Ask the Therapist

Question: “I have heard of the importance of letting my feelings be there but wonder at what point am I giving feelings such as depression and anxiety too much attention. I am afraid I will get stuck in negativity.”

Dear Reader, 

This is actually a pretty common exploration that happens in therapy. The theories I work from as a therapist often promote a lot of emotional intimacy, which encourages practices of learning to be with emotions rather than trying to dissociate or distract from them. The idea is that emotions themselves are not a threat. It is our belief about those emotions that create a story that emotions are unsafe and that we should fix them or get away from them as quickly as possible. That can become problematic. 

Emotions never really go away when we run from them. Often they just get tucked away. Repressed emotions can manifest in the body as physical symptoms if they go unaddressed for a long time. It is for this reason that I like to empower people to find the courage not to run away from their feelings and challenge the belief that there is anything to fix at all.  But rather view how intelligent their body-mind is. 

Often, the body knows exactly how to respond to help wake the individual up to an overall better well-being. And sometimes, the body does that through symptoms like depression, anxiety, anger, etc. Just as the body elicits pain when you put your hand on something too hot to motivate you to respond and move it away, the body offers you feedback through the emotions and sensations in your body, as well. I also appreciate that sometimes states of depression and anxiety can be patterns that need to be re-patterned, which requires intentional action in building an opposite state inside the body-mind.

Ultimately, the answer to this question is highly individual. First, I would encourage anyone who feels they can relate to access someone who can support them with reflections that will guide that person in the right direction for themselves. 

Next, learning to attune and track your body’s signals (often felt through sensations through the body) will be the most helpful skill in understanding what is the best response at any given time. Practices such as guided breathwork, yoga, mindfulness, etc., can all be helpful in learning the skill of interoception.  Building on this skill does take practice and some training, but when one learns to do so – it can open up a vast array of possibilities and personal authority. 

In order to understand when a feeling needs more space and time from you versus when you are hijacked by and getting stuck in an emotional state will often be felt subtly within the context of our body’s internal signals. Pendulation is a word that describes the practice of moving back and forth. A lot of emotional regulation and nervous system work is not about achieving a higher state and staying there but rather increasing one’s capacity to be flexible between states, including emotions. For example, if I have a conflict with my friend and become angry, how available do I feel to soften the anger. Which doesn’t mean not feeling it but allowing myself to be buoyant within the emotion. Essentially, it means not being carried away by it nor feeling as if I am not allowed to experience it at all. 

This is where curiosity comes in. Building a curious nature is extremely helpful in imbibing an answer to the question, “what do I need right now as it relates to this feeling – to be with it or to take action and move beyond it?” As long as we judge ourselves one way or another, we likely aren’t being intimate with any part of our experience. Shame and judgment are surefire ways of getting stuck in any situation. Curiosity and an attitude of playfulness with one’s experience are the anecdotes to shame. For example, if I am feeling overwhelmed and confused, instead of judging myself for that experience – I allow another curious and compassionate part of me to come online. Not in place of the feelings of being overwhelmed, but coupling with it. This has taken practice and time to develop this skill. And often we cannot learn this until we have been shown it by another relationship in our life – especially if we didn’t get this level of co-regulation from our parents growing up. When we are able to get curious, space opens up. And when space opens up, emotions and sensations have somewhere to flow. 

I invite that if you ever find that emotions or sensations are becoming too overwhelming, you should not push or force yourself to stay with it longer than necessary. A big part of why our systems have developed a story that emotions are unsafe is that we have likely experienced some level of trauma or childhood conditioning that left us feeling powerless in our own emotions. I like to help people feel they have a choice in their experience, and at any given time – you can choose to comfort yourself and choose something different – including reaching out for help. In the depth of this work, we can become too serious and get overly focused on the narrative of healing. I want to remind you that your purpose in life is not just to heal but to enjoy this life with which we have been blessed.

There is much more here regarding this topic, but for now, I will leave it with these three invitations. 

  1. Get support. Someone who can mirror for you your own inner body wisdom.
  2. Develop the skill of interoception. 
  3. Get curious. 
  4. Don’t forget to play!

With love, 

Jackie Paulson

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