Disclaimer: I’m not a therapist, or any sort of expert on this. I just read a lot of books and have been working on it myself, and this is a distillation of some of that work. You should probably think about seeing a therapist if you need help with this.
This is a set of basic advice in dealing with feelings, primarily centered around coping with negative ones. It’s also designed to help lay groundwork for improving your experience of positive feelings, but as I am still working on that part myself I am less able to write about it!
It covers some basic skills which will help you feel a bit more emotionally stable and to lay a foundation for getting a better handle on your feelings over time.
It was based on an earlier document that I wrote for a specific friend who is highly intelligent and compassionate, but rather less kind to themself than they are to other people, and who is currently undergoing a bit of a crisis. The techniques I’m going to talk about are general purpose and not specific to that friend’s situation, but the slant is definitely angled in a way that is intended to be useful to them, and this advice will work better for some people than for others.
Feelings arise through a complex interaction between mind and body that I don’t really understand and suspect nobody else does either (although many people understand them a lot better than I do). The experience of feelings happens primarily through the body, but there are feedback loops where the mind influences the body and the body influences the mind, so fully understanding and working with your feelings requires you to understand both (and indeed the split between mind and body is somewhat artificial).
Having feelings is good and party of a healthy, happy, life. Unfortunately it’s also a lot of work, and sometimes when our feelings get too much it can overwhelm us. When that happens the temptation is to try to suppress them, and a certain amount of that can be helpful in the short term, but unfortunately it is not a viable long-term strategy.
Instead it is better to try to develop skills for working with our feelings. The bad news is that these skills won’t magically make everything better overnight, but the good news is that they can be learned incrementally and once you start learning them things will start to move in a better direction.
There is, sadly, no substitute for doing the work, but I’m going to try to give you some pointers as to which work it is useful to do.
Feelings and Feedback Loops
It’s helpful to think of your mind in terms of systems of feedback loops – events that trigger other events, which in turn amplify or damp down the original event. When feelings get overwhelming this is usually because there is some amplifying loop that means that when something causes you to feel bad, it feeds back to make you feel worse.
For example if you do something embarrassing, and this creates a feeling of shame, which causes your mind to remember and start telling you about all of the other embarrassing things you did, which increases the level of shame you experience, which increases your negative thoughts about your self, etc. The result is that starting from a relatively minor prompting incident you are now feeling overwhelmed by a sense of shame.
This sort of amplification loop is at the core of a lot of negative experiences of feelings, especially ones that seem overwhelming, and most of this article will be about learning to deal with this and other feedback loops, by replacing amplifying feedback loops with more carefully managed ones that don’t explode and, ideally, lead to your understanding your feelings and using them as an opportunity for personal growth.
Making Your Self Safe
One of the big problems with these amplifying feedback loops is that they make your thought processes unsafe. If a thought can trigger this kind of wildly disproportionate explosion of negative feelings, you will be walking on eggshells around your own thoughts, and trying to squeeze yourself into an ever shrinking region of ways to be that your own experiences of your negative feelings are fencing you in to.
This retreat doesn’t actually make you safe. It makes you small, and afraid of growing, because all of the ways you can grow lead into dangerous territory, and you still end up triggering these explosions of negative feelings when circumstances force you to confront something that triggers them.
Instead, you need to start to try to push back and clear a large safe region of thoughts, by defusing amplifying loops that lead to distress, and coming to terms with the things that you are trying to avoid.
This is a slow, and sometimes painful, process, and you can’t do it all at once and shouldn’t try to. Even if you mastered all of the skills overnight, the best you can hope for is to clear these things as you encounter them, and even once you clear space to be safe it will take a while before you really believe you are safe.
Fortunately, feeling safe doesn’t require fixing everything, it just requires room to maneuver and the belief that you can fix problems when they occur. Equally fortunately, fixing things is good even if you can’t yet feel safe – every time you find a problem and confront it, you become slightly safer in your own self even if you don’t yet feel that way.
How to Retarget a Thought Process
The first thing you need to make safe is the process of working with and influencing your own thoughts. If you’re trying to work on improving your thoughts, punishing yourself every time you fall into old habits is incredibly unproductive and creates a new amplifying feedback loop: You have a negative thought, you respond to it badly, you think “Oh no, I’m not supposed to do that! Why am I such an idiot?!” and the whole thing escalates.
The main technique for avoiding this, which I got from mindfulness practice (I’m otherwise very bad at mindfulness, but this technique is super useful), is to treat noticing you are off course as a good thing rather than treating being off course as a bad thing. Whenever you notice your thoughts straying into a format that you don’t want, the thought process should be:
- Oh, that’s the thing I was trying to avoid doing (in mindfulness this is straying from your focus object – e.g. your breathing).
