A Few Charms (Banner)

A Few Charms (Banner)

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Managing emotions means learning to surf

I feel truly overwhelmed by my emotions sometimes. Here's an example: I've been participating in a once-a-week group therapy program this winter, and last week we had to say goodbye to one of the group facilitators, the psychologist, who is cutting back her hours at that clinic. I'm usually a pretty chatty person, and can talk quite a bit about my feelings, but the only words I could get out were, "I've learned a lot!"
The "Ocean Waves" charm on my "Sparkle and Shine" bracelet
I used to think that emotions, feelings, are bad. They are scary. It was scary when my parents fought. They are painful. It was painful to have feelings of sadness or fear or anger and not know how to cope with them, or ask for what I needed. And, I am just learning now, it would be veeeeery painful and veeeeery scary for a child to ask for what they needed - and not get it.

We didn't talk about feelings in my family when I was growing up. Don't get me wrong, there were lots of feelings, especially anger, but we didn't talk about it. We didn't learn how to communicate our feelings in a healthy way. We didn't use assertive "I" statements. We didn't ask for the help we needed with these feelings.
And we didn't learn how to resolve conflict. Don't get me wrong, there was lots of conflict, but we didn't resolve it. As kids we were sent to our room. We could come down when we were "feeling better." If parent and child fought we just pretended it never happened. Sometimes there would be a group "family hug" i.e. we ALL just pretended it never happened, and we pretended we were "feeling better."

I did not know (and am still learning) how to handle strong emotions - and I have veeeeery intense emotions. I was the little boy (well, girl really) with his (her) finger in the damn. I was afraid that if I took that finger out, the damn would break, and I would be swept away and drowned by the emotions. I worked veeeeery hard to keep those emotions in. I kept my finger in the damn for a veeeeery long time. Until I couldn't anymore. I was in my 20's. I sought help.

I learned in therapy that emotions are neither good nor bad, they just ARE. You can feel them, and maybe learn from them. But don't judge them. Or judge yourself for having them. Or judge other people for having them. Or NOT having them. 

So feelings are valid. Valid, simply because you are feeling them. Now, that is NOT to say that the thoughts that led to those feelings are valid, or correct! In fact, in my case at least, they are quite frequently thought-distortions. And if feelings are valid that is also not to say that you should ACT on those thoughts (or distortions) or feelings. This I am learning - veeeeery slowly!

I remember, in my twenties, being in a group therapy program at the Eating Disorder Clinic and the psychiatrist asking me, "What would happen if you just stayed with those feelings of anxiety and didn't binge?" Although this was before the days of social media and text messaging, I remember thinking, "Oh. My. God." Because, quite frankly, I didn't KNOW what would happen! And it scared the crap out of me! I guess that wasn't the "teachable moment" because it was a veeeeery long time before I learned that lesson.
At another time, in a CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) group, I learned that emotions have a purpose; they tell us something. They served our cave men - and women - ancestors.

Anger indicates a need for change. It tells us that something is not right, or there has been an injustice (even if an incorrectly perceived injustice). Anger arms us, gives us strength, gets us ready to fight - as in the "fight or flight" response.

Anxiety indicates an uncertainty, leading us to search for answers. It tells us if we are in danger (even if an incorrectly perceived danger) and tells us to flee - the flight in "fight or flight." Anxiety tells us to prepare, to find strategies, and it motivates us to DO something to reduce the anxiety.

Sadness indicates a loss of some sort. It allows us to draw inward to heal ourselves, as well as reach out and receive loving care from those around us. This is why we need to share our feelings.

My "ocean waves" on my first bracelet, my teal and turquoise "Recovery" bracelet
In a resiliency training program for children I learned that if you can't identify what has upset a child you can look at the emotion and work backwards to figure out what's bothering your child. If you see anger you can look to see where the child might see an injustice - it could be something as simple as they wanted to push the elevator button themselves. Anxiety tells you they might not feel prepared for something - a plane ride or a test at school. And sadness tells you to look for a loss, any kind of perceived loss from a child's perspective. We can also apply this process to ourselves as adults, when we are not sure why we are experiencing intense emotions.
But probably the thing that has had the most impact was learning that emotions have a lifespan, a time frame. They will dissipate. Most emotions last about 20 minutes, on average. That's it! Not for the rest of your life. They won't drown you when you take your finger out of the damn.

It was over three years ago when I began this journey of using Pandora charms as a reward for making changes during my recovery from my eating disorder. You can read about how my journey began in this post from July. I gave myself a $2 knock-off charm every day in the first week that I fought to resist the urge to binge - it's just like fighting the urge to drink. Then I got another charm each week for that first month. At the end of that month, after four weeks of "sobriety," I earned my first real Pandora charm. I hadn't planned which charm I would get. I knew that the week would tell me what charm I had needed that week. What I had learned and needed to represent with a charm. What I had learned that week and that month.

An early picture of the Ocean Waves charm
So after four weeks of recovery, four weeks of being symptom-free - no bingeing, purging or restricting - I had to go back twenty-five years and try what that psychiatrist had said. I needed to stay with the feelings and NOT binge.

So I sat on the sofa and let the feelings come. The feelings came as a wave of emotions. I absorbed them. I let them wash over me. I felt the intensity of the feelings - anger, fear, sadness - but I didn't struggle to get away from them. I relaxed. I stayed with them. I didn't distract myself to avoid feeling them. I didn't eat to stuff the feelings back down. I didn't numb myself with food or shopping, to stop myself from feeling them. I let them sweep me away, remembering, trusting, that they wouldn't last too long.

And sure enough, after that surge of emotions, the feelings slowly lessened. I had let them run their course. And I didn't binge!
I grew up by the ocean. I learned to swim in the ocean. The thing about waves is if you fight the wave it can pull you under. You can exhaust yourself fighting the wave and then you will be drowned. And there are riptides that can pull you under, make you panic. Best thing to do is relax. Best place to be is on top - riding that wave.
So I chose the "ocean waves" charm for that week and that month. I bought it to remind me to "feel the feelings and ride the wave" - to know that feelings wash in like waves, and recede again. They don't last forever. I don't need to fight the feelings. I can just let the feelings come, and let them go, ebb and flow. They will not drown me. They may throw me back on shore, leave me wet and battered, exhausted and drained, but I will not drown. They are emotions and they will not kill me.

So if you're having intense feelings of anger, fear, or sadness, I invite you to grab a board and join me! "Feel the feeling and ride the wave."

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