“There Is No Good Reason To Feel The Way I Feel”

Is this something you find yourself saying? This is something people frequently tell me. Unfortunately a lot of people think this is true. When people think it is true, they often stop trying to figure out the significance of how emotions show up in their life. People will say their emotions come out of the blue, show up for no reason, don’t make any sense, and even create problems in their lives that they wish they didn’t have to deal with.

I actually don’t think that people have no good reasons for feeling they way they feel. In fact, I think reasons are there, but people are often not aware of them. My belief is that emotions show up for a reason, and are important and critical to our existence. However, because emotions can be nebulous, hard to pinpoint, and often elusive; they are sometimes hard to understand and even identify.

All emotions have certain functions. Functions work to serve a purpose or accomplish a task. Functions of emotions include communication, validation, or action. The emotion of sadness, for instance, is an invitation to figure out what is important, grieve losses, search for what is missing, or acknowledge how important something was in our life. Without sadness we would not know what matters, who we love, or what is missing. Sadness gives us important information about all of these things.

Primary emotions are emotions that we have about certain situations, persons, or events in our lives. They are what shows up when stuff happens. They provide valuable information that, if ignored, can create even more problems. Secondary emotions when people have emotions about emotions. For instance, if you feel angry that you are sad, ashamed that you are distressed, or embarrassed that something angers you, you are experiencing a secondary emotion. Secondary emotions generally cause more problems for people because they are ways to judge (or not accept) a primary emotion. When we work really hard to inhibit, hide, minimize, or judge what we feel in the first place, we can create even more problems for ourselves. Sometimes people focus on secondary emotions as a way to avoid focusing on primary emotions. (“If I talk about how angry I am, you won’t really get how much I am hurting.”)

The key point is that people who learn to accept and even value their primary emotions generally have less distress than those who go out of their way to inhibit, hide, or suppress what they feel. If we treat our emotions as useful and valuable means to provide information about ourselves and our environment, the task of addressing emotional pain will be easier. Getting rid of emotional pain because it is uncomfortable doesn’t teach us to be open, present, and accepting of our emotions. While this may seem counter-intuitive, having less shame about how we feel helps us solve the problems of life a bit more easier. (“I am upset because something happened” vs. “Because I am upset I am ashamed, then angry at myself for being ashamed, then guilty for snapping at people because I was angry, then humiliated for how I handled this. Because I have no good reason to be upset.”)

Here are some tips to help you work on your emotions:

  • Treat your emotions as useful
  • Approach how you feel with curiosity, not judgment
  • Assume your emotions are trying to give you important information
  • Be willing to experience the intensity and painfulness of emotions
  • Observe any action urges that come along with emotions
  • Pay attention to how you feel about things more closely
  • Be aware that low levels of distress is still stress, and that minimizing it can sometimes result in a blow up later on

Can You Get Someone To Change Their Behavior Without Sabotaging Your Relationship?

Giving useful, helpful, and adequate feedback is something that is hard for a lot of people. I constantly witness parents, spouses, friends, family members, and even mental health professionals try to change the person they care about by blame, shame, and humiliation. While negative feelings have important functions and can motivate people to change their behavior, lack of useful feedback can have the opposite effect. For sensitive people who struggle with self-destructive behaviors, internalized shame, self-consciousness, and obsessive self-defeating thoughts, the consequences can be devastating. Here is a list of what not to do, and some food for thought about what to do instead: 

Tell them it is their fault: Getting someone to take responsibly for their actions makes sense. However, telling someone they are at fault is generally not followed up on by some plan of action, support, or help to prevent problematic behavior happening in the future. Generally, telling someone they are at fault does nothing more than make them feel bad. It makes more sense to be able to describe what specific behavior they did and the consequences it had in a non-judgmental manner. Is the goal the help prevent them from doing it in the future? If so, what is your role in this interaction? What are your intentions in blaming someone? Often, saying a person is at fault is simply a way to express anger, and expressing anger too intensely can sometimes destroy relationships. 

Tell them they are mentally ill: If you are trying to write someone off for behavior that you don’t understand well, this is an easy way out. Telling someone they are “mentally ill” can sometimes get people off the hook for providing more specific feedback or expressing anxiety more directly. What specific behavior are you talking about? Is there something in particular you want them to change? Do you have trouble describing their behavior? If people are treated with respect, they generally respond proactively. Mental illness can sometimes be a nebulous term for behavior that is not fitting or appropriate to the situation, and can also be a way to say “I am not comfortable with what you are doing.” However, being ganged up on, being misunderstood, and being shamed only ostracizes the recipient. Is calling someone mentally ill a way to express fear of what you can’t understand? Consider what it is about their behavior specifically that makes you uncomfortable, and see if you can use words to describe it without judgment. 

