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Anatomy of emotional healing: Resolving painful emotions

Many of us carry around painful buried emotions we avoid experiencing at all costs. Sometimes the "negative emotion" is fear, such as fear of losing control or being hurt. Often it's anger: feeling outraged over something unfair and damaging that happened in your past. Other examples include remorse or guilt over something we did or neglected to do, or sadness and grief over a great loss.

These buried emotions begin if a particularly upsetting incident or situation arises at the same time we don't have the emotional support needed to work it through. Sometimes, letting out the feeling would place us in danger of being abandoned or attacked. One common example is that strict or abusive parents may forbid children from expressing anger. (People who can't feel anger are much easier to control than those whose feelings are available to them.) Another example is a child being forbidden to grieve over the loss of someone close to them. A third instance is undergoing a great trauma or shock.

If an experience is sufficiently upsetting and unresolved, we decide that it threatens our sense of who we are, our personhood. Then, when apparently similar situations arise in the future, we experience them as if they were repetitions of the first. (Note that this is often a distortion: new experiences are often completely different from the original upsetting events, but we treat them as if they were the same.)

Since we treat all these experiences as repetitions of the same event, we mix the emotions of each of these recurrences in with the painful memory of the initial experience, forming a writhing clump of painful emotion. Over time, the emotional blob grows larger and becomes scarier and more overwhelming. So we bury it further, projecting the emotion onto others.

We imagine that people or situations close to us have the same feelings we reject in ourselves. We then avoid these people, or attack them for what we think they represent. We believe the world is doing this to us, rather than the truth: we're pretending the world is a certain way we've come to expect. Thus we create a self-fulfilling prophecy, by recreating the scary emotions all around ourselves.

Many of the "monsters" we so despise and fear in our lives are actually distortions and projections of the parts of ourselves we reject. Running from monsters in your dreams usually represents the same process: cutting off a part of yourself, of which you become terrified. The fear feeds on itself, until you become absolutely petrified of something that doesn't really exist. You demonize and deny that painful aspect of self anyway. But that part doesn't go away. It hangs around and haunts you.

Often people keep recycling one painful emotion over and over as a way to avoid having to experience something else that seems more distressing. Common examples are using sadness to avoid feeling rage, or nursing resentments so we don't have to acknowledge a sense of emptiness or fear of losing control. (At times this can become a racket in which we insist everyone must "help" us with the particular emotion, whereas the real culprit is something else entirely. I see this a lot in patients with chronic pain.)

Another possibility is the painful emotion relates to a conflict in the present that seems to have no good solution. You just feel stuck.

Particularly if you were trained as a child to distrust your emotions, it's common to feel as if strong emotion could take over and overwhelm you and kill you or drive your crazy. Or you believe expressing your emotion may make other people attack or hate you.

How to do it

How then does one heal these internal wounds and painful misrepresentations of self? Three conditions must be met.

First, you must be willing. This step is the point of failure for most of us. We decide we're "simply not the kind of person who can do that" or we deny that anything needs to be addressed or changed at all. Willingness necessitates giving up the false certainty we know what is going to happen. It requires the readiness to relinquish control. It demands a certain trust in the process, believing in the potential to change for the better.

But most importantly, willingness obliges the acceptance of the support of others -- fully and deeply -- without any guarantees about the outcome. You simply can't heal by yourself. It's not possible. Why not will become clear in a moment.

Second, you must find a "safe space" to tell the truth. By this I mean finding a setting where you can speak your mind without repercussion. You're looking for people who have no fixed idea of who you are and no personal stake in what you say, the emotions you display, or the conclusions you reach.

I would mention that many therapy groups, psychotherapists, and support groups say they are safe but turn out to be anything but. A few are genuinely insincere and have no interest in your well being, but most of people and groups who are unhelpful have no ulterior motive. They are simply too different from you to be able to hear you accurately. Or they are dominated by an internal agenda that has nothing to do with you.

Like everything else in life, caveat emptor: buyer beware. Be appropriately skeptical.

