Our feelings serve to draw our attention to messages. These messages can be good, bad or indifferent. The intensity of the feelings serves as a call to how urgent we should attend to these messages. An analogy would be the mistaken act of burning your thumb on a hot stove, while cooking. The intense pain you would feel from this incident would be the nerve endings in your thumb, calling your attention to the fact that you are cooking your thumb. This would lead to you instinctively taking your thumb away from the hot stove, examine the damage and seek immediate relief from the pain. So in this analogy the pain would represent the feeling with the message being the burnt thumb.
To further expand on this analogy, the feeling of pain was a sensation produced by the properly functioning nervous system in response to a part of the body being exposed to excessive heat that was resulting in damage to that part of the body. So in essence the feeling was internally generated as a result of the incident. Given a similar analogy with the difference being a non working nervous system, there would be no pain which would most likely lead to permanent injury.
When you experience psychological feelings, it is a result of a proper functioning neurological network in response to a specific stimulus or stimuli. Feelings whether joy, sadness, indifference or rage exist to draw our attention to a message. The more intense the feeling is, or the more emotionally aroused you are the more urgent the message is. So if you receive good news, like the birth of a new family member, you would most likely experience feelings of joy. Your feelings of joy would draw your attention to the message that something important and good just took place in your life. Same thing if you go to work on Monday and you were let go, you would surely experience negative feelings which would draw your attention to something unpleasant and serious taking place in your life.
We generate our own feelings, as a result of the interaction between our beliefs and our experiences. So it sends a self defeating message when we hold others accountable for our feelings. The only way for another person to hurt us is to visit physical pain upon our person hood, however as far as hurt feelings are concerned, we simply experience pain when we perceive things are not going our way.
When we focus on the fallacy regarding how others hurt our feelings, we fail to attend to the message our feelings are sending to us and we emotionally regress to the mindset of infants, where there is a strong expectation that our feelings are supposed to be attended to by someone else. In this mindset we risk further exposing ourselves to more hurt, pain and shame which leads to a vicious circle.
The answer is unconditional acceptance of self with positive regard. You accept yourself unconditionally simply because you exist. Doing so allows you to get past difficult feelings and examine the messages they are trying to convey.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and professional life coach.
Driving to my office this morning, I listened to some broadcast information, I found disturbing. A happiness guru was giving giving advice on how to be happy.
He started out with an example of a retail worker, who was not happy with her job, and went to detail how she could immediately begin experiencing happiness, simply by changing her perceptions. Listening further, he appeared to state that she would be able to experience happiness by practicing a number of cognitive exercises simply geared towards looking at her situation in a different light. The problem I had with his message was that the change in perceptions where not tied to any follow through actions.
That line of thinking is based on the old glass half full or half empty analogy. That is to say, that you can either see a half glass of water as either half full or half empty. The issue I have with messages like these is that they are based on half truths. It is true that your thoughts influence your level of happiness, however if you find yourself experiencing unhappiness, who is to say that your thoughts are wrong? Take again the glass half empty or half full analogy, in reality a glass of water at any level is either on it’s way to being emptied or filled. It all depends on what decisions you intend on following through on. Are you going to empty the glass or refill it? Perhaps both.
Let’s explore a concrete example using the story of the retail worker who is unhappy with her job. What if she does not earn enough wages to get her basic needs met? Yet she believes that there are no immediate opportunities she can pursue where she is generating sufficient income. Telling someone in this situation to think happy thoughts is deceitful and insulting. It reminds me of a high school English teacher I was working with, who stated, “thank God I don’t live in India”. As she said this, I couldn’t help but notice the gaping hole in her right worn tennis shoe. I am not one to be materialistic, but I decided that based on her statement, her daily appearance was not one of self imposed frugality but one of impoverishment. Further, her comparison of her current situation at the time, to her perception of life in India, was meant to generate feelings of happiness about her situation. Which amounted to nothing but a false positive.
Back to our fictional retailer, if I knew someone in that situation, I would immediately share with that person that her unhappiness made sense. Further I would share with her that her feelings of unhappiness was her brains’ way of informing her that her current line of employment isn’t working out. If so, what is a retailer to do? I would introduce the retailer to cognitive exercises meant for her to brainstorm realistic alternatives for generating income. From my experience, such a process usually leads the person to come face to face with her fears generated by unhealthy beliefs she developed during her early life experiences.
At this point the goal would be in assisting the retailer to discard her old unhealthy beliefs and adopt new beliefs that steer her in the direction of practicing the courage to pursue her passions. So it is just not enough to think happy thoughts, instead happy thoughts are generated by decisions we make and intend to follow through on in either pursuing meaningful change in our lives or continue practicing habits to maintain a meaningful and fulfilling life style we are already living.
In my opinion, the key to happiness is the practice of courage. I will write more on this on the next post.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and a life coach.
“Feelings make great servants but terrible masters.”
Imagine you have in your head a map of your local town or city, now imagine if you were to quickly sketch this map unto paper, how accurate would that map be?
Most people I have posed this question to, have responded that the map would be mostly inaccurate. This is because they indistinctly know that it is human nature to make errors, based on ideas and beliefs that have not been fact checked.
Human beings live in two differently worlds, simultaneously. The first world would be the world in our heads, or to put more specifically, the idea of the world as it is, in our heads. This world consist of fact checked information and made up information we have put in place, to make sense of missing information between pieces of information that have been fact checked. The second world consists of the world as it really is – the world outside of our heads.
The bridge between the world in our heads and the world outside of our heads, are our feelings. Our feelings are triggered to varying degrees, from the things we touch, see, hear, smell and interpret through our thoughts. Our feelings serve to inform us whether the world in our heads is congruent with the world outside of our heads. When our feelings are positive, they serve to indicate congruency between both worlds. When our feelings are uncomfortable or negative, they serve to inform us that the world inside our heads is not congruent with the world outside of our heads.
So in the event you experience a negative feeling, it is an opportunity for you to explore your thought processes, with the goal of understanding your core beliefs and making changes in your beliefs to match new information you have learned about the world as it really is.
For example, let’s say you consider yourself to be a very good chess player. You consider yourself so good, that you believe that you are capable of competing in tournaments and winning. You firmly believe this to be true about yourself until your first experience at a tournament, which does not go your way. Upon facing this contradiction, you will most likely experience feelings of being upset and disappointed. In response to these negative emotions, you will be tempted to dwell on them and perhaps become reactive. However the appropriate response will be to explore your thoughts and ask yourself why you have become so upset in response to your poor performance at the tournament. You will then conclude that you have overestimated your skill level in the game, at which time you will begin to feel accepting and peaceful regarding the new adjustments you have made to your beliefs regarding your skill level as a chess player. Further, with these new adjustments made to your beliefs, you will probably become more focused on what improvements you need to make regarding your chess skills.
Our feelings are not to be served or catered to. This statement is not to be confused as a blatant disregard for the humanity of others, but a statement that addresses the irrationality on placing emphasis on our feelings of hurt and pain, without further exploration into what triggered these feelings and what messages these feelings are delivering to us.
Consider this, you experience a conflict with another person and then you inform that person that he or she does not care about your feelings. In reality what your really trying to say is that he or she does not care about you, this is because they can’t care about your feelings, your feelings emit from your head and they can’t be seen. Sure they can be expressed through body language and facial expressions, but ultimately those feelings were created by your thoughts and your core beliefs in response your experience.
This may seem semantic, or like splitting hairs, but this is an issue we respond to on a subconscious level. This means that we are unaware when we carter to our feelings instead of accepting our feelings as they are. When we carter to our feelings, we lose track of the message being conveyed, which leads to a further detachment from the reality outside our heads. Which ultimately leads to a chaotic lifestyle, after all, you can’t solve problems with lies.
I recently came across a two year article about the popularity of Xanax, and it reminded me of the number of patients I have worked with who had already been taking medication for months and sometimes years, before they decided to try the therapeutic route. I suspect that most people who stick with their medication, even past the point of diminishing returns are unaware about the specifics of how anxiety and panic attacks are typically addressed in therapy.
When treating anxiety, there are three therapeutic models, I use interchangeably , the cognitive behavioral model, the exposure model and the hidden emotion model.
The cognitive behavioral model approaches anxiety from the idea that it is the beliefs and subsequent actions of the person that is making the person anxious. So when the person holds unto beliefs that create anxiety, that person becomes sensitized to situations that can arose anxious thoughts, with the anxious thoughts being a product of what he believes. Take for example, if a person believes that all dogs are dangerous and vicious. This person then becomes aroused by concerns for his safety whenever he finds himself in the presence of a dog, or when he learns that there is a dog close by. Furthermore this person’s anxiety might become even more amplified if he engages in behavior he believes will keep him safe from the dog. So in this situation, we can say that the person’s anxious thoughts are caused by his beliefs about dogs. So in order to help the person get past his fear of dogs, we have to work on helping him adopt a more healthier belief about dogs. In the short term we will get him to practice healthier behaviors to cope with his anxious thoughts about dogs, when he is in the presence of dogs.
The exposure model approaches anxiety from the idea that the anxiety is being caused by the person’s decision to avoid her identified stimuli for the anxiety. An example would be a fear of negotiating one’s way through a crowd of people. So the person’s anxiety would be triggered every time she encounters what she considers a crowd. Using the exposure model, the person would be encouraged to gradually immerse herself into crowed situations, during which she will go through the process becoming desensitized to crowds.
The hidden emotion model approaches anxiety from the idea that anxiety is caused by a fear of confrontation with others. As a result, people who fear confrontation mask their emotions through a facade of being nice. The hidden emotion model posits that through the chronic process of forcing niceness, people sweep their true feelings “under the rug.” Which leads to the repressed feelings being expressed through chronic anxiety and in worse cases, panic attacks. The hidden emotion model addresses anxiety through a process of helping the person become more aware of his feelings, alongside strategies for helping him become more assertive through the practice of assertive building strategies.
In practice what I have learned is that regardless of which model I use to address a client’s needs, it all comes down to identifying maladaptive beliefs the person holds unto and helping the person adopt and practice healthier beliefs. Anxiety is treatable, and in worse cases such as recurring panic attacks, a person can learn to bring the episodes of panic attacks to an end.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and life coach.