Tell them that they do things for attention: An attentive, listening audience can be a powerful thing. Just ask anyone who has benefitted from a caring partner, a best friend, or a loving family member! I love it when I receive the type of attention I want, and the type of attention I need. It makes me feel closer, more connected, and warmer towards the people I care about. There is no need to pathologize what is completely normal, and to make people feel bad for social inclusion, affection, and control. If there is a behavior that they actually do that burns you out, overwhelms you, or angers you; it may be time to own your frustration and know and communicate your limits. It may also be an opportunity to provide some feedback on what isn’t working in your relationship, or to clarify what it is you actually need for them to do or change. 

Tell them they have a personality disorder: Describing a disorder doesn’t change a behavior. People often think that if they could only describe something, somehow it will change! Telling someone the reason they behavior x way is because they have personality disorder generally just make them feel bad, and in some cases hopeless to do anything about it. If you want to hold someone accountable, you will have to develop better ways of giving feedback. A more thoughtful approach to changing behavior includes a compassionate and realistic plan to address it. 

Tell them they are a bad (parent, teacher, spouse, child, etc.): In essence, bad is a judgment. Trying replacing “bad” with descriptions of impact, consequences, and feelings about what happens when they behave the way they do. What is it about their behavior is “bad”, and why is it so important to bring to their attention? Are you avoiding expressing your own difficult feelings by judging others? 

In general, people are more willing to do what we want them to do when we have a strong relationship with them, when the feedback we provide comes from a place of caring, and when we validate and encourage others. A person is more likely to take feedback into consideration when they feel valued and cared about. Are there ways you can encourage or enhance the relationship? Focusing on behaviors that you want to increase (such as connection, openness, courage, self-awareness) will probably go a lot further than punitive responses coming out of frustration or anger. While constructive feedback is sometimes called for, aversive consequences manage to prevent problem behavior, and limits around what a person can tolerate is reasonable; punitive responses can also damage relationships.  

What Is Mindfulness, What Does It Have To Do With You, And Why Is It So Necessary?

Mindfulness is a particular way of paying attention to 1) expand awareness or 2) focus attention. Below is some brief information on these two applications of mindfulness as it relates to your life and to the practice of psychotherapy.

AWARENESS

What are the benefits of awareness?

  • Increasing awareness increases options (less experiences of feeling or getting “stuck”)
  • Increasing options for how to react to stressors increases a sense of confidence and self control when confronted with life circumstances
  • Increasing awareness helps people understand why they behave the way they do and what controls their behavior
  • Increasing awareness helps people to identify patterns of responding, or repeating themes that may show up again and again, and can be better understood with curiosity and analysis
  • Increasing awareness helps to clarify, understand, and organize behavior in a more meaningful way
  • Increasing awareness (ie, awareness of anger) helps people to be assertive/ proactive, solve problems, and organize action

What problems accompany limited awareness?

  • Repeating patterns of getting stuck
  • Minimizes flexible and adaptive coping
  • Can be likened to zoning out, dissociating, not paying attention, missing out, or failing to show up for one’s life
  • Can increase vulnerability to do, say, or behave in ways that are acquiescent/ compliant; no self-awareness leads to responding/ reacting to environment (reduced autonomy, reduced control, reduced capacity for interpersonal influence/ power)
  • Limited awareness is associated with not knowing oneself, what one likes/ doesn’t like, wants/ doesn’t want
  • If you can’t know yourself (trust experience) how you can you know how to pursue a life that would be fulfilling and rewarding to you

Ways Awareness can bring pain

  • Losses associated with missing out on ones life
  • Grieving times/ time in life when things could have been better (had a person been more aware)
  • Awareness of hope and possibility can feel risky or unfamiliar
  • Familiarity and predictability help people feel consistency/ stability, thus awareness of alternatives can be uncomfortable/ unfamiliar
  • If a past history of problematic responses evoked a particular set of behaviors (escalated conflict results in nurturing/ attentiveness from partner), awareness of alternative ways of behaving may be initially aversive / won’t get immediate desired response

Things to be aware of:

  • Emotions, actions, urges, desires, hurts, want
  • Physical sensations, sensitivities, breath, body awareness, gut feelings, instincts, intuitions
  • Your behavior; how you behave/ change behavior, react in certain situations, which people, in different contexts
  • Your history of behavior; how behavior started, what it means/ meant, how it served a purpose/ had a function or role for you
  • How your behavior impacts others
  • How others’ behavior impacts you

FOCUSED ATTENTION

 Why is obtaining skill to focus one’s attention important?