How do you know if a person or group is safe? Mostly you listen to your heart, your feelings. The best clue is the experience that the person or group you're with really seems to understand you and can reflect accurately both what you're saying and the implications you haven't expressed directly. They seem to accept you and don't simply insist you buy into the group belief system. Stay away from the "We're all hammers, so you must be a nail" crowd. (But they might be useful if you agree your problem fits their schema.)

Remember that you owe no one your trust. Trust must be earned. If the "safe space" you've found isn't trustworthy, stay away. If this is a group, see how they treat others who open up. Are they accepting or judgmental?

Notice how you feel after the session or meeting is over. If you head for home heavy hearted, thinking to yourself, "I had no idea I was this screwed up! I'm really in trouble!", you've discovered an important clue to stay away from this group in the future. If instead you bounce out the door with the impression that you may have some work to do but you're much more hopeful about tackling your problems, that's a good sign.

Frankly, once you're clear about the anatomy of healing, you can take it upon yourself to find the people who can help you do it. If one group doesn't work out, no sweat. You'll find others who can genuinely be of help. Be stubborn enough to insist on the real thing. It's the only way.

Initially the third and final step is the hardest. In the safe place you've found, once the therapist or group has won your trust and when you're ready, tell the truth. This process begins in small steps -- you might simply say at the beginning that you're glad to be there but feel too new to really disclose very much. But ultimately you must become more forthcoming.

Ultimately you must tell the truth. All of it, from the bottom of your heart. Tell the good parts and the bad, your triumphs and failures, the stuff you hate and that you love. Spell out how you feel and the conclusions you've drawn about what has happened.

The point is to "give away" the experiences and the emotions that have formed you, particularly those that are so hard to face. You may find the important experiences horrible and overwhelming. Get into them anyway. Let them out; tell the truth. Tell it so that anyone listening can feel what it is like to be you. All of it.

If you do this fully, and if your therapist or group is receptive and supportive, you'll encounter a series of remarkable events. First, you'll discover your audience rapt with attention. Rather than judging you, they'll be moved by your courage, hanging on every word. The truth is the most inspiring thing anyone can say.

Because you are being actively heard, you go on and tell even more. You enter the areas of your experience you could not possibly face alone.

Next, if you discuss some of the most painful events, you'll begin to feel like you're falling. Suddenly the cork pops open and the stuff you've been suppressing all this time comes tumbling out. You can't hold back anymore. It's all out in the open. You willingly relinquish control.

But rather than dying or going insane as you've known all along you would, the opposite occurs. You have a release. What you've been so afraid of for so long turns out to be simple, ordinary human emotion: anger, fear, grief, shame, guilt, rage, terror, whatever. You are certain that this will last forever, but strong emotion always feels timeless and in fact lasts for only a few moments. After a brief squall, the storm dissipates.

Next, with the group's or therapist's support, you'll discover immature, irrational conclusions underlying the experience -- judgments you made long ago about what it means -- that are the key to releasing the experience and letting it go. You realize that those decisions you made about yourself were understandable given what happened. But upon reflection, they simply aren't true. (This part, too, you simply can't do by yourself. Your distortions are perfectly obvious to everyone but you. Here you are blind.)

Then comes the healing, the miracle. The whole thing simply disappears. Poof, it's gone. You are restored. The iron collar around your neck is no more.

You realize this thing that ruled over you for so long not only is gone, it was unreal. In a sense it never happened. You've spent most of your life terrified of a mirage.

The most important truth about emotional healing is whatever you can fully describe and release disappears forever. It's truly vanished, gone for eternity, like a sand castle in the tide. You won't be able to release everything in one step, but most of us who've been through this process remember the time when we let go of the big one with the same vivid fondness as the recollections of our first love affair.

A word of warning: once you find out that releasing emotion is so freeing, you can become a "release junky," addicted to the process long after it's outlived its usefulness. You find that you can release a stubborn emotion just so far, let out 95% of it, and feel unbelievably free and healed. But that 5% stub remains. If you keep trying to release it, you wind up just playing the same tapes over and over. Nothing genuine happens. (Some therapists or groups get stuck in this trap: they love certain kinds of releases and reject others. They wind up going around in circles.)

That's why there's a part two to emotional healing.


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©2011, James Gagné, MD