Last time I (hopefully) explained a couple of things. One: avoiding emotions is bad for us. Two: not avoiding them is tremendously difficult. This poses a wee problem. One thing which can help deal with this wee problem is the fact that emotions are social critters.
Simply put, emotions happen (mostly) in relation to other people. OK, other beings. I feel happy around dogs, and nervous around scorpions. Our relationship with others (human or otherwise) has a direct influence on emotion.
This influence is why my career exists. Counselling and psychotherapy make use of this influence in a helpful fashion. Ultimately, this can — in the words of Dr. Smith the podcasting psychiatrist I’ve been listening to — “detoxify” painful emotions, and lead to healing.
So because emotions are social critters, good relationships and positive experiences with others is an excellent way to promote emotional healing and good mental health.
Feeling Emotions Safely
I’ve really been enjoying Dr. Jeffery Smith’s podcast on psychotherapy. In Episodes 6 and 7, Doc Smith explains that there are 2 factors which contribute to the detoxifying and healing of intense painful emotions:
#1. The emotions must be really and truly felt, in all their gut-churning, nerve-fraying glory.
#2. The person feeling these emotions must experience a context of safety and comfort.
If you recall from my last post, Doc Smith says that all the problems which bring people into therapy are connected to entrenched, consistent avoidance of negative emotions. When a person is able to stop avoiding and really feel the awful emotion(s) — in the presence of someone safe and supportive (like a therapist) — the threatening emotions can lose their threatening quality.
Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, in his best-selling book The Body Keeps The Score, uses the term “reciprocity” to describe the second factor. He writes, “The critical issue is reciprocity: being truly heard and seen by the people around us, feeling that we are held in someone else’s mind and heart. For our physiology to calm down, heal, and grow we need a visceral feeling of safety.”
Who Can Do This?
Much as I like therapy, I have to admit that a therapist is not the only person capable of providing this reciprocity. It can be experienced with a spouse, a sister or a friend; along with the healing of toxic emotions when the two conditions above are met.
I will say that we therapists can be pretty convenient when you don’t happen to have a spouse, sister or friend, or achieving that “safe and understood” thing doesn’t seem to be working.
One might ask if another person — therapist or not — is actually necessary? Can healing be accomplished solo?
The jury is out on this one. In my opinion, it’s possibly not possible. I honestly don’t know for sure. It’s complicated.
Rather than write a textbook attempting to answer this complicated question, I’ll suggest that there are good and not-so-good reasons for taking the solo path.
If you’re an inmate doing a life sentence in a brutal prison managed under a corrupt military dictatorship, then trusting your most vulnerable feelings to another person seems unwise. If you’re a shipwreck survivor on a remote uninhabited island, then… you get the picture.
Everyone else would do well to ask themselves a couple of questions.
#1. Am I really just avoiding the risks of vulnerability with another person?
#2. Am I avoiding the hard work of finding and fostering a safe and secure relationship?
Doc Smith’s two conditions are scary, and a lot of work. The thought of somehow achieving great mental health from the comfort of my sofa is so much less frightening and so much more convenient.
However, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, or that it will work.
Let’s End On A Brighter Note, Shall We?
Just realized that my little post has been very serious and even ominous. Vulnerability with painful emotions and shipwrecks on deserted islands and (gasp!) hard work! My goodness.
I’ve been talking about the big ticket emotions. The traumatic ones, which are so painful that people will resort to destructive behaviour in order to avoid them. Healing these suckers involves distress and hard work because they are like Godzilla. (Anyone else looking forward to Godzilla Vs. Kong this year? Anyone? No? Ah well…)
There’s no obligation to begin with mega emotions. Start with something smaller and day-to-day. Rather than getting angry about that irritating thing your spouse does, be more vulnerable and admit how you feel a bit sad and/or anxious when it happens. Talk to a friend about something slightly uncomfortable, which you’ve never mentioned to anyone before.
I should add that it would probably help to make sure both of you are in a reasonably calm state to begin. First explain to your spouse or friend that you would like to talk to them about some feelings, and you’re hoping they can just listen and try to understand rather than give advice or argue.
Set yourself up for success, as the saying goes.