Imagine you innocently hit your arm with your car door one day after returning from a long day of work and errands. You’ve bruised yourself. That was not fun. Maybe you even muse about how you tend to forget where various bruises came from, but assure yourself that with this one, certainly you’ll remember! Two days later, you gently bump the same spot on your desk at work. You pull your arm back dramatically, touch the tender, slightly discolored area and realize you have a bruise. That hurt. Hmm.... Where did that bruises come from, anyway?
Over the next few days, you are constantly reminded of these sensitive nerve endings on your forearm, though the tell-tale color has significantly faded. Someone puts their hand on your arm while speaking with you, you brush it against the doorway as you turn a corner too quickly, and even the hard spray setting on your shower suddenly seems just a little more aggressive than you remember.
What’s going on? Is there some cosmic joke, or scientific theory to explain a sudden universal attraction to explain the constant, painful reminders of the existence of this protuberance? Sure, cognitively, you know that’s not the case.
Now, instead of a physical breaking of blood vessels just under the skin (a bruise) leading to this new sensitivity, imagine a time when you were emotionally wounded by the way someone treated you. Think of how you might have reacted (or over-reacted) and felt deeply offended, or even lashed out verbally.
What if I told you that it wasn’t them. Well, it wasn’t about them, anyway. At least, not entirely. Just like the gentle spray on your arm from the warm shower water isn’t suddenly violently offensive, we are often hurt by the way people treat us because of deeper, earlier bruised egos and painful prior experiences that have left us emotionally sensitive and vulnerable to specific triggers.
Almost all of us have deeply ingrained negative beliefs about ourselves: Whether internalized through traumatic experiences that left us feeling as if we are not able to protect ourselves, abandonments that led us to feel unworthy of love, or unfair blame or unrealistic expectations placed on us that left us feeling we are innately bad.
The experiences connected to these beliefs may settle in to our subconscious after awhile, becoming difficult to remember the specifics. Yet, the messages we internalized may actually strengthen and be reinforced over time. Our mind may take future experiences, attach the negative belief and file it deep in our mind’s filing cabinet under “unsafe,” “unworthy,” “Not good enough,” or any number of categories. These negative belief files become crowded and we become more and more sensitive to people’s thoughtless, self-serving, immature or even intentionally cruel words and behavior towards us. Their behaviors, intentional or not, touch our sensitive, emotional nerve-endings causing us to recoil in pain even if we can’t remember the original cause of the sensitivity.
How can you reduce these sensitivities and sort through the old files of negative messages about yourself? There are many treatments and therapies that can help you recognize your triggers. You can learn positive coping skills so you don’t overreact in a way that (ironically) increases your chances of making a hurtful situation even more difficult to remedy (CBT and DBT are therapies that can help, for example).
There are therapies (such as EMDR) that can help you sift through the cabinet full of overstuffed files of painful experience and re-sort them in to more adaptive categories: “I did the best I could,” “I am good enough as I am,” or “I have ways to protect myself now.” When our mind jumps to these messages when confronted with a trigger, how much nicer would it be if you could really believe that! With internal messages such as these more positive ones, the power of future hurts is minimized- significantly.
If there are emotional triggers that keep bringing unwanted pain to your life, maybe now is the time to address those triggers. Family Solutions Counseling has therapists trained in CBT, DBT and even EMDR. Let’s talk about what can we do to help you reclaim your emotional strength and move you forward today.
Happy, Sad, Mad, Glad. We chuckle at the simplicity of these four emotions. We often consider such a basic list to be elementary in our human understanding of the many emotions. There are lists upon lists of vocabulary in most languages to describe the nuances of our emotional states.
As it turns out, it really IS so simple as the basic four. When psychologist and neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett studied emotion, what she found is that we over complicate them. Across cultures, the only emotional states that absolutely exist for everyone, is: Pleasantness (such as being happy), unpleasantness (such as being sad), Aroused (such as being Mad) and Calm (such as being “glad”). Each culture individual breaks these down in to multiple description words for each category. One culture may not necessarily have a word for an emotion that is considered universal by another culture. Not only may they not have a word for it, but it can be argued that they don’t recognize it as an emotion at all!
What’s more, our emotions aren’t a result of something happening outside of ourselves. Nope. Our emotions are actually a result of something happening internally. So when we say our boss “made us mad.” That isn’t the case. Our emotions are actually just giving us a readout from our brain of the experiences our body is having. So, if our boss puts us down in front of a coworker, our cognitive interpretation of that event may be that we won’t be respected by others or that our job is at risk. These thoughts may lead our heart to pound and our face get hot. We may feel our fists clenching or jaw tightening. Our brain does a quick survey of it’s sensory inputs and reports back: We are aroused, and it’s not pleasant.
Yet another person may interpret this experience completely differently. They may think, “my boss doesn’t have very good social skills” or “maybe he’s going through a rough time.” As a result of interpreting this experience differently there is not the physiological response leading to the same emotional readout. This person may experience some unpleasantness related to the situation, but overall a sense of calm.
If our interpretations can vary so widely depending on a variety of factors, we can’t possibly say our boss was the cause of anything direct.
When you do have a strong emotional response, what is your brain wanting you to do with this information? That, it doesn’t know. It has done its job to send us the report. It’s encased in that thick skull of ours. It doesn't’ know beyond anything beyond what the senses have told it and it certainly doesn’t know what the best response is to the discomfort.
What we do then, requires a higher level of thinking. So what are the choices?
It’s important to note that sitting with it does not mean fueling it. You are not adding thoughts such as, “my boss always does this to me!” Instead, you are just embracing the emotion, “This does not feel good.” It’s also critical you not judge it. “Why do I let my boss get to me like this?” Your brain did it’s job in giving you its full report. Just appreciate it did its job and let it be, knowing the intensity will pass.
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