On avoiding difficult emotions and learning new ways to process them.
A couple of weeks ago one of my current clients piqued my interest with something he did during session. This little middle schooler, with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, can sometimes interact in a very literal manner when in conversation. Abstract concepts such as feelings can be a bit complex for him to navigate, hence the reason we were working on them that day.
So, I pulled out my homemade feeling flashcards, of course! Each has a feeling word and a corresponding photo of someone experiencing that feeling, so that children can connect the facial and body expression with the feeling vocabulary. This client was doing pretty well that day. He could successfully interact and show me the facial expression or
body language for someone who was excited, surprised, or nervous. Yet when we arrived at frustrated and angry, well, he did something interesting. Really, it was so simple and clear, but I must admit my adult mind took a moment to register as to what was happening. Each time frustrated or angry came up he would turn the camera off so that I wasn’t able to see him on the computer screen. Kind of like when a little child plays hide and seek with you and assumes you can’t see them when they put their hands over their eyes. It was funny. After about the third time I stopped him and reflected back to him that I noticed when certain words came up, he would turn off his computer screen. He sat there is silence for a while. I waited patiently. Then finally he told me: “I don’t like these feelings. I try not to think about them—they make me uncomfortable.” So honest, so refreshing.
How often have you avoided your feelings and emotions? Acted like they aren’t there? Suppressed there existence so that you don’t have to feel them. Don’t worry. We all do it, and the fact is, we get better at doing it the older we get.
I have always wrestled with my feelings and emotions. As a kid I didn’t know what to do with them all. I felt everything in such a strong way and expressed them in a strong way too. I don’t know how many times I’ve been told, “to control your emotions.” And in some ways they were right—I can’t go around crying all the time and everywhere. Yet, I think a message has been sent to us from a young age to actively fight against our emotions and feelings, to try to ignore them like they don’t exist—to hide them as if our life depends on it. Yet our emotions are one of the places where we are able to let lose and release. I am not suggesting that all hell should break lose in this process but I am suggesting that there should be a place for this expression. When we attempt to turn off the computer screen so that we don’t have to notice our feelings or be aware of what is happening in our bodies we disconnect from part of ourselves.
I spent a lot of time in my life trying to control my emotions and therefore suppress my feelings. My attempts to do this resulted in disconnecting from people that I loved but also from myself and my own body. The truth is when I started to connect to my body, I started to connect to myself and, take this one step further, I was better able to connect with the people around me. When I started to listen to what my emotions and body had to say to me—I heard a different voice than the one who told me to control myself. That new voice told me there is a place for these feelings—it’s okay to have them, you just need to learn how to manage them. I tried different methods along the way but the ones that really resonated for me were movement practices like dance and yoga.
Learning something new is always a lesson in humility but learning Argentine tango tested me in a new and different way. My emotions started to bubble up at the most
inopportune times, when I was in the embrace of another person. Initially I didn’t know what to do about that, I felt
out of control and embarrassed. I couldn’t explain it. Thankfully, more often than not, I was met with intense kindness from teachers and dance partners as I negotiated these emotions. What I found was my own lack of acceptance of myself and my feelings rather than the other person. My body had never connected to my emotion so deeply as it did when I was dancing and part of me felt completely out of control and scared of this. It took time for me to allow myself the ability to let my deep emotion course through my body as I danced. And with time, dance became an outlet where I could process emotion without words. This especially happened during moments of deep grief and loss. Just like it was futile for my student to turn off his computer screen to avoid the emotion, it was futile for me to think I could live life so disconnected from my emotions. I mean people do it all the time—stay disconnected from themselves and their feelings, yet I propose the alternative makes for a much more connected and in tune way of moving in the world.
Yoga was another place that helped me process my feelings and emotions. Here teachers shared a gentler voice, as I learned how to practice. Yoga taught me to listen to my body in a more accepting way, a healthier way. It provided a new vocabulary to work through my emotion, one a little different than dance—for me it was more restorative.
The moments I didn’t know how to speak it into words—that’s when I practiced. And at times deep emotion bubbled up in a yoga class or two. I was thankful to find an instructor on Kauai that provided a safe place for me to express these emotions. In fact, her intuitive gifts often sensed when I needed to be cared for in class. She would come alongside me at the perfect moment to guide and support me. I am sure she remembers moments I cried during class or was heavy laden with worry and at those moments Jess found ways to cradle me in her arms. I will always be thankful for how she did this in a quiet and respectful way. She helped me to understand how movement could be a meditation.
Movement practices taught me methods to process emotion so that it eventually became more feasible to talk about it in a productive manner. In fact, the majority of the best verbal processing happened as I learned to dance and practice yoga. But I had to be taught to do this—just like I initially had to be taught to suppress feeling and emotion. Which, let’s be honest, didn’t work anyway. It was more of a “just do it” rather than a “here’s how.”
This is one of the reasons I have attempted to incorporate these elements of movement practices in my work with clients. Starting with just a little bit of movement at the beginning of a session can shift our bodies to be more prepared for what lies ahead. We feel deeply. This is a good thing. Let’s try to stop fighting it so much and start learning how to understand it so we can process it in a new way—a more effective way.
I didn’t always know how to accomplish that and honestly, sometimes I still don’t know how. When that happens, I seek support. Depending on what you need as you learn how to process complex emotions, I can help. Whether that is me or someone else I can refer you to. Emotions help us to get to know ourselves and blended with movement something magical happens. I would love to introduce you to this idea. Let’s connect.