  • Thoughts, emotions, pain, sensation, restlessness, boredom, etc. can sometimes interfere with a person’s ability to live their life in a valued direction.
  • Thoughts and emotions can create problems, be distracting, and get us derailed
  • Obsessive thoughts, unwanted thoughts, self-defeating thoughts, self-hating thoughts, anxiety thoughts, and non-useful thoughts can threaten to take over attention, control action, and inhibit needed action
  • Staying focused can help a person be less prone to intense, unwanted, or problematic thoughts or beliefs
  • Action urges, emotional reactivity, and other behaviors often happen “automatically”, thus practicing focused attention increases your options for limiting your reactivity (For instance, if you are a person that “flies off the handle” staying focused can help you stay grounded)

Does focusing attention get rid of pain?

No, focusing attention helps a person not get consumed by other things that threaten one’s focus (ie, obsessing, ruminating). Pain is considered a normal part of the human existence; focusing mindfulness activities are not done with the purpose to destroy, get rid of, or inhibit pain.

Focusing on sound exercise. For the next 3 minutes (set a timer if you’d like), try to focus all of your attention on sounds you can hear. Pay all of your attention to the sound, and see if it is possible to do this for 3 minutes. You will likely have multiple other thoughts, sensations, experiences, or distractions that don’t keep you 100% attentive to “just sound.” Likely if you had a painful thought, the thought took you out of the exercise. So, instead of heeding that thought your attention (buying into the thought, thinking the thought, rehashing, problem solving, etc.) you simply be aware of that thought (“oh that thought is showing up again”) and gently return to focusing on sound.

Remember:

  • No one is denying you are in pain
  • You are not denying you are in pain
  • You are not refusing to think about that situation, you are simply redirecting your attention for the time you try mindfulness
  • You are increasing your control of what you pay attention to and when
  • You may need to come back to your pain at some point and solve some problems, but for the three minutes this is not your task
  • Urges, cravings, desires, urges to take action/ do something, urges to eat something, etc. may all come and go
  • You are learning over time to increase control of all of this

Often, if your life is disrupted by intense, extreme, demanding emotions your actions often follow. You may feel as if you are controlled by your emotions and your actions. Focusing attention helps people to be more “aware” of urges, emotions, disruptions, or urgency around fixing or doing something NOW. Learning to control what you pay attention to will help you control yourself; your emotions may DEMAND your attention. Focusing attention exercises can help calm you down, settle you in, and even relax you a bit.

Why Isn’t My Teenager Honest With Me?

One of the problems teens struggle with is honesty. And it’s not only honesty with one’s parents or authority, but honesty with oneself.

Part of psychological distress comes from hiding the more difficult and disturbing aspects of experience from oneself. While this can sometimes be adaptive, it can become problematic when it comes to drinking, sexting, drug use, teen pregnancy, domestic violence, and other situations teens can sometimes get themselves into.

Being honest about a situation means admitting it is actually happening, admitting it is real, admitting the distress is real, and addressing potential consequences. Not admitting it is real, not asking for help, and not coping with the situation can lead to even more problematic consequences. Addressing something openly- while often difficult- can lead to prevention of further problems.

Admitting to the reality of a situation also may involve admitting to one’s role or part in the situation. Teens can sometimes not be honest because they have a fear of getting into trouble or a fear that it will escalate an intense reaction in the person they tell. They would rather avoid the short-term pain of intense reactions than the long-term problems of the situation. And teenagers are often not thinking about long- term consequences! The double bind is to deal with it all alone. A teenager who is all about gaining independence and relying less on one’s parents may believe that secret keeping is the only way to gain privacy and independence.

If you are a parent and want to increase you teen’s ability to confide in you, consider the following:

What are you doing to invite conversations about difficult topics, and what are you doing to punish conversations about difficult topics?

Are there topics or themes in your own life that are “off topic”? Are there conversations that would be too emotional for you to handle if someone were to ask?

Is the short-term anxiety of “not knowing” something worth avoiding based on the long-term consequences of not having a conversation at all?

What types of things do you “hide” from yourself because if you admitted they were true, you’d have to face the consequences?

If you were being completely honest with yourself, what situations would you have to confront?

What types of things did you keep from your parent/s when you were a teen, and what do you wish could have been different?

Being open about emotionally “forbidden” topics will help create an environment where openness is encouraged. Being more and more comfortable with intense emotions, painful life situations, and one’s own ghosts will help you develop deeper relationships. Avoiding painful life situations can sometimes create more psychological distress than seeing what is in front of you, admitting it exists, and taking steps to address it.

When Things Fall Apart by Pam Chordron

Here are some paragraphs from this book:

“When the bottom falls out and we can’t find anything to grasp, it hurts a lot. It’s like the Naropa Institute motto, ‘Love of the truth puts you on the spot.” We might have some romantic view of what that means, but when we are nailed with the truth, we suffer. We look in the bathroom mirror, and there we are with our pimples, our aging face, or lack of kindness, our aggression and all that timidity– all that stuff.

