Let’s talk feelings. Some of you may be thinking, “Aw, here she goes again with the feeling talk!,” but it is so important to normalize this conversation. Saying how we feel and being able to sit with the unpleasant feelings of others is really hard for people in our current society. It’s considered taboo or shameful to express yourself. Then if we do, we often feel like a burden onto others when they blame themselves for our emotional reactions. Let’s get one thing straight: Although we can impact how other people feel, every person’s emotions are completely separate from that of any other person. There is no blame in it. We choose to feel a certain way based on how we perceive our world and the interactions we have in it. There it is—I said it. We CHOOSE to feel a certain way.
Why would anyone choose to feel depressed then? There are plenty of reasons. It is not a straight forward answer. We may have been wired this way from our negative childhood experiences (see my post on Emotional Minimizing here). We may not feel like we are worthy of happiness. We may have never had anyone validate our feelings or teach us how to handle the hard emotions in an effective way. An emotion like depression may be something that feels natural and comfortable based on our own perception of ourselves.
Emotions are like waves on a beach.
In therapy this concept is referred to as building your emotional tolerance. We all have a certain amount or types of emotion we are accepting of. Some people can only accept the good/positive emotions, but any instance of distress or negativity spirals them into a deep darkness where they are consumed by their tsunami wave. Whereas others may have really high emotional tolerance based on their experience of trauma and their ability to be emotionally resilient. These people are able to experience emotions like fear, uncertainty, and embarrassment with the understanding that emotions come and go, that they will never be stuck in that emotion forever. They can manage feeling cruddy for a day because eventually that wave will go back to sea and they can experience positive emotion again.
So, the question is, “How do we build emotional tolerance?”
Building emotional tolerance is like treating severe allergies.
I recently had a client with severe allergies help me develop this analogy. Our allergies don’t go away if we toughen through them or ignore them. Sure, you can medicate them, but only for a short time. Sometimes your allergies could even get worse if you choose to avoid any treatment. Emotions are the same: ignoring and avoiding them means they will grow into this huge monster inside of us that we can no longer control. You can medicate your emotions but you are not dealing with the real issues.
This client mentioned that she receives a monthly shot to treat her severe seasonal allergies, noting that the shot contains small amounts of the allergen that gives her the most trouble so she can tolerate it in her living environment. That is what we need to do with emotions: learn to let them into our lives in small doses so we can build our immunity to them. Therapy is just that. It is exposure to the emotions we avoid in real life but in small doses, in a safe and validating environment. If we allow ourselves to experience our emotions with a qualified professional, we may experience acceptance of those emotions. We may learn to manage those emotions better so we don’t turn to booze, self-medication, unhealthy relationships, isolation, etc. We may develop a healthier life altogether without letting the tsunami of emotions overwhelm us.
I encourage you to explore your own emotional experience: is it a wave that comes and goes or is it a tsunami? How do you tolerate those emotions?
Let this reflection be a guide in whether it is time to take the step into therapy and further self-understanding.