- Good job for noticing, me!
- I will now do the thing I am supposed to be doing instead (focusing on the breath).
There is no negative judgement, and you don’t treat your thought process as bad or punishable, you just refocus onto something that is more in line with what you want.
With amplifying feedback loops for negative feelings, this might look like:
- I see I am punishing myself for doing a bad thing.
- I am glad that I have noticed that I was doing this! I will stop now.
- Instead I will… (more on this in the next section)
It’s basically inevitable that you will get things wrong, especially in the early process. That’s OK, that doesn’t matter, because in and of itself getting things wrong is no worse than the status quo, but punishing yourself for it will be. On the other side, every time you get something right is life improving, and every time you notice that you need to change something is a positive step towards that which you can be glad for.
How to Talk to Yourself
The way you talk to yourself is one of the key drivers of the amplifying feedback loop around unpleasant feelings, and the most effective thing you can do to start to get a handle on your feelings is to break that part of the loop. This is what cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) teaches you, and if this is something you struggle with I’d definitely recommend taking a course in it or reading a book about it as well as this blog post.
The basic core observations of cognitive behavioural therapy are:
- You can choose how you talk to yourself.
- You should be nice to yourself.
Use the retargeting skills to start to control your inner monologue, and instead of punishing yourself for your faults, start to try to have a constructive conversation with yourself.
It may help you to think of yourself as split into two parts talking to each other: A thinking and feeling self (this split isn’t real and thoughts and feelings are highly intertwined, but it is a useful guide). Your thinking self is quick and highly verbal, your feeling self is slow and not very good at words. When you engage in self talk, your thinking self is mostly speaking to your feeling self, which can listen but cannot easily talk back.
Your feeling self is not stupid, but it is child like, and you should talk to it as if it were a child in your care, who you love and who trusts you.
As with a real child, your feeling self is not necessarily right, and indeed is often wrong or behaving badly, butO shouting at it or lambasting it for its bad behaviour is not going to help and will just make the problem worse. You can’t even explain to it why it is wrong, because it’s mostly preverbal. Instead you need to be careful and patient with it, gently correct it by showing it the right way, while taking its needs seriously even though it cannot currently express them in a way that you understand.
How to Listen to Yourself
Unlike a child, your feeling self will never grow up and become verbal and able to tell you what it wants. You have to learn to listen, and pay attention to it, and the way to do that is mostly to pay attention to the physical sensations in your body that manifest as you experience feelings. The main tool I use for this is something called Focusing (and if you want to learn more about it I recommend the Focusing book, though it’s a bit culty sounding).
Focusing is a way of paying attention to your body in order to understand your feelings. It works as follows:
- Think about the problem you want to understand. Ideally describe it out loud. Pay attention to how your body feels while you are doing this. This is the “felt sense” of the problem.
- Try to come up with a short description of that bodily sensation – e.g. tense, exhausted, excited…
- Ask what it is about the problem that feels this way. Try to describe it, again, ideally out loud. Pay attention to how you feel in your body as you do, and use the changes in how it feels to guide you towards a description that “feels right”.
- Your goal is to try to trigger a body shift – a change in the felt sense of the problem that feels like becoming unstuck – by examining the sense of the problem until your understanding of it changes.
If you struggle with this it may be worth practicing some more general body scanning techniques, paying attention to how you feel without worrying about the emotional content.
In general Focusing teaches you to use attention to your body as a diagnostic tool – it helps you learn to pay attention to what you are actually feeling in your body, and use that to start to unpack some of the emotional content.
Once you have this skill you can use it to influence your self-talk, and your planning: Focusing lets you find out why you feel a certain way, which allows you to help guide your feeling self into healthier patterns and habits in the circumstances that lead to that feeling, or to reassure it and help it feel differently.
Putting It All Together
The key to change and recovery is to break feedback loops that hurt you and introduce feedback loops that help you heal. The mindfulness skill of retargeting thought processes is key to this because it lets you safely intervene in your feedback loops.
The CBT skills are then the foundation because they essentially stop you picking at the open wound: They let you reframe how you talk to yourself, moving from punishing yourself for feeling badly to creating a neutral state which gives you space for recovery.
This creates a safe space within yourself to be able to look at your feelings. As long as looking at negative feelings can cause you to spiral, your feelings are unsafe for you, and so you will be tempted to ignore them and repress them. Once you can look at your feelings safely you can begin to actually heal, by using Focusing to understand those feelings you can start to understand and unpack them, and this can feed in to your self-talk and your self-talk can use Focusing to shift your feelings.
All of this takes time and care, but progress tends to come in fits and starts, and the basics are all relatively accessible practices that will let you reach a lot of low hanging fruit.