Carly’s Couch — In this episode I unpack why therapists are known for asking “How does that make you feel?”. Yes, feelings are super important in therapy. So why do people struggle to connect with or articulate their feelings? Listen to find out why people choose to numb their feelings and what we can do get better at working with our feelings.
You’re listening to On the Couch with Carly. Carly’s Couch is a safe space to talk. I’m a psychologist. But I’m not your pipe-smoking, tweed wearing stereotype.
Hello and welcome to another episode of On the Couch with Carly. I am Carly, and it’s a pleasure to be with you today. I’m going to talk to you about feelings, and feelings really are the bread and butter of psychological work. So yes that cliché of a shrink asking the person in front of them: “How does that make you feel?” is really something I have said multiple times. And it is something one gets asked multiple times in a therapy session. We really are interested in your feelings and what emotions come up for you when you are experiencing various events in your life.
Because feelings are really a huge part of who we are as human beings, and what makes us interesting, and what makes us unique. Particularly in the animal kingdom, as far as we know we are the only animal that is aware of our feelings and has a dialogue about how we feel inside our head. So, we not just reacting from a sort of instinctual place. We all have feeling or emotions. And although this is obviously a given, some of us are better at handling our emotions than others. And today I’d like to talk about these difficult feelings that come up, and what we do about it.
When people come to therapy very often a large part of the work is just trying to notice and be aware of how you are running away from your emotions, and how to stay with your emotions when they’re there. We do this with various ways. There’s something called defence mechanisms, and I said I’m not going to speak in jargon on this podcast but a defence mechanism is basically a fancy way of saying: “ We do something rather than feel our feelings”. And I believe defence mechanisms have their place and it’s very important that we do defend against our feelings some of the time. Because if we were always feeling all of our emotions all the time, we would probably never leave the house. So, there is a certain amount of defensiveness that is actually required in order to be a functional human being.
But also there are times when those defences are overused, and they are actually keeping you from feeling feelings you really need to feel. So, when you come to therapy I help you to think through your feelings. Some people need help becoming more equipped at managing or wrangling their feelings. Some people are very overwhelmed by feeling their feelings. Overwhelmed by feelings that they don’t need to be and they kind of need to learn to cope better with their feelings. And that’s one part of therapy, is actually using strategies and coping mechanisms to help you kind of manage your feelings better. But what I’m talking about today actually is more the opposite. I’m talking about the fact that for the most part I think what I do in therapy is actually bring people into awareness of their feelings, and bring people closer to their feelings so that they can have the courage to feel their feelings.
And, it sounds sort of basic: “Oh you need to feel your feelings.”, but you wouldn’t believe how all of us struggle to be with our feelings some of time. It has to be safe, and that is partly as a psychologist I have to provide you with a safe space. So that those feelings can be felt in a way that doesn’t feel threatening, that doesn’t make you want to run away.
The other way we deal with our feeling is, we numb. Alcohol, drugs, working too much. If you’re a workaholic you cram in work into every minute of every day, you can’t switch off. Well, you running away from your feelings dude. If you are trying to rush around and do things at fast speeds, rather than to slow it down, and be easy and quiet with yourself- probably running away from feelings. So, there’s a lot of things we do that when you go into therapy you start to realise: “Oh okay, so this is what I am avoiding.” And avoidance is a big theme. I make huge effort in therapy is to try and show you what you’re avoiding. You don’t have to confront everything, right? I’m not here to tell you that you have to confront those feelings. But we always look at what are the consequences of avoiding those feelings, what is happening now that you are avoiding those feelings. Very often those consequences are the reasons why people are in therapy. So people will say,: “ I don’t really want to face the fact that this and this happened but the fact that I’m ignoring it means that it keeps on coming up in these relationships, and that’s really irritating.” Well, that’s a reason to face those feelings.
So, let me just cut to the chase.
My understanding about these big big feelings that overwhelm us, is that when we experience feelings as huge and overwhelming, they seem like they’re massive and almost like they’re eclipsing us, they’re taking over us- I understand this as being related to childhood. I spoke in my first episode about how we nod to Freud, and that Freud had a huge part to play in how we see childhood and our experiences in childhood impacting our adult selves-particularly in relationships. So what I do think is really important is to understand how your childhood experiences made you feel, because very often when we experience something as overly dramatic, almost triggering in the way that we feel about something. It’s very often because that feeling is actually our child part inside of ourselves, that has never had that feeling processed. So when we’re little we may experience all sorts of emotional experiences, but we don’t have the verbal ability to reason or to make sense of. And technically, hopefully we would a have grown up, a parent or caregiver who would think through those feelings with us. So, ideally you would have someone who says: “Are you sad about that? I’m sorry that you’re sad let’s think about that. Why are you so sad about that?”. And then you have language and understanding of how to process those emotions and digest them in a way that makes sense, because someone is helping you make sense of them.
