When I am feeling anxious, unhappy or generally lousy, I hate the idea of mindfully noticing these unwanted feelings. There is intense resistance to “sitting with” or accepting my emotions. During these low moments, I have zero understanding or time for my feelings. My only goal is to get rid of them. I imagine many others feel the same way. When it comes to our harsher feelings, they can be intense, and often cruel. These parts of our personality know exactly what to say to make us want to crumble.
I struggled for the longest time with Internal Family Systems therapy in telling me that my emotions, my critical voice, or my less healthier coping behaviours are not bad. IFS encourages that every part of us is welcome (to learn more about IFS and parts work, read this post). I struggled to accept this viewpoint when I felt every part of me was, in fact, not welcome. Parts of me could be a jerk some days, and there was no way I was going to cater to that nonsense. For those with anxiety, depression, or other mental health struggles, I’m sure you can relate to how badly you want to get rid of these unwanted feelings.
My own turning point
For me, my willingness to change my perspective came from recognizing that pushing away my unwanted feelings wasn’t actually getting rid of the pain. When I wanted to deny my urge to eat another slice of pizza, that part got louder. When I pretended I wasn’t feeling angry with my family, that part made sure it vented in my head. Wishing parts away rarely works in getting rid of the pain, or having them stay quiet.
It’s too hard
I get that it’s really hard to do therapy. It’s hard to sit with our emotions. It’s hard to create space for these distressing parts of our personalities to talk and voice their feelings. Can you imagine allowing those parts of you that are suicidal or have urges to self-harm to actually be given the space to talk? Understandably, there is fear in letting these voices have space because, what if it creates more distress, more extreme behaviours, or more danger?
I had these fears as well. I didn’t want to hear any of my anxieties. They were annoying and they would make me feel lousy all day. Who would sign up for that willingly? However, IFS teaches us a way to work with these parts of our personality safely so that they do not take over. There is a way to do the work carefully and slowly, so that other parts of your system do not get overwhelmed. We can continue to hear these parts of our personality, understand their fears and intents, build a better relationship with them, and negotiate for space or a shift in coping strategies.
There’s no way I can get better
Sometimes, we’ve lived with these unwanted emotions and behaviours for years. Some of the clients I’ve seen have gone to various therapists and tried different coping strategies to help with their healing. Understandably, if they feel stuck, they are pretty certain this is an unchangeable and fixed part of their living experience. They are confident that nothing will help, and there’s scepticism that healing can happen.
I felt this way as well. For the longest time, I’d focused on traditional talk therapy, using modalities like CBT and DBT. These are incredible counselling approaches that work for many folks. Coping skills, working through exposure treatment, and recognizing unhelpful thinking patterns are effective for treating many struggles. However, when we focus on treating just our thoughts, we are forgetting the rest of our body. Our body, ironically, is what carries traumas.
You experience feelings throughout your body. Sure, you can challenge your thoughts, you can try new behaviours, you can learn ways to cope. But for many of us, this isn’t enough. Knowing how to do a thought record isn’t enough. We want our emotions to catch up to what we know. In order to do that, our therapy styles cannot just focus on thoughts, but has to include experiential change. This means constantly returning our awareness back to the body and the system to see how it is affected by these interventions. Healing involves taking the time to notice our physical sensations, and understand what these subtle cues are trying to communicate.
This is the only way I can survive
Sometimes it can feel scary to let go of our current coping mechanisms. If you know that the only way you can manage your challenging family is by having a few glasses of wine at the end of the day, it is going to feel incredibly hard to give that up. I have clients who are cautious of telling others about self-harming behaviours because they fear repercussion or worry they will be shamed into stopping. The thought of changing our patterns can prevent many of us from starting the work.
For anyone who has hesitated to reach out for help because of the need to stop a specific coping mechanism, please know that this does not have to be the case. My job is not to tell you to stop drinking. I understand that there is a part of you that feels drinking is the only way in which you can survive this current hardship. However, if we were able to explore the underlying fears related to your family, would you have to keep drinking? What are you actually protecting by drinking? If you were no longer feeling threatened by this fear, would you need to keep coping in this way? Drinking patterns, and other coping mechanisms, can slow down if underlying fears are addressed. Once your system no longer feels threatened, it no longer has to survive by turning to wine.
I don’t want to know
A common reason that I see clients hesitating to do trauma work is that it will involve looking at the past. One of our strongest survival mechanisms is denial. Going back to a painful period in time can feel like we’re asking for trouble. It hurts to revisit difficult memories. We may feel cautious of how we will see our loved ones after exploring what those memories mean and how they have impacted us.
With EMDR, IFS, or any other trauma-based treatment, the goal is not to discover a big, bad secret from the past. However, with trauma-based treatments, we can become aware of details that we’ve kept hidden from our conscious awareness. When these details come to light, we have options. Clients can chose to share these details with me, or they can keep this awareness inside. Clients can decide whether this knowledge requires intervention. There are options to bring in new coping mechanisms or more self-compassion. We can work towards understanding the impact of these moments and unburdening our system of these wounds. Finally, clients can chose to keep doing what they’re doing and pretend this awareness does not exist. There is no set agenda for how we move forward. We know the pain is there, and we shift to addressing this pain, only when you are okay to go there.
Part of me was nervous about writing this article. I can talk nonchalantly about being a perfectionist, but acknowledging that I can also have messy feelings is hard. The fear of others’ judgements prevents us from reaching out (even though our system is desperate for help and relief). At the end of the day, hiding has not helped us feel better. Talking to a therapist who you feel is safe and effective is one way towards healing. If you have any experiences with the above battles and wish to talk, please don’t hesitate to reach out.