Feeling Our Feelings: Revisited

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Feeling Our Feelings: Revisited

A year ago, March, I posted a blog called “Feeling My Feelings” (3/5/17), occasioned by the decision to put our beloved 14-year-old dog, “Mia,” a Papillon, to sleep. My wife and I agonized for weeks over Mia’s failing condition. I said in that blog that my intent was “not to subvert the purpose of the blog, or even memorialize our ‘furry, quirky, little dog,'” as my wife called her, but to…emphasize the importance of ‘feeling our feelings.'” Even now as I write this, I feel that same, old familiar ache in my stomach. Five months later, my wife declared that she was ready for another dog; but, I was not ready. She revealed that she had been researching a very different dog. Different breed. Different size.  Different background. And, because I was not interested, I reluctantly agreed to go with her to a rescue shelter. Not asking my wife, nor caring about another dog, you can imagine my shock when in trots a large, white and tan-coated – greyhound; a six-year-old racer from the Midwest. I’m sure my stunned silence and demeanor spoke volumes. I’ll spare you the details of the next few hours and days, but a week later, we loaded this large (but very beautiful) dog in our vehicle and took her home. Identified only by a number tattooed in her ear, and not liking the temporary name given her by the shelter, we renamed her “Lilly.” Simply put, I’ve had to recant all my negative thoughts and resistance. Lilly has turned out to be the sweetest dog I could ever imagine. Although my heart still aches when I think about Mia, my “sad” has become “glad” when I think about Lilly.

The reason I’m revisiting the theme of “feelings” in this blog is largely due to an article in the current edition (May/June 2018) of “Psychology Today” magazine. Written by a psychologist and professor at James Madison University, Gregg Henriques, PhD addresses the “neurotic feedback loop of negative reactions to negative feelings.” He begins the article by telling about Hannah (name changed), a college junior he had been counseling for depression and anxiety. Of particular clinical interest to Dr. Henriques was Hannah’s closing statement in one session: “I need to stop acting like a (expletive) child, cut these feelings off, and just grow up.” He writes:

“I guided her to take a moment to locate the root of this feeling. ‘Take a deep breath. Close your eyes. Do you recall a time when you felt vulnerable or needy and then hated yourself for that?'” Tears welling up, she did remember a time: ‘I was about 10. I liked drawing horses and dogs and stuff like that. I always shared them with my dad. One day, I brought a new drawing to him, asking if he would put it with the other drawings I’d given him. He said, in his usual calm, matter-of-fact tone, that he had thrown them out because I could draw so much better now. I knew my dad loved me and did not mean to hurt me, so I didn’t say anything. But I started to feel all those sensitive feelings I would always have. I ran to my room to cry. I remember thinking, ‘What is wrong with me? I am such a freak! My dad loves me. What can’t I have normal reactions like everyone else?’

I pointed out that she was punishing herself for her negative feelings so that she could stay close to her dad. This process of turning against oneself is the root of much pain in life. Yet there are alternative ways of relating to negative feelings….(T)he root of much long-term suffering takes hold when individuals battle with themselves by developing negative reactions to their negative feelings….(T)his  secondary reaction to the original negative feelings often creates a vicious cycle that results in major depression and generalized anxiety disorder….Many cases of depression and anxiety have their root in negative reactions to negative feelings. It is hard to overstate the importance of this fact. Depression and anxiety disorders are the biggest drivers of mental illness, and they get continually worse in modern society. This increase may be occurring because people are taught that they should be afraid of their negative feelings, or that they should not have to feel them, or that they are ‘disease states’….Instead we too often seem to reinforce the idea that negative emotions are, well, negative. This is a mistake because all emotions are essential to human living.

Early on, Hannah developed the idea that she felt things she should not feel. She learned from her mother, who coped with her own distress through avoidance, that she should put on a happy face. She learned from her father, who was kind but also analytical and not as attuned to her feelings as he could have been, that her sensitivity was a weakness. She learned as a child that she ought not to have strong negative feelings, that such feelings were a problem and she should control herself by whatever means necessary to crush them. By doing this, Hannah could imagine maintaining a justifiable image of herself in the eyes of her parents. Unfortunately, she ended up turning against herself.”

Henriques’ discussion, thus far, reminds me of reading about “an early Buddhist teaching…parable of a person pierced by two arrows in rapid succession….The first arrow  is the objective pain and distress felt when encountering an adversary, trauma, or loss. The second is the extent to which the pain challenges tightly held, albeit inaccurate, expectations, needs, worldviews, resulting in resistance, avoidance,…suffering” (Briere, 2015). Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, PhD (2009) similarly writes: “(I)nescapable physical or mental discomfort is the ‘first dart’ of existence. As long as you live and love, some of those darts will come your way. First darts are unpleasant to be sure. But then we add our reactions to them. These reactions are ‘second darts’ – the ones we throw at ourselves. Most of our suffering comes from second darts.”

Basically, Hannah’s negative reactions to her negative feelings is a classic example of first and second arrows, or darts. Hannah’s negative reactions (second dart) only exacerbated and complicated her negative feelings (first dart).

So, how does Hannah–how do we–close this neurotic loop? Henriques writes:

“Attempting to regulate our feelings does make good sense. However, the crucial point is how that regulation is achieved. If a person uses a critical, controlling voice, he can set in motion a downward spiral of feelings that get harder to control. As he grows increasingly frustrated with his own negative feelings, he can become conflicted and vulnerable. The criticism leads to more and more negative emotions, which leads to more and more frustration and harsher and harsher attacks from the inner critic….What we need to do, both intrapsychically and interpersonally, is create a different kind of attitude toward bad feelings. Rather than seeking to avoid them or control them or engage in self-attack, we should listen to what our feelings are telling us and to learn how to use them to guide us toward long-term valued states of being.” Did you catch that?

“What we need to do . . . . is create a different kind of attitude toward bad feelings.”

Henriques concludes: “Over time, Hannah learned….a different way of being….Eventually she learned to become curious about what her feelings mean, to accept them for what they are, and to use them to inform herself about who she wants to be going forward. By breaking the loop created by her negative feelings, she set herself on a path to a much freer and more fulfilling way of being.”

One final word. In addition to Henriques’ focus on depression and anxiety, Robert Weiss, MSW, LCSW, CSAT-S (2015) adds the addictive consequence of inhibiting feelings. He writes: “In the world of addiction treatment, there are two main areas of concern – addiction to substances, and addiction to patterns of behavior….So whatever the addictive substance or behavior, the drive is the same – addicts want to feel better, which usually means feeling less, and they know their addiction is the easiest way to (temporarily) disconnect, numb out, and not have to experience the difficulties of life….This is a sure sign of addiction.” Reminds me of one of my professors who similarly observed: “Addiction is the inability to feel.” To repeat the sage admonition of Dr. Henriques:

“What we need to do . . . . is create a different kind of attitude toward bad feelings.”

Bill Bray, Colorado Springs, CO

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