But if you didn’t have that or if you experienced something and didn’t make sense of it at the time( doesn’t have to happen in childhood, it can happen in adulthood). Where you just didn’t process it, you didn’t think about it, then those feeling get understood in a way that is almost like getting a weird kind of feedback on a tv or computer, that kind of crrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. And you can’t actually make sense of it, it feels overwhelming. As a child, the world is big and you’re little and feelings can be big but they’re even bigger if no one makes sense of them. So, I always think of those feelings as big, big feelings for a child to feel.
When you’re a grown up, you can actually process those feelings a lot easier. And when people are in therapy and something comes up in the moment, so when they’re not talking about a childhood experience but an experience that is happening to them right now, if they’re in therapy, if they have a caring partner or a parent who is alive that helps them through it. Those feelings are able to processed quite quickly and quite easily. It’s actually we have very little to be afraid of when it comes to feelings. Mostly we are very capable of connecting to our feelings and working through our feelings, unless we don’t have anywhere to take them. And that’s really the biggest tragedy, when you’re a child and you don’t have anywhere to take your feelings and you don’t know how to speak about your feelings because children don’t know how to really speak about their feelings, unless adults helps them think through those feelings. Then those feelings get internalised, then they are kind of the little gremlins that are there throughout our lives. So if we don’t address them, if we don’t deal with them then they kind of keep playing a part in how we respond to events in the present. Even though they are actually feelings from a previous experience. I hope that makes sense. It is quite tricky to understand it.
But our best example of that, and a kind of radical, kind of extreme example of that is trauma. So if something has been experienced in a traumatic way… I don’t really want to go into trauma right now, but basically trauma is when you encode an experience under extremely high emotional stress. And your brain cannot literally process or it cannot even encode that memory. It can’t even digest the memory, in the first place, it cannot digest the experience in a way that makes sense. And so we internalise it in a really weird, bitty way that feels kind of fractured and incomprehensible. Then when we think about something that relates to the trauma or when we’re reminded of something that relates to the trauma, we get triggered or you get a flash back that then reminds you of the trauma. What happens then is that your emotions literally will feel as if you are re-experiencing the trauma, and that’s very often from a sensory perspective. You feel and hear and smell things that feel like you’re back in that moment.
So, that’s a really exaggerated example of how our experiences in the past come to almost haunt our day to day lives. But even if you didn’t experience a radical trauma, sometimes experiences in childhood are traumatic because of how they were difficult for us as children to understand. And if we didn’t make sense of it then, then we have to make sense of it as adults. But because we’re so afraid to think about our feelings, and because the experience of those feelings feel so dramatic we stay away from them. So we avoid them, and by avoiding them they get bigger and bigger and bigger until eventually something will happen, something will break, some relationship pattern will come up and you’ll go: “Oh my goodness, I cannot actually avoid this any longer”. That’s often when people come to therapy.
So, my job is really to be with you in your emotions and to model a kind of parenting really, availability to your emotional range. To say: “I’m here, I’m here for all of it. I’m here for the good. I’m here for the bad. I’m here for the hard and for the easy. And I’ll stick it out with you no matter what goes on emotionally for you. And I think a lot of people are afraid of being with their emotions, they’re afraid of expressing their emotions. Many many people are afraid of expressing anger, and then you get people who only express anger-who are really really afraid of what is underneath the anger. Very often it’s feelings of vulnerability- sadness,pain,shame. It is through talking that feelings are understood, and that’s something I do believe in. I do believe in the talking cure, so to speak. That is what I do. And there is this phrase “emotional intelligence” going around, and I do think it has some relevance. There is a kind of emotional intelligence that people have, some people are just more equipped on managing emotions, and thinking through their feelings, digesting feelings, making sense of them. And I also believe you can learn to make sense of your feelings.
So therapy is also an incredible way of building a capacity for managing feelings, and for building a capacity for understanding the kind of breadth and depth of feelings. And knowing there’s a huge spectrum, and that we are really capable of a huge range. And that that’s okay. So, if feelings get intense, that is also okay and manageable and can survive it. Whereas, I think when you don’t want to deal with your feelings, you often fear that the big, scary feelings aren’t really survivable. And that’s like a number one fear that people come to therapy with. They tell me they don’t want to feel their feelings, and when we explore it they get to a point where they say: “ If I let this in. If I let my guard down. If I show myself what I’m really feeling, I’ll never leave this place. I’ll never get out of it . I’ll sink into this hole that I will never climb out of it.”
