We’re often overwhelmed by such feelings as sadness, anger, fear, depression, anxiety and even boredom. In modern society we have an abundance of ways to avoid these unpleasant feelings. Our phones and other devices offer easy escape into games, movies, videos, texts, emails, chats, and digital interactions with friends or strangers. Distraction can play a heavier role than passing a boring or anxious period of time; there are addictive ways of escaping, such as food, alcohol, drugs, gambling, and sex etc. Even our obsessive thinking can keep us from an awareness of deeper, more difficult emotions that lie underneath our spinning thoughts. The idea of being left alone with ourselves and our thoughts or feelings can even leave us feeling frantic.
People who have suffered from particularly painful events and situations often develop even more profound needs to get away from those memories or experiences. In cases of serious trauma, for example, people may have suffered emotional and/or physical pain that was literally intolerable and unbearable. The experiences may have been so overwhelming, disruptive, and fragmenting that they may have had to psychologically leave themselves to save themselves. Initially this is an adaptive phenomenon, but it can develop into a kind of reflexive habit that continues even when a threat is no longer present – another habit of escaping from unpleasant feelings.
Perhaps one of the most important aspects of psychotherapy is helping people sit with their own feelings and thoughts, whatever they may be. This is helpful not because there is virtue in the experience of suffering, but because it is often the only way to get through to the other side. As Winston Churchill said, if you’re going through hell, keep going. Therapy can serve as a container, a safe and non-judgmental place to make space for yourself. In therapy, you do not have to face these feelings and memories by yourself; therapy provides a sense of safety, and a sense that you are not alone. Your therapist can help you understand that your thoughts and feelings will pass, and that they needn’t be fragmenting and unbearable.
People are often afraid that if they let themselves feel their feelings, or let their thoughts go, they will become out of control. If I start crying I’ll never be able to stop. If I let myself feel all the anger I will hurt someone. If I let myself feel love, or feel gentle or vulnerable, I will be taken advantage of, or hurt. However, when people can let themselves relax and let their feelings be, they generally find that the difficulty of those feelings eventually leaves – not because they are indulged or pushed away, but because feeling states tend to be impermanent. Fighting with them keeps them present, and relaxing into them lets them pass through. Working with a therapist can help you sit with these overwhelming feelings so you can get through to the other side.
Developing the ability to notice and be with your experiences is neither about acting out your feelings, nor is it about repressing your feelings. Instead it is about maintaining an awareness of what you are feeling without having to do anything in response. It is about knowing that given space, feelings will pass.
There is a wisdom to the approach of acceptance which goes back centuries, is outside the tradition of psychotherapy, and often has a spiritual bent. There are a number of techniques to becoming more focused on the present moment and learning how to be with the thoughts and feelings and perceptions that arise. Buddhist meditation, for example, aims at cultivating a calm awareness of whatever is happening; its aim is the development of a clarity of mind that neither grasps nor rejects. Other techniques that many find helpful include
- Mindfulness meditation
- Transcendental meditation
- Guided meditation
- Mantra meditation
- Qi gong
- Tai chi
A more complete description of these various techniques can be found here at the Mayo Clinic website.
Developing the ability to notice and hold your experience allows you to become conscious and develop a sense of calmness. Of course at some point it is essential that we take action, but when the action is motivated by a frantic need to change things, or an experience of fear that leads us to run away from things, the outcome is most frequently counterproductive. What works best is to act from a grounded and open perspective that allows for a flexible and creative response.