Clients often come to therapy looking for relief from symptoms, armed with talking points from pharmaceutical advertisements (depression is a serious medical condition, I’m taking anti-depressants but I still feel sad, depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain and I need to correct it).
Sometimes, however, they arrive with a different set of language. Sometimes, they complain of being always in turmoil, stuck feeling ashamed, worrying too much, and their goal is to feel a sense of peace within their self.
This quest for a sense of peace can be seen as akin to the desire to reduce symptoms—not to feel actively good, perhaps, but to not feel bad. But it can also be seen as a quest to feel relief as something more than the absence of pain, as John Cage challenged us to hear silence as more than the absence of sound.
When we have uncomfortable feelings, we want them to go away and leave us in peace. We perhaps even become uncomfortable about our discomfort—I shouldn’t feel sad or angry, and therefore, I am sad or angry about being sad or angry. Anxiety, rather than being a normal part of life, becomes a force for interference and dysfunction.
I think the problem is primarily one of identification.
We tend to think of ourselves as the part of our mind that thinks in words. This wordy thinker is the miniature us sitting at the controls in our head, and the rest of thought (imagery, proprioception, emotions) is stuff that happens to us. But the truth might be far different.
Not very long after conception, we come into some awareness of our body, its position and state, the stimuli that surround us in the womb. Proprioception, and then feelings, dominate our existence. Later, there is attachment, and through attachment, we learn emotions and their expression. Much later we learn to talk, and this thin veneer of wordy expression tops off a very deep, layered consciousness that has almost nothing to do with words.
When you feel something, you are that feeling—just as much as when you think something, you are that thought. Your emotions are a part of you, an expression of the process that is you in the world, in a deeper way than your thoughts are.
Thus when you feel sad, you are sad. Sadness is not some alien construct beamed into your experience from nowhere; it is part of you, made in that moment for some purpose. Perhaps in that moment it is wise to be sad, or functional, or spiritual, whatever your paradigm.
When we try to excise our feelings, what we are really doing is trying to excise a part of ourselves. Taking medicine to reduce sadness or anxiety means aggressing against the part of us that is sad or anxious. This kind of self-aggression is currently rampant in the Western world as the medical field transforms from a helping industry to a for-profit industry. We turn away from any part of us that does not feel good or look good.
Most of us have more empathy than this for other people. If we saw a sad friend, we would offer them comfort. We might ask what was wrong, or offer a shoulder to cry on or even just a smile and a kind word. It seems unreasonable to cut your friend out of your life because she is sad. But we are perfectly willing to do this to ourselves, to cut the sad self out. No sympathy, no comfort, no kind words, only warfare in the form of cognitive therapy and medication designed to make it go away.
The question is, how can one expect to find any kind of inner peace when committing these acts of self-aggression on a daily basis?
For me, therapy often comes to this point. I invite my clients to sit with their feelings of anger or sadness or anxiety or distress. Sometimes they need some coping skills to be able to tolerate the feelings long enough to dwell in them. Sometimes we can get there a little faster. But the object is just to be all right with feeling bad sometimes.
It is like taking control of your diet. First, you have to realize that being hungry is not an emergency. You don’t have to take extreme measures at the first twinge of hunger. It is all right to wait a while, and then to eat in a measured fashion. Ditto emotions: they are not an emergency that needs to be fixed immediately, but rather a natural part of life that can be tended to in an ordered fashion.
Once a person can sit with their feelings without panicking, they can start to probe a little deeper. Gendlin’s focusing techniques can work wonders, for example. One might also set up an empty chair, and invite the person to ask their sadness what it needs from the person. After all, the sadness is part of the person, and the person knows what it needs.
When feelings and emotions are allowed to be part of normal life, and better still, allowed to communicate their needs, then the person can start to experience emotions in a way that is not turbulent or conflicted. It becomes possible to experience peacefulness.
-- Jason Dias