Some people spend their whole lives stuck in the spin cycle with their cartoon elephants- going around and around and around and around and around.
If this is you, it may feel as if getting out of the washing machine is simply not an option.
This is what you need to do: Notice.
When you start to notice, you may have to work hard on noticing things. One of the things you might start to notice is where the elephant is in relationship to you. If the elephant’s foot is stuck in your face, and it’s knee is under your armpit, then you are at least starting to notice something.
Noticing something is one step removed from noticing nothing. Once you start noticing the something you can try to notice if you can notice anything more. What characteristics, nuances, or subtleties can you pick up on? What else is it about the cartoon elephant that puzzles you, draws your attention, or keeps you focused on it?
You may notice that the cartoon elephant is stuck to you. It may feel like you can’t get away from the elephant, or the elephant is too close for your personal comfort. You may notice not liking or wanting the cartoon elephant around.
What is it about the cartoon elephant?
Often when I am confused, surprised, or agonizing over a particular emotionally charged circumstance I’m asking myself what IS it about this circumstance, or this situation, or this feeling…and I try to step back and get as much information as I can. If I pay attention carefully, without dismissing or judging, the feelings actually give me information.
What information can you get- even if it seems subtle or irrelevant- when you start to observe your cartoon elephants?
Some people are emotionally sensitive. They readily pick up on the emotions that others experience, have a high emotional “radar”, and they notice emotional “tones” or changes while interacting with others. Being alert to changes in emotional intensity may be a way for people to predict emotional outbursts- and thus stay away from threatening or angry people. Emotionally sensitive people may be good at reading others, attending to relationships, and paying attention to their gut or intuition. They may also have difficulty when others express strong emotions.
Others may have a higher threshold for absorbing emotional information- or be less reactive to expressed emotion. They may be seen as having a “thick skin” or an ability to brush things off and not be greatly affected. They may be less acute at picking up and reading the emotions of others- and possible less “tuned in” to the emotional nuances of interpersonal situations. They may have a better capacity to “get over it”, “move on”, or “pick up the pieces”. They may be seen as stable, consistent, or “uneasily rattled”.
Differences in how we experience emotions are sometimes labeled as bad, mentally unhealthy, or crazy. Some people have ideas about how emotions “should” be experienced based on their own threshold for emotional tolerance. Comparisons can frequently turn into judgments, and the way in which a person is emotionally impacted by something can easily be under or over-estimated. Misunderstandings and inaccurate interpretations about what a person is feeling or should be feeling may ensue. The emotionally sensitive person may have been told they need to “get over it” and the emotionally “tough” person may be experienced as “cold” or “uncaring.”
Instead of emotions being “right” or “wrong”, it is important to consider several factors about emotional thresholds, sensitivity, and tolerance:
- Are you in an environment in which others are less or more emotionally sensitive than you are? If so, how does it impact your ability to trust your emotions?
- Consider the pros/cons to being emotionally sensitive vs. having a “thick skin.” Emotionally diverse ways of responding to situations can be adaptive ways of coping-all depending on the person and the situation.
- Are you looking for people who value your emotional experience? Seeking people who are can be responsive to your emotional needs is better than not liking yourself for “being emotional” in the first place.
Last week, I posted a blog about tracking behavior change. One way in which I get clients to assess progress, notice changes, or pay better attention to their feelings is to get them to notice and track emotions. Emotions can be intense. They can be not-very-intense but-still-stressful because they last over time. Often people minimize the impact and significance of emotions. When clients get better at regulating emotions, they get better at identifying what sets off emotions, identifying the significance of what they feel, figuring out what emotions are telling them, and finding ways to cope ahead, minimize the impact, prevent, or make use of emotions.
Notice how big your emotion is (elephantine sized?)
Notice how intense your emotion is (how pink is pink?)
Notice your relationship with your emotion (are you stuck beneath an elephant’s foot?)
Notice if you are avoiding your emotion (are you running away from stampeding elephants?)
Notice how long it takes for the emotion to change or leave (holding on to elephantine problems can create even more problems.)
If the emotion isn’t changing, can you change your relationship to your emotion? (make peace with your cartoon elephants- an open invitation.)
What is your emotion trying to tell you? (believe me, elephants have things to say!)
Last week I was interviewed by Christy Matta on Psych Central: