"I Just Can't Help What I Feel!"by Shonnie Brown, MFT
Feelings are a real challenge for people. In my experience, most people come to therapy to learn how to tolerate and regulate their own emotions of anger, grief, fear, frustration, hate and even love--the myriad of human emotions, and the bodily sensations connected to them. As human beings, we are not trained to do this, and many feel incapable of it.
I first learned about tolerating (or containing) feelings as an MFT intern studying somatic psychotherapy as founded by Wilhelm Reich. I was introduced to the somatic model of building up charge in your body, containing the charge and then discharging. This model has been useful to me with perhaps 90 percent of the clients I see.
Abby (all names changed for reasons of confidentiality), for example, confided that she got so angry with her ex-husband that she "exploded" on a regular basis. Her explosions made things worse for everyone, especially for the children they co-parented. Working with Abby, I explained that "exploding" is actually a very rapid build up of charge in the body and a rapid discharge without containment or tolerance of the sensations she is experiencing.
There are many techniques available to Abby. For one, she can predict to feel upset whenever she must deal with her ex. And predicting, she can make a plan in advance to handle the sensations differently--such as recognizing anger as charged energy rising in her body and breathing with the sensations to contain (allow) or tolerate them. She might also choose to count from one to ten while taking slow, calming breaths. Or she can choose to temporarily avoid certain overcharged situations or take a "time out" to manage the charge. Before one recklessly discharges by "acting out" their feelings inappropriately, there are numerous tools available for the challenging work of containing the charge. On many occasions I have worked with clients to create a "personalized" feelings management plan.
This type of work understandably creates resistance and anxiety in people. Self-regulation of emotions takes consistent effort, as we are regularly exposed to a wide range of arousing stimuli. Poor self-regulators are sometimes lacking in the motivation needed to learn containment, and their impatience and frustration makes it difficult to develop self-control.
Bonnie is an example of how women especially often have "intolerable" deep-seated feelings of guilt and fear when making choices different from those their mothers would make. Bonnie came to see me after a marital separation. We could easily determine that she felt lost and very afraid on her own, but underneath the anxiety was a deeper layer. During our third session, Bonnie began talking about her relationship with her mother.
"Even though I'm an adult and an independent woman, my mother wants to know everything I do and think," Bonnie tells me. "When I think of letting my ex-husband take the kids for the weekend, it feels right, but when I think of telling my mom about it, I feel bad and guilty because she wants me to hate him."
"Wow," I replied. "You feel like it's not okay to make that decision on your own... What happens if you do?"
"I feel intolerable guilt. I can't deal with it, so I just do what she wants."
Bonnie and I continued to work together to increase her ability to gently allow herself to set boundaries and say "No" to Mom (a huge step therapeutically), knowing that the guilt would be there. She must then tolerate the guilt and the fear of abandonment.
"It's a process," I told her. "You make the choice that's right for you, allowing yourself to tolerate the feelings of guilt and the subsequent anxiety."
Marie comes to see me with a very big decision to make--a decision that could make her life much happier. But she is afraid. As we work together over the course of many weeks, I begin to see how deeply ingrained is the critical voice of her father. Whenever Marie even imagines her future life as a happier one, her father's judgmental inner voice intervenes, saying her choice is "stupid" or something similar. When she hears his voice, she loses any sense of competency or will and is once again a small, shamed child.
Marie has difficulty allowing good feelings. Together we work to develop her capacity to tolerate happiness and self-love. She must rebuild her ability to tolerate positive self-thought by breathing into and holding any positive feelings, containing them for as long as she can. When Dad's voice interferes--as it will-- she must recognize it for what it is, diminish it and breathe into herself. Her resistance of the positive is the work, and she is learning to recognize when she surrenders herself to this self-punishing voice from her childhood.
Often, as with Marie, the inability to contain feelings is associated with past trauma. In my work with Sarah and James, it is clear that his inability to contain anger or disappointment with Sarah is related to a deeper hurt of which he has no awareness. When disappointment comes up in session, as it does frequently, he either discharges immediately by raging or fights his desire to rage. He often resists my attempts to get him simply to breathe, but when he does that, it is a big accomplishment for him and for the couple. I give this example because perhaps the most difficult feeling to tolerate is that of not feeling in control. We humans struggle with this in any contest for power. What most of us don't realize, however, is that power is truly regained when one feels a sense of mastery over the emotions that seem to be at the helm. Containing these emotions allows us a sense of self-mastery.