And I think that is a real, huge fear for people, and one that I have never-ever seen happen. So, I know what depression is. Depression is very much a hole you can’t get out of, but to be honest, very often that hole that you’re in is not because you feeling your feelings. It’s almost because you’re denying yourself your feelings, and you get stuck. But I’ll go into that at another time. I’d like to do a stand-alone episode on depression, and a stand-alone episode on anxiety, and a stand-alone episode on trauma- I think that’s deserving. This is more a general discussion around emotions and how to manage your feelings.
So, what I do as a psychologist, as I said, I practise this concept of being with. Which is really just the hardest and the most critical thing, I think anyone can do with emotions. We are not that great at it in relationships. As a psychologist it’s quite easy for me, okay let me not say easy, but it’s easier for me to do it as a psychologist because I’m not invested in the relationship in the same way. I don’t get triggered in the same way as I would if it was someone I know, or someone I have an intimate relationship with. I can see your emotions, and I can know that my job is to be with you in these moments, and that there’s nothing else that matters. Whereas if it’s a relationship (like a sister, or a mother, or a partner), it’s really hard for us to put aside our own feelings that are triggered. And not want that person to be with our feelings. In that way we almost compete for empathy in relationships.
So yes, being-with is very much an empathic or empathetic ( I have never really understood what the difference between those words were). Anyway it’s a response to someone in their feelings that says: I’m here. I’m with you. You don’t have to change your feelings. You don’t have to do anything to be different. I’m accepting you just as you are.” And I think that’s huge for people. That it makes all the difference to have that experience.
So, I suppose how I’d like to end off this episode, which has just been a kind of rambling thing of mine around feelings, around why I talk about feelings in therapy. I suppose I want to just give you something to think about, that you can do at home. In your own minds. In your own relationships. So yes, I do believe everyone can benefit from therapy, and I do believe that talking about feelings, making sense of feelings, understanding your feelings is so critical in becoming a more mature and responsible human being. Because when we are aware of our feelings, when we can register and make sense of and work with our own feelings, we don’t need to project them to anyone else. We can actually manage it and cope with it ourselves.
But you can also learn some techniques. Well you can just think about this on your own. You don’t have to come to therapy, if you don’t think the consequences are that dire yet, at all. So, one of the things I would ask you to do if you came to therapy, and I thought you weren’t feeling your feelings, or you weren’t thinking about the connection between your feelings and your behaviours. Is I would ask you to start kind of journaling or keeping a note of what your emotions were throughout the week. So that we can sort of try and get a feel, try and map out your emotional landscape. And so, one of the things I would do, I would start right at the beginning. I would start on reflecting on your emotions, and talk about emotions, and use emotional language: “What do you feel? What was that like? What was the emotion you were experiencing at the time?”. And some people really struggle to name emotions, right? I have actually had to hand out lists of words one uses for emotions. There’s many variations of words that we use- frustrated, hopeful, delighted, interested, you get the drift? You can look it up online. You can look for different words people use to describe emotions. That’s one of the things, just to get a vocabulary how I’m feeling right now. You can start with the basics.
The next step would be to look at, how big are these feelings when you feel them. Are they totally overwhelming? Are you feeling them to an incredible intensity? Like I always use a scale of 1-10. One being the sort of least you could feel of that emotion, and ten being the most you could ever feel. So, an anger of 10 would be the most angry you’ve felt in your life. Then I try and track what triggered that emotion. What happened that you felt that feeling, and also to work out what were the thoughts you were thinking- that gives me an idea what about you and your make up and your ideas of yourself kind of contributed to why you were feeling that feeling.
For example, If you screamed at someone in traffic, and you came to therapy and you said: “I feel really bad about that. They had their window down, they heard me. I saw that they were really upset, and I felt really guilty about that”. Then I might say to you: “ Let’s look at that. What were you feeling?
Client: “I was feeling frustrated or angry. Okay intensity 6/10.” Me: Okay, what triggered you.”
Client: “The car pulling out in front of me”.
Me: “What were you thinking”.
Client:“ I was thinking, how dare they, don’t they know who I am”. Or whatever.
I’m just giving an example. That would give me insight into how you think , what are your inner workings. Then I’ll ask you to think about what did you do in response.
“Well, I swore, I pulled a zap [middle finger].”, whatever. Then we think about well what could you do differently with those emotions. If you had the opportunity to go back in time, rewind the tape and press pause at the moment when you start to experience those emotions. What would you do differently? Well, at a very very basic level what I would hope for you to think about after this episode. Is for you to just start to imagine, not just imagine, to have insight into your emotions. To just stop and ask yourself: What am I feeling?”
