Relating to Difficult Emotions

Many of us believe that the experience of emotional pain and suffering is an indication that something must be wrong -- wrong with us, with our lives, with what we are doing, etc. etc.  Suffering is bad, it feels bad and it means we've failed.  Suffering equals failure!  So we try to get rid of our suffering.  We try to not feel emotional pain.  We have lots of ways of doing this -- we deny our pain, we avoid our pain, we project our pain onto someone else.  We do drugs (legal and illegal), we drink, we exercise too much or we vegetate, we become workaholics, we get out of whack with our eating.  We stress out, zone out, freak out.  None of these strategies work.  We cannot make our pain go away because pain is normal.  It's not a sign of anything other than of our own humanity.  Our problem is not that we have pain, our problem is how we relate to our pain.  We can't make pain go away, but we can relate to it in a way that allows it to heal.  We can develop a healthy workable relationship to our pain! 

There is a misconception about psychotherapy.  It goes like this:  if I "process" my pain, then I will find "closure".  People who are caught in this misconception think that processing means talking and talking and talking about their suffering; reviewing over and over again how there were screwed, mistreated, misaligned, abused.  This incessant suffering review is not healthy processing.  It is rumination and it is very unhealthy.   It will never lead to peace and equanimity.  Rumination anchors the story deep into our brains and psyches and creates an identification with the story.  The story of our past becomes the story of who we are today.  We can even begin to feel a kind of attachment to the story and be very reluctant to let it go.

In my work, the people who come to see me are all struggling with their pain.  They have all developed unworkable strategies for processing their pain in the false belief that doing so will lead to some sort of closure.  It is my opinion that there is no such thing as "closure".  No matter what we do, even if we've been successful at healing our past, old stuff bubbles up.  So what.  We notice that it's bubbled up and then we feel our body's response to this bubbling and then we redirect our attention to something more wholesome.   This is the healing process.   It goes like this:  we notice a painful thought, we label it "having a painful thought".  We then feel our body's response to that painful thought -- the actual physical sensations associated with that thought: heaviness in the chest or nausea or tightness in the jaw for example.  We then allow ourselves to really lean into the uncomfortable physical sensation for a few moments or so.  We notice what happens when we do that and...maybe nothing happens, that's okay.  Then after a few moments of this experiencing we redirect our attention.  We do something wholesome like make a cup of tea, or take a walk, or weed the garden or wash our hair.  We drop the story and enter the body.  By doing this very simple practice of noticing, experiencing and redirecting, we begin to learn that we can actually feel our distressing painful experiences and nothing happens!  We don't die, our eyeballs don't fall out...nothing happens.  And yet, over time something does happen.  We begin to go through our days with a greater sense of calm and ease.  Stuff doesn't knock us off our seats so easily.  We are kinder, gentler, less judgmental.  We are able to do what needs to be done without much resistance and with a bit more equanimity.  This is called HEALING.  Old stuff will still bubble up, new stuff will still tweak us, but now we have a strategy that actually works.  We've learned that pain is normal; it isn't bad and we aren't bad for having it.  We've learned that we can experience it and that by doing so we grow; we are healed. Simple.


Where We Fire Is Where We Wire!

I am very adamant with my clients about how to maintain their brain health!

I teach them that what we focus our attention on and how we focus our attention has a direct effect on the physical structure of the brain.  Because of the brain's neuroplasticity, we can "sculpt" our brain.  Generally, this "sculpting" is noticed most in our beliefs about ourselves which then impact our moods, emotions and even our behavior.  If we believe mostly negative things about ourselves and we then focus on negatives to validate these beliefs then we are building neurocircuits in our brains that make it more likely for us to focus on and believe negative things about ourselves.  Over time we begin to lose confidence, we are afraid to take beneficial risks...and our world gets very small and rigid.  Now, certainly these changes don't occur over night -- these effects are subtle and occur over time.  But, by being more conscious of where our minds go, we can use the brain's neuroplasticity to work for us -- not against us.  Basically, "where we fire is where we wire."  If we want to experience a bit more joy and delight  - then we need to pay attention to what's going well in our life.  If we are okay with misery - then we can focus on what's miserable about our life.  By focusing on positive reality we support our amygdala (a little structure deep in the brain) helping it to settle down a bit.  This is the structure that is associated with our flight/fight response and when we get too negative it gets very activated and starts telling the brain to release stress hormones.  When this happens our nervous systems get a bit whacked.  And if this process goes on too long it can have a profoundly negative impact on our physical and emotional health and well-being.  Even our immune system can be negatively effected by this!   

What can you do?  When you notice you are having negative thoughts about yourself you can simply ask yourself, "What's more true?" (it's not all negative -- what's the little bit of positive?) and then bring your attention to that little positive truth about yourself, or to what's going well for you, or to that little bit of goodness you experienced today -- real stuff, not affirmation stuff.  This real stuff can be very simple like that first taste of good coffee in the morning or a beautiful sunset or someone giving you a compliment, or knowing that you do your best in life.  You bring your attention to that simple experience and notice how your body responds -- the actual physical sensations of your positive experience (warmth around the heart or a nice feeling in the gut) and then linger on those physical sensations for 20-30 seconds.  This will allow your brain an opportunity to wire in something positive and over time will help balance out negative tendencies.  Your amygdala will calm down as well and you'll have less of those stress hormones flowing through your system.  Your confidence will grow, you'll feel more optimistic and life will just look and feel better!

Anyway, I go over this stuff all the time with people!  And, it works...bringing them a little more peace, a little more well-being into their lives.  Perhaps it'll be helpful for you too! 

Relationship Manifesto

One morning, awhile back, as I was waking up, I was gently thinking about what learnings I have gleaned about life and relationships and what would I like to pass on to my grown children.  The "Relationship Manifesto" floated into my mind fully formed and clear and ready to write down.  Which I did.  And here it is:

Relationship Manisfesto

It is not your spouse's, partner's, date's job to:

Make you happy

Make you feel safe and secure

Stay with you forever and ever

Protect you from the world and its demands

Protect you from the demons of your past

Heal your emotional wounds

Protect you from pain and disappointment

"Be there for you"

Be your Best Friend

Make you feel lovable

Make up for all the inadequate loving you've experienced in your life

Give you the home and family you never had as a child

Make you feel good about yourself

Forgive you

It is YOUR job to:

Do your inner work

Face your inner demons

Heal your own pain

Be honest with yourself

Quit projecting your needs, desires, false beliefs, disappointments, fears, self-deceptions onto the other

Be your OWN best friend

Love yourself

Forgive yourself

Take responsibility for your OWN happiness/unhappiness

Remember why you chose this person in the first place and the goodness you feel when you experience love

You can TRUST that they will:




Make mistakes and some will be serious

Say things that hurt you

Do things that infuriate you

Let you down

Have their own desires and longings that contradict yours

Disagree with you

Be unable to fulfill your life -- Because THAT'S YOUR JOB!


To face your own demons

Let them face their own demons

Hold hands while you both are doing this