I have come to see emotional processing as absolutely fundamental.
Let me qualify that statement: I learned at a very young age that certain feelings were not okay to express, to take ownership of or maybe even to have - and that if I did express them, I would be either rejected or punished because of it.
So I developed a lot of unhealthy ways of hiding and contorting my feelings. I became a master repressor - automatically burying my feelings before I even fully recognized them consciously.
At a certain point in time, this seemed like a reasonable method of emotional survival, but as the years passed and I moved on from the conditions that my pattern formed within, it became clear how incredibly unhealthy and limiting my tactics were. Tactics that, by this time, had become so deeply entrenched that they were unconscious, automatic responses.
To really simplify it, when I repressed my feelings, they obviously didn’t go away. They just stagnated, fermented and mutated into something toxic and intoxicating - I would actually become totally permeated and controlled by my repressed, toxic emotion. Which is ironic, because the whole point of disconnecting from my emotions was supposed to be to create a separation between them and myself. It is the exact opposite in practice.
It took me years of suffering, and the help of a brilliant mentor, to begin chipping away at my emotional armouring and develop new, life giving ways of relating to my emotional body.
This journey has been daunting, but it has also been more fascinating and rewarding that nearly any external adventure I’ve experienced.
If I was going to sum up all that I’ve learned in a sentence or two, it’s that when we turn towards our feelings - especially those that challenge us - we make it possible to integrate and transform them. When we turn away from or reject them - whether through fear, habit, or an ideal of enforced positivity - we’re asking for trouble.
They will come to the surface, one way or another - be it through conscious processing, or fermenting inside us until they stage a full scale coup, or, as Jung brilliantly put it, until they meet us as fate.
The method I want to share with you for processing emotion is incredibly simple - but don’t let that fool you. While it is simple on a technical level, when you throw in the intoxicating effect of heightened emotions, suddenly something that seemed very clear from a sober, logical perspective starts to feel like stumbling through a pitch dark wilderness with no sense of direction. Such is the extraordinary power of our emotions: They can unmoor and destroy us, or they can guide and nourish us - it all depends on what we do with them.
Step 1: Pause
This step is as simple as it sounds: When you notice a strong emotion has emerged in you, you take a time out and acknowledge what is happening.
This is so important, and although it’s technically really simple, it requires a certain level of mindfulness, self discipline and self awareness that can suddenly seem to vanish under the intensity of emotion. Put another way: When we're drunk and stoned on toxic shame, stopping to take a time out and breathe suddenly can seem like a heroic feat. And it is.
When it comes to noticing intense emotion, it helps to have a strong connection to your grounded, centred, fully resourced state of conscious awareness, so that when an emotional reaction suddenly floods through you, you notice what’s going on.
Another way of saying this is that by keeping a clean slate, you will notice when there’s a ripple in the pond, so to speak. If you are constantly in a state of stress or anxiety, you paradoxically are more in need of emotional processing, but are less likely to notice your off-centeredness in the first place, because it’s become your norm. The challenge in such cases is to remember that it is not normal to feel oppressed, overwhelmed or intoxicated by emotion, and to give ourselves something better.
Again, this step is technically really easy: When you notice intensely charged, unbalanced feelings, just pause to acknowledge what’s going on. Breathe. Take a time out.
Step 2: Give it a Voice
This step is where we actually start processing the feelings, and we do so by giving them a voice.
Obviously you want to do this in a setting that feels safe for you, perhaps in a quiet place. Again, this is technically almost as simple as step one: You simply tune into the feeling you are experiencing, and verbally express it. Not in the heat of a conversation (that often has negative consequences for you and others) - but in the safe container of processing.
It doesn’t have to be fancy, it might just come out like: I’m afraid. I’m afraid this person is going to judge me. I’m afraid they aren’t going to like me and will reject me.
You just give it a voice - and this alone can greatly discharge or de-fang the intensity of emotion. It’s kind of magical actually - but it makes sense: When we keep our feelings under wraps, they grow in intensity and dysfunction; when we allow them to breathe, their intensity diminishes and so does their dysfunction.
You may find that as you verbalize your feeling, it shifts into another emotion. A classic example of this is anger shifting into sadness. Anger sometimes comes in to protect us from hurt, so when we process it, it’s not unusual to find a well of tears and tenderness right behind its shield. Processing this sadness can involve shedding tears, and is totally normal and natural.
(As always, anyone with a history of severe trauma should consider seeking out the appropriate guidance before digging into any deep inner work)
Step 3: Nurture, Educate and Bring The Truth
This is the final step I’ll share today. Where step 1 was all about creating an initial space to acknowledge our feeling, and step two was about letting it speak and discharging the intensity of it, step three is about actually nurturing and educating the part of ourselves that is crying out.
Sometimes simply giving our feelings a voice will be enough for them to process, but it can also be helpful to acknowledge if there is a part of us that is hurting, and care for/support it the way a good parent or older brother/sister would.
