hold on to the emotion in their bodies. So the Buddhist monks give us some interesting insights into trusting life, even in the face of trauma or adversity.
So whether rebuilding trust is following natural disaster or inflicted by other people, learning to trust ourselves again is vital to embracing life again. This could be done through reconnecting with ourselves and learning to trust our own thoughts, feelings and actions, or it may be through learning to establish healthy boundaries in interpersonal relationships. Finally, the meanings we make of life and death and the practice of mindfulness and meditation all contribute to establishing trust in life.
When has your trust been tested?
How did you overcome the challenge and re-build trust again?
As a psychotherapist, I regularly hear men talk about the culture they grew up in. What surprises me the most is that while boys have grown up in the same country and school systems, they have often experienced high grade bullying and commonly shut down their emotions. Masculine culture has been described to me by male clients, and male friends. From what I hear from men, there is a strong hierarchy and pecking order where boys and men put each other down to make themselves feel better. It is a culture of bullying, criticism, and a fight/flight reaction I sometimes hear men talking about other men, and how they hold a deep distaste for the Alfa-male and the bullying that they have received from early childhood. Some of the men I have listened to, talk about bullying that was highly traumatic and abusive, just for the sake of other boys or men to feel powerful and strong. So it does take much of an imagination to work out why a lot of men have had to shut off their emotions to survive in masculine culture.
When Anger is the only Safe Emotion to Express
Some men report that they experience anger but not the “softer” emotions such as sadness or compassion. Anger is seen as a socially acceptable emotion in masculine culture. Sadness on the other hand, signifies weakness. Some men I have talked to described experiencing fear or symptoms of anxiety and yet did not consciously recognise that they were experiencing these feelings because they had not associated the words to the experience. They may use terms such as feeling “uncomfortable” or even “angry” when they are really feeling fear. A lot of men channel their other emotions into anger because it is more socially acceptable as a man to feel angry. Anger may have been the only emotion that was “safe” to feel. As soon as a boy or in some circles, a man is seen to be weak by expressing emotions other than anger, they are easy targets by other men.
Understanding & Healing from the Bullying in Masculine Culture
Understanding this process of shutting down and numbing feelings due to masculine culture is important for both men and women. When men struggle to feel certain emotions or to express them, it is important that they give themselves compassion and understanding. Let themselves off the “critical hook”, so to speak! It can take a while to connect with emotions that have been suppressed for so long. Also, suppression of emotion involves patterns of thought, action and emotion which would need to be turned around to stop continuing to further suppress emotion. This takes time, support from male and female culture, as well as practices such as mindfulness, to slowly undo what has been learnt over a life time.
For women, understanding the effects of bullying and masculine culture is also important. Often women expect men to be as connected to their emotion as women are, and to be able to express their feelings as fluently as women can. Women often become hurt and react when men are not as forthcoming with their emotions as their female friends. What women often do not understand is the enormity of the experiences that some men have endured for them to shut down and disconnect from their feelings. One friend eloquently stated, “I spent my whole life stuffing down my emotions and now she wants me to open up and express how I feel!” To many men it must seem an absurd prospect to begin to feel what has been suppressed for as long as they can remember. So women need to be patient and encourage our men to feel without further judgement and criticism. And to the men who have experienced bullying and criticism from other men and masculine culture, it is important to step forward and learn to feel again for your own personal empowerment, quality of relationship with other safe men and women, and even for your health.
Questions for Men…
Have you felt confused about which feelings you are experiencing and wondered why?
Have you ever overcome the shut of feelings and allowed yourself to feel softer feelings without criticism or ridicule from yourself or others?
Psychospiritual Reflections 18.12.2011
I regularly hear the statement “I attracted this in to my life” from clients, members of the new age community and friends. Movies such as The Secret portray a simple idea that if we believe and feel a certain way then we can attract in good experiences and bad ones will go away. I have found that that unless people are trying to sell something, most who say this statement are generally well meaning and genuinely want to help. Unfortunately they often have the opposite effect. There is certainly no fingers pointed or any blame, I’m sure I’ve said this statement before too! While I believe the Law of Attraction does have validity, this particular message about the process of attraction is distorted and misunderstood. The key reason why this message is distorted is because it confuses the conscious self with an unconscious or soul process called attraction. On top of that, its underlying message says that in some way a person is at fault if they experience a negative event. This message can be incredibly unhelpful!
