I get asked this question often in my work with clients. In one form or another, clients beg me to teach them how to control, turn off, or shut down this part of themselves. At times, it feels annoying, cumbersome, and even dangerous to feel our feelings. Clients are terrified they’ll be engulfed and destroyed by what they feel and thus begin a lifestyle of running from those hard-to-flee-from feelings. No matter how hard we sprint away, these emotions somehow have a way of catching up to us.
So, why can’t I just shut off my emotions?
Let me start by telling you what you already know: shutting off your emotions effectively and entirely is nearly impossible. And in those rare occasions that it is possible, it does not come without severe and disastrous consequences. Troublesome relationships and an even more troubled mind are two of the clearest consequences that I see when clients attempt to shut off what they’re feeling.
Since we can’t turn off this nagging part of ourselves, the clearest guidance I can offer to you is to do the only thing that remains: befriend your feelings. When you find yourself absolutely inconsolable because your partner did or said something that should not have been a big deal, take notice. When you find yourself wanting to punch a hole in the wall or scream uncontrollably, pause. In those moments when you cannot talk yourself into getting it together, stop. Take a moment.
What can I do then?
Instead of trying to wrangle your feelings in, look towards them and ask, what’s going on here? (Caveat – tone is important here. This is not a harsh, condescending or cruel question. It should sound kind, soft, and so disarming that you might be compelled to tears.) Did that imperceptible glance from your partner remind you of the time, years ago, when you were treated with dangerous cruelty? The moment before you wanted to explode, did you find yourself panicking that you might be abandoned just like you were in that situation you wish you could forget?
Find the thread of memories
My guess is that you’ll find a thread into previous experiences that buried their way into your being so invisibly that it feels like part of your skin now. But this is where you must give yourself empathy in order to heal and repair. Imagine talking to yourself as if you were a bruised and scared six-year-old. It’s with gentleness and compassion. It sounds something like, “Of course you were terrified. That makes perfect sense. That moment felt exactly how it felt to be so alone all those years ago. I’m so sad you were made to feel that way.”
There is hope for healing
Until we provide resources to those vulnerable, young, and under-resourced parts of ourselves, our bodies and minds will continue to flail until we listen. This is complex and difficult work to do. Remind yourself that there is a good and valid reason why you have avoided your feelings – sometimes they really do overwhelm and terrify. But if you’re reading this post, maybe it means that you’re now ready, and strong enough to shed the armor you’ve worn for a long time. Maybe it’s time to grow into someone who can feel your feelings and yet be at peace with them too.
Tricia Ebel, MA, LPCC has a deep passion for helping the hurting. She can help you navigate rough times, or process past memories you are ready to process now. She is certified in EMDR, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, a specific treatment which focuses on helping process painful memories.