For example, if we were experiencing a feeling of worthlessness, we would connect to our heart, to our true self, and both validate the hurt that part of us, and offer a higher perspective - the perspective of wisdom, depth, of the heart and soul. We would give the type of nurturing, educative guidance you would to a little child. Some times we might be gentle, some times more matter of fact: “Look, I know what you’re feeling, but you’re not seeing the whole picture....”
You go back and forth between these two voices, facilitating a dialogue between your most resourceful, and not-so-resourceful aspects of self.
My mentor (who I learned everything I’m sharing here from) called this bridging consciousness - by going back and forth, the triggered, emotionally charged aspect of self can’t sustain its myopic worldview too long. Eventually it gets diluted with the more expansive perspective, with truth and love.
Peter Levine developed a process that is different but bears some similarity called “Pendulation” - in which one moves back and forth between a very charged, unresourceful state and a fully resourced state.
In creating this movement back and forth between opposites, there is a discharge and reprocessing of old imprints that's quite remarkable.
Step three is a bit more complex than the first two steps laid out here, but at it’s essence is still very simple: All you need to do is remind the emotionally charged part of yourself of truth - to offer another more expanded perspective, and offer love and support for its underlying needs.
For me personally, working with a mentor was very helpful in developing this ability, because they could hold a higher perspective for me at times when I couldn’t hold it for myself. With their support, however, I learned how to stay connected to my heart, to hold space for my own wounds, and be able to counsel myself in this way.
Having said that, I think that once we've gotten the ball rolling, the capacity to hold space for and heal these parts of ourselves actually comes quite naturally to each of us.
Okay, so what do these steps look like in practice? Well, let’s take a look at an example and see:
Let’s imagine there is a guy who just finished writing a blog he really likes, but he’s suddenly stalling when it comes to actually posting it online.
And, just for fun, let’s call this guy Miles.
Miles has written a blog, and it’s all ready to go out into the world, but his fear has come up and frozen him.
One option he has at this point is to totally run from his fear - maybe he’ll suddenly decide it’s a good idea to spontaneously get a tub of ice cream and spend the rest of the afternoon watching prank videos on youtube.
That’s one way of dealing with his fear - and it actually serves the fear’s goal in a really immature way. It's goal being, of course, to protect himself. Burrowing into a cocoon of isolation definitely accomplishes that, for a minute.
But if he chooses to process his feelings instead, he pauses as soon as he notices the fear in his body, acknowledges what is happening, and knows he needs to address this ASAP.
He stops whatever he’s doing, sits down in a quiet place and starts to give it a voice: I’m afraid - I’m afraid of being judged - I’m afraid no one is going to like me - I’m afraid of being humiliated.
He keeps on following his emotion and giving it a voice, sometimes breathing massive exhales that feel like they are releasing energy, until it feels somewhat discharged.
Then he begins to have more of a dialogue with it (Step 3). He might say: I know you’re afraid, but you know, you’re actually projecting the worst case scenario onto this. There are a whole lot of possible outcomes, and you’re not acknowledging them, too.
Maybe he shows the fearful part of himself past examples that challenge its myopic perspective. Maybe he just holds it and gives it loving energy. Or, maybe he says: “Thank you, thank you for trying to protect me. That is so beautiful. Why don’t we take all of this energy you have and use it to make sure we write the most amazing overview for our blog, and that we edit it in the most skillful way? Why don’t we use all of this energy to perform at the highest level we can - to expand with it, instead of contract?”
In this instance, he is validating his fear, allying himself with its underlying needs or imperative (love), and redirecting its (immense) energy in a creative way.
The ways in which this inner dialogue can unfold are limitless - what’s important is to connect empathically, in the moment, to our feelings - to receive the gifts and messages they bring, hold love and truth for them, and release or shift any illusion or misperception they may bring.
This entire process might take him just a few minutes - after which he finds himself rushing to post that vlog. The cloud of fear he’d been stumbling under has cleared, and his connection to his own inner strength and wisdom restored.
That’s what this very basic technique looks like in practice. And although the example I gave is fairly small and insignificant, it’s the cumulative effect of practicing this kind of good emotional hygiene day after day that leads to big change - both internally in who we are and how we relate to ourselves, and externally in the type of world we’re creating around us.
It's three simple steps: Pause - Give it a Voice - Nurture & Educate, that have been complete game changers for me, and are the backbone of several other healing modalities, and work very synergistically with other practices (meditation, for example).
Our emotions are wonderful gifts and guideposts inviting us to heal our inner wounds, alerting us make wise choices and much more. All that, of course, if we have a fluid, fluent relationship with them.
That’s all for today folks - I hope you’ve found something of value here to take away, and if you have any thoughts, experiences or questions you’d like to share, I’d love to hear them in the comments below!