There are two parts to attraction that I have either experienced or believe to be true. One is the unconscious or “soul” process that is unfolding and manifesting in our conscious lives, and the other is an emotional process. How we understand them and what we do with them is an essential part of whether the concept of attraction is helpful or not. This article will focus on the emotional process in the attraction process while next time I will focus on the unconscious process.
Emotion & Attraction
In The Secret emotion was explained as the “attracting force” that either brought pleasant or unpleasant experiences into your life. They also said a lot about beliefs in the attraction process, however there was a special point that it is actually emotion that ultimately attracts or repels. They spoke about “getting into the feeling space of what you want to attract”. I agree that emotion is an attracting force and that belief is a directing force. It is a bit like yin and yang! However, there is a lot more to emotional processes than simply “making yourself feel right” so that you can attract in a mansion, a gorgeous partner and a million dollars. We need to understand what emotions are really about if we are going to learn how to work with them.
Emotions are our guidance mechanism system. So rather than us trying to control them, we must learn to listen and work with them. Emotions tell us that something is in or out of alignment either in our environment or within ourselves. Even unpleasant emotions are important and ultimately helpful because they are alerting us to what is destructive. It is like pain alerts us to physical damage, unpleasant emotions alert us to emotional and interpersonal damage. So when we speak about shifting emotions, it is a false and even harmful expectation to think anyone can just change their mind and emotions and attract in abundance. It simply does not work that way!
We do have an influence in what we feel and think. However to free ourselves from embedded emotional patterns takes a great deal more than simply changing our minds. To work through emotional patterns and distress, we need to acknowledge the wounding and learn how to integrate what we have learnt through those experiences. Making life-enhancing meanings out of adverse experience is essential. Ultimately we aim to grow through these hard experiences and release the emotional attachments, however this process can take years in therapy. There are energetic and intuitive healing practices that can help speed up that process, however it still takes time because we are in the physical world.
The Harm this Message Causes
In my work as a psychologist, I have found that this message is particularly harmful when it comes to people who have experienced trauma, and especially for prolonged complex trauma. When someone is traumatised there is a common set of reactions that most people experience. This includes high anxiety, hyper-arousal, distressing thoughts and dreams related to the trauma, flashbacks and panic attacks. After someone experiences a trauma they often try to avoid anything that reminds them of the trauma because it is so distressing. They also can experience a shutdown of emotions, anger outbursts and are easily startled. Trauma is a real psychological response to events that elicit high fear or terror, feeling out of control and witnessing or experiencing serious injury or death. The effects of trauma do not simply go away on their own. They need psychological intervention to process these memories and release the emotional distress associated with them.
Due to the level of distress people experience in trauma serious difficulties arise when people believe it is their fault that they experienced these traumatic events. This is even more pertinent if the type of trauma is type II (complex trauma) as it has the added extra dimension of impaired attachment in important relationships. In a nut shell, this message slows down or even prevents the person from healing from the trauma symptoms. Complex trauma involves being seriously injured sexually, emotionally and/or physically by another person who they are attached to such as a partner or a parent. So in situations where a person has experienced abuse, being told that they somehow “attracted that experience to them” again puts the fault and blame in their court. This is not too different from the attitude that someone was raped because they were wearing a short skirt or were walking where they shouldn’t. These sorts of statements only re-abuse the abused and are incredibly harmful.
Judith Herman’s work with complex trauma signifies the importance of recognizing the wrong doing of the perpetrator in healing from abuse and human inflicted trauma. Generally perpetrators of abuse blame the abused for their own actions and people who have experienced abuse often carry that guilt and shame. So to give someone the message, no matter how subtle and well-meaning, that they attracted the abuse into their lives only serves to exacerbate the emotional distress and the effects of trauma. On the emotional level, there is nothing worse you could imply than they caused the abuse they suffered.
Where to Now?
In the next article I will take a closer look at what is meant by the Law of Attraction at an unconscious or soul level, and I will show why the unconscious process involved in attraction is not the conscious self or the person. As mortal conscious human beings, we do not attract bad things because we are not healed enough or good enough. I will also explain how appropriate healing and therapy can eventually lead to a better experience of life which may influence the experiences our unconscious mind attracts, however this is not the same as holding a person consciously responsible for events outside their control.
Have your say on the Law of Attraction and contribute to the greater consciousnesses of humanity ….