Feeling My Feelings

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Feeling My Feelings

I write this blog with a heavy heart. Yesterday, my wife and I made the painful decision to put our beloved 14-year-old dog, “Mia”, a Papillon, to sleep.  I realize that “put down,” “put to sleep,” “put out of their misery,” and “euthanized” are all euphemisms for ending life when deemed necessary. Having worked as a psychotherapist with animal shelter technicians, assigned to euthanize animals on a regular basis, I have listened to their pain and observed their tears regarding the often traumatizing effects of their work. So, I do not wish to debate the ethics of euthanasia except to say that my wife and I agonized for weeks over our beloved Mia’s failing condition.

Papillon “derives its name from its characteristic butterfly-like look of the long and fringed hair on the ears, the French word for ‘butterfly’ being ‘papillon’….The long tail is set high…over the body, and covered with long, fine hair.” While Mia’s ears lacked some of the height and frill of some papillons, her tail did indeed curve up and over part of her back. As you can see from her picture in this blog, she was a beautiful brown and white dog. Hardly a walk we took together that someone didn’t comment, “What a pretty dog! What is s/he?”

As best we know, from reading and consulting with our wonderful veterinarian, Mia suffered from a degenerative condition clinically known as “canine cognitive dysfunction;” basically dementia in senior dogs, characterized by confusion and disorientation. Some call it dogzheimers. According to Vetsteet.com (2012), “Just like humans, dogs can suffer from many of the same symptoms: sleep-wake cycle disturbances, generalized anxiety, lower threshold for aggression, decreased activity levels, inappropriate vocalization (howling, barking, or whining), repetitive behaviors (pacing), elimination disorders, staring at walls, fewer social interactions, (and) disorientation (getting ‘lost’ in the house). In the last year of her life, Mia manifested and suffered from all of these symptoms, with increasing frequency and severity.

My intent in the above information is not to subvert the purpose of this blog, or even to memorialize our “furry, quirky, little dog,” as my wife called her, but to remember some reasons why we did what we did, and to emphasize the importance of “feeling our feelings.”

It’s a well-known fact (joke?) that  counselor types are forever asking people “How do you feel?” Truth is, there’s a reason for this. Emotions or feelings (often used synonymously, though distinguished in the literature) tell us things. For example, “mad” (anger) often implies we’re not getting something we want or need. So, as a therapist, I’m wondering what a person wants or needs? “Sad” (depression, grief) implies actual or perceived loss. So, as a therapist, I’m wondering what loss(es) a person has experienced? (By the way, “grief” differs from “depression” as the “normal, necessary response” to loss.) “Scared” (anxiety, fear) implies actual or perceived threat. So, as a therapist, I’m wondering about the nature of this threat?

Writing about the subject of “Post Traumatic Stress”, psychologists Resick, Monson, and Rizvi (2008) give the example of a therapist describing to a client the differences between “natural” and “manufactured” emotions:

“The therapist first describe(s) ‘natural’ emotions as those feelings that occur in response to events that are normal or that occur naturally. For example, if we perceive that someone has wronged us, it is natural to to feel anger. If we encounter a threatening situation, it is natural to feel fear. Natural emotions have a self-limited and diminishing course. If we allow ourselves to feel these natural emotions, they will naturally dissipate. The therapist use(s) the analogy of energy contained in a bottle of carbonated soda to illustrate the concept. If the top of the bottle is removed, the pressure initially comes out with some force, but that force subsides and eventually has no energy forthcoming. On the other hand, there are ‘manufactured’ emotions, or emotions that a person has a role in making. Our thoughts contribute to the nature and course of these emotions. The more that we fuel these emotions with our self-statements, the more we can increase the ‘pressure’ of these emotions.”

I would also like to include “avoidance” to the above genre of “manufactured” emotions; where “suppression” is generally understood as the conscious avoidance of emotions, and “repression” generally understood as the unconscious avoidance of emotions. I  remember a psychology professor of mine making the observation in class that “addiction (compulsivity) is the inability to feel.” Makes sense, doesn’t it? Whatever prevents us from feeling becomes a drug, eroding our willingness and ability to feel. The antidote? Permission to feel our feelings – even the bad ones – to let them run their course. Admittedly hard to do, but important to consider.

Steven C. Hayes, PhD and developer of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), writing about the acceptance and willingness “to feel” says: “In our context, the words willingness and acceptance mean to respond actively to your feelings by feeling them, literally, much as you might reach out and literally feel the texture of a cashmere sweater….The goal of willingness is not to feel better….Said another way, the goal of willingness is to feel all of the feelings that come up for you more completely, even – or especially – the bad feelings so that you can live your life more completely. In essence, instead of trying to feel better, willingness involves learning how to feel better” (2005). Did you get that? The point is not necessarily to feel better, but to feel.

Which brings me back to the loss of our beloved “Mia”. I end this blog the way I began. I write with a heavy heart. I miss our “furry, quirky, little dog” terribly. I’m trying to practice what I preach to clients. I’m trying to “feel my feelings” and let them run their natural course. I decided this several weeks ago, seeing the end approaching. In his book, On God and Dogs (1998), theologian Stephen H. Webb writes: “Mourning for the death of a pet is a display of excessive grief for which many feel ashamed.” Stephen Webb disagrees with that notion – and so do I.

Bill Bray, Colorado Springs, CO

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