Monday, June 11, 2012

FEELING better vs. feeling BETTER

People often come to therapy in order to "feel better" - less depressed, more happy, less anxious, more calm, etc. We might even be able to help people feel better, if the bad feelings are the result of a mental health problem. However, just as many mental health problems seem to be the RESULT of trying to "feel better" by getting rid of the unpleasant emotions that are a normal part of life. Abusing substances, sex, gambling, and one's own body are all in service of numbing the pain. Therefore, recovery has to involve coming to terms with the fact that life can be painful.
In these cases, the goal isn't feeling BETTER - it's FEELING better. In other words, becoming better at feeling.

What does it mean to become better at feeling?

First, it means accepting - even welcoming! - the full range of human emotions. We have them for a reason. They provide us with invaluable information about our environment, they communicate with us and those around us, and allow us to move through life in ways that are both more effective and more satisfying than if we were guided by thoughts alone. (Think about it: satisfaction itself is an emotional response!). In order to reap these benefits from feeling, we have to open ourselves to the full range of emotions. We don't get to be selective. If we try to turn off one emotion (sadness, or fear, or anger, for example), we also sacrifice joy and all of the other pleasant emotions. Numb is numb. (And, really, numbness isn't sustainable: sooner or later all those icky feelings we've been avoiding will explode, implode, or leak at inconvenient times, without our having much control over it).

Once you've accepted that you're stuck with the whole gamut of emotions, it means learning to (1) notice when you are having a feeling, and (2) identify and label those feelings. Emotions are complex. They vary in intensity. They involve physical sensations and cognitive interpretations. You can have several at the same time. You can even have feelings about feelings. It takes practice to sort them all out, especially if you've been in the habit of turning them off. Sometimes it helps to have a list of feeling words available when you first begin trying to observe and describe your emotions.

Finally, it involves having a feeling and doing nothing about it - not acting on it, or trying to change it, just sitting with it, knowing that it will pass when it's ready, because emotions come and go. Ultimately, it means being able to decide when to act on an emotion, and when not to.
Mindfulness is a useful practice to cultivate, to help you become better at feeling, because it creates space to notice feelings of various shapes and sizes, observe how they shift and change, and separate from them enough to take in the information they provide without acting impulsively. Journaling can develop increased emotional awareness, and writing about emotional things has also been shown to lessen distress. Self-soothing is useful to know to help you ride out intense feelings when they come. What other practices help you be better at feelings (rather than necessarily feeling better)?!

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