Feelings: Don't Shoot the Messenger
What do you think is the most common therapeutic goal psychologists hear? Is it: a) to be able to sing the national anthem backwards?; b) to be brave enough to wear socks with crocs in public?; or c) to be happier? You guessed it - C.
Most people say they "just want to feel HAPPIER". I think most of us are raised (by our parents, peers and society in general) to believe we SHOULD feel happy all the time and if we don't then there's something seriously wrong with us. We are not taught to appreciate and accept the huge range of feelings that come with being human. So we engage in an endless pursuit of bigger, better, more - chasing good vibes, big smiles, rainbows and unicorns. Which are all lovely experiences, but if that’s ALL we do in an effort to avoid unwanted feelings such as sadness, anger, worry or confusion, then we are setting ourselves up for a fall. It’s not realistic or even helpful to experience 100% happiness. I mean to start with, if it were "all good" then the positive, lighter moments, the joy and the generally ‘buzzier’ moods would all blend into one - we would have trouble noticing them. Difficult, unpleasant emotions provide us with the contrast necessary to value and appreciate the more pleasant feelings and sensations. Without them we would be walking around feeling pretty numb, or with weird painted on smiles (like those freaky clowns!!), never trying anything new, staying within our comfort zones, not noticing the beauty in things around us and generally taking life for granted. BOOOOORRRIIINNNGGGG!!!!
As human beings we tend to be pleasure seekers and pain avoiders. This sets us up to pursue only the 'good times' and fear the more difficult ones and the unpleasant emotions that go with them. We tend to try and get rid of "negative emotions" when they arise and teach ourselves we cannot handle or tolerate them, which in turn makes them hugely SCARY when they DO pop up. So we become more REACTIVE to stress, instead of connecting to who and how we ideally want to be in that moment. Reactivity prevents us from consciously and calmly responding to what has happened.
If we change our relationship with feelings (the pleasant AND unpleasant ones), to see them more as messengers that tell us what we most value, they become less threatening and just an added piece of information that informs our choice of action, rather than a sensation to avoid or escape from. To do this we need to consider what lies beneath (cue shark music).
Let’s start with an easy one. When do you feel a burst of happiness? What are doing? What are you thinking? The ‘happiness messenger’ tells us we like, appreciate, love, value whatever it is that’s going on. I’m happiest when I’m outdoors, moving my body and spending time with family and friends. Why? Because I value health, fitness and connection.
Anger tells us an important value may be compromised. For example, if you ever watch the news and notice feelings of agitation or anger, what’s the story about? Animal cruelty stories are guaranteed to get my blood boiling due to my strong value regarding animal welfare. I have a friend who becomes frustrated and angry when he reads about overseas companies buying out Australian brands. He values our cultural identity.
Anger can mask more vulnerable emotions like fear (all are linked with our fight or flight response, but that’s a whole other blog). It’s far easier for some people to express anger than it is to show worry and sadness. Nevertheless, those more vulnerable feelings have messages for us as well.
Think of your greatest fears - maybe it's the death of a loved one; selling your home; losing use of a limb; or being in a natural disaster. Whatever it may be, you clearly value that person/ experience/ thing that is being threatened. A feeling of sadness often arises when we lose something of value. Sadness can signal attachment to that which has been lost. So maybe we could avoid feeling sad if we simply didn't attach to anything - hmmmm... a life without connection and closeness to others? No thank you.
Why do we worry? When considering worry through a 'value lens' we see that the worry messenger alerts us of potential danger towards something we value. It jumps up and down waving its arms yelling "Oi! Be careful - something bad might happen to _____ (what you value)!" It may highlight values in an area specific to what we are worrying about (e.g. "maybe I won't get my dream job") or a more general value we have (e.g., being recognised for our efforts, financial security, etc). You wouldn't worry if it didn't matter to you.
Before I finish I want to make special mention of the guilt messenger as I have loads of clients getting plagued by this guy. Try and think about feelings of guilt as not necessarily due to ‘something I've done wrong' but rather, a signal that we have at least two competing values and we have only given attention to one of them (for whatever reason be it time restraints, we just forgot, or we chose to). Consider the classic 'mother guilt' - when mums return to work after giving birth, attend child-free social outings with their friends, have a weekend away with their partners - here, the value of parenting competes with values of financial security, connection and closeness in relationships. Sometimes one value gets more attention than another and then...Hellloooooo GUILT! Yep, just another messenger.
The bottom line is that we wouldn't feel intense emotions if we didn't care - if we didn't value anything in life. But we don't have to be reactive slaves to those feelings - we can use them to make informed choices regarding our behaviour.
Feelings are messengers as to whats important to us - so ask the question - "Whats important to me here? Whats beneath this feeling?" - hear the message - but please don't shoot the messenger!