It seems so simple but we don’t do that in our days, we just go, go, go on to the next task, on to the next task and we having an experience the entire time that has got in some emotional quality to it but we don’t really reflect on that. So most times, we don’t have to ask ourselves : “What am I feeling, what am I feeling?” but if you are feeling uncomfortable, if something is not going okay. If you were watching yourself and you started tapping your foot, or you start picking your nails, or biting your nails, or pulling your hair, or started to smoke, or started to drink , or started to do something you’re not happy about doing. Ask yourself: What am I feeling?” What am I feeling that’s prompting me to take action that is in somewhat distracting me from my own experience. Then try to understand: “Why am I feeling this way. What was the trigger? What happened? What am I responding to? Is this something that happened now? Is it something that happened before that I’m reminded of because of what’s happening now?”
Then to kind of get a grip on those feelings, kind of speak to yourself about it: “Okay, I’m feeling really anxious. This is really hard for me. I’m imagining this, I’m imagining that. I’m worrying about this, I’m worrying about that.” Then to kind of say: “ What am I going to do about it. Yes, I can punch a wall, that is one option. I can shout at my lover, that’s another option. But what do I really want to achieve, What would be the consequence that I would think that would be safer, more helpful, more kinder to myself and everyone around me”. Then that’s when you can actually think that: “ I actually want to do something with these emotions rather .”
My whole thing is I don’t ever say to people, I don’t want you to feel like you have to take your emotions and bury them, or some emotions are bad and some emotions are good. All emotions are okay. We have to accept all of our emotions, our entire emotional range but the most important thing is that you take responsibility for your emotions. If I’m having a hard time, it’s my responsibility to soothe these feelings. It’s my responsibility to take care of myself. To engage in an activity that will regulate these emotions and help myself to manage these difficult experiences. So, for example, things like breathing-beautiful. I’m noticing I’m anxious, I’m noticing I’m scared. I’m taking 5 minutes and I’m just going to breathe. I’m just going to focus on my breath and I’m going to try to stay with my own feelings in this moment, and just breathe in and out and try and calm myself down.
Or some people really love using sport or physical activity to help manage feelings. I think that’s great. Going for a run, going to gym, doing a class, even if you have a punching bag, going and punching and kicking it, great. Anything that transforms that energy, and acknowledges the emotions for you.
Something that says to you: I’m here for you. I’m here for these emotions. I’m not leaving you. I’m going to stick it out”. And this is you talking to you by the way. It sounds crazy but that’s the message.
So, that’s my bottom line, I say learn to identify the emotions or name the feelings. What are you feelin?. What triggered it then what am I going to do about it. All of this is easier said than done, that’s why people come t therapy. It’s not that easy to do this on my own. So having someone who’s tracking this with you, who’s focusing on your triggers, who’s with you in this process as you try to unpack what is going on when you have those emotional experiences, is really really helpful. That is why I believe that therapy is so invaluable. But in the meantime there’s no harm in starting to think about these things on your own. And I think, what’s so beautiful is that we live in this age of technology and internet access, and podcasts, and Ted talks where never before have we had access to more brilliant minds . Thinking about subjects like, you know, difficult subjects that we can face together, in a way.
So ja, I love that and I’d love to hear from you. I’d love to hear what feelings do you struggle with the most. Some people do struggle with some emotions more than others, and as I said to you this is because for the most part, it’s to do with our childhood experiences. So, we gonna have another episode where we talk about my parenting programme, Circle Of Security, and we’re going to look specifically at that. What happens when our parents are not able to be there and support us with certain emotions, and not with others.
So please I’d love to hear from you. Let me know what you thought of this episode. A bit of a rambling episode but interesting. Was anything I said new or did it make you think you want more of anything? Was there anything you were thinking was lacking in depth? I did kind of skim over some things. I’d love to do a follow up episode, maybe with a specific focus. I’d love to hear from you. Let me know. You can follow me on social media. I’m @onthecouchwithcarly. Instagram, twitter, Facebook. Twitter is actually @carlyabramovitz but it’s fine you can find that through my Instagram or Facebook- and actually I’m not on twitter that much. So, just get hold of me on Facebook or Instagram, or email me firstname.lastname@example.org/ email@example.com.
Cool. Thanks. It was nice to talk into a microphone for half an hour and imagine all you lovely people listening to me one day. Okay, I’ll be back. See you soon. Bye.
This podcast is recorded at Edible Audio in Cape Town, South Africa. Edited by Edible Audio. Original music by: Alex Smillie