This is where the tenderness comes in. When things are shaky and nothing is working, we might realize that we are on the verge of something. We might realize that this is a very honorable and tender place, and tenderness could go either way. We can shut down and feel resentful or we can touch and I met throbbing quality. There is definitely something tender and throbbing about that groundlessness.

Things falling apart as a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: Room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”

(pages 7-8).

What to do instead of criticize yourself

Try softening your stance, gently relax your face, and allow your muscles to become loose and less tight. Put a hand over your heart with an intention of lovingkindness, and try repeating the following statements with a tone of voice that conveys self-compassion:

May I bear this pain with kindness to myself

May I safely endure this pain

May I accept the circumstances of my life

May I find peace in my heart

May I let go of what I can not control

May I remember that others are also suffering

 

A mindful approach to self-hatred and self-criticism

Often people with self-hatred, shame or self-criticism get “caught up” in a thought process that includes a fair amount of self-attacking. This thought process can include arguments with oneself, reasons a person should not be the way he/ she is, or a rationale for how he/she “should” be feeling. Sometimes this thought process is associated with muscle tension, headaches, the suppression of emotion, the inhibition of interactions, or the shutting down of expression and experience.

People sometimes think that by punishing themselves in a self-hating dialogue is an effect way to change thoughts, feelings, or reality. Almost as if they are somehow being “deserving” of “bad” things someone sets things right. The difficulty is, it typically is not an effective strategy for changing thoughts or feelings! It might temporarily suppress feelings, shut down hurt or sadness, make one feel more empowered or less vulnerable, or even distract from other problems. But the bottom line here is this: Does actually work to reduce suffering? Does it get rid of emotions in the long term?

Being mindful, or starting to observe this process, is really the first step towards making some changes in this process. Being able to notice the thought, step back, practice using a gentle tone of voice, and practice saying “I am noticing the thought that…” is one way to start to just notice thoughts, rather than try to change them.

Next, assess your willingness to “shift gears.” Often people who are stuck in a ruminative process somehow believe that if they keep ruminating, something will change. That’s not to say you have the power to immediately “stop” ruminating, it just starts to get you thinking about an alternative.

If you feel miserable, want to stop hating yourself, and invest a lot of unproductive energy into engaging in self-hating thoughts, the option of doing something different just might be appealing. Once you decide to try something different, you can try softening your facial expression and relaxing your shoulders. Consider being curious about the physical sensations in your body that accompany the thought. What uncomfortable sensations might you be pushing aside in order to invest in the thought? Practice accepting physical discomfort and think about how you might approach or move towards it instead of away from it. If you could be curious about your pain and your emotion, you might be able to work with it a little bit differently. Remember to stay non-judgmental.

Finally, try out the phrase, “May I be at peace.” Try stating this phrase quietly and softly to yourself. Make sure you keep your face and shoulders relaxed, and practice acceptance. Try doing these steps several times throughout particularly difficult days, knowing that practicing new behaviors (and getting “good” at them so they are more automatic) takes effort and rehearsal.

Is everything really going to be okay?

When people tell you that everything is going to be okay, sometimes it is helpful to hear. Sometimes it is soothing, and can give you a sense of hopefulness and shared understanding. There are many ways in which other people try to soothe us, and which we find help and assurance in cases of extreme distress.

However, people sometimes use this statement in a way that is unhelpful. For instance, the statement that everything is going to be okay may be an attempt to avoid the subject, offer a platitude, or inhibit communication of distress. Sometimes it is more helpful to obtain some acknowledgment or understanding of how you really feel. Sometimes worries, fears, or concerns about the future just need to be openly expressed. In addition, it is hard to know that things are going to be okay when you don’t have a way to solve the current problem.

The statement that everything is going to be okay is a statement of expressed hope. It can be offered to the person who is going through the most severe of all crises, and even though there may be some irony to it, there is some truth to it as well. Sometimes when we feel very hopeless it is hard for us to hear the usefulness of this statement. Sometimes in the worst of moments we can find and create experiences of hope and joy- despite significant loss. Being able to find and participate in these moments help people survive.

Thinking about the ways in which this statement is both helpful and not helpful at the same time can help us to create space for different perspectives. When we can see things from different angles, we have more flexibility in addressing situations, responding to our environment, and finding help that may actually be helpful. There is always some element of truth to things turning out okay, but there are also moments when hopelessness prevails. Sometimes it is nice to consider the kindness of another person’s intentions, even if their attempts to be helpful aren’t always exactly what we need to hear in our moment of our pain.