One of my favorite songs in the Broadway musical Book of Mormon is “Turn it Off”. The gist of the song can be wrapped up in the following lyrics:
You say you got a problem?
Well that’s no problem!
It’s super easy not to feel that way!
When you start to get confused
because of thoughts in your head,
Don’t feel those feelings,
Hold them in instead!
Turn it off!
Like a light switch! (etc)
Yes, it’s silly, but it also poignantly reflects the common practice of ignoring uncomfortable feelings.
How do you feel when you think about the following words: anxiety, doubt, self-criticism, regret, boredom, discomfort, shame, guilt, sadness, fear?
Most of us would probably report negative associations with those feelings.
When negatively charged emotions arise, the default mode is to turn them off, to numb or hide them. There are nifty little tricks to bypass the uncomfortable emotions and instead access feel good neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin.
We use food, alcohol, drugs, shopping, gambling, sex, exercise, etc. to make ourselves feel better.
Problematically, these fixes are temporary, they can lead to a reliance on the self-soothing behavior, and they don’t truly make the uncomfortable feeling go away.
That emotion doesn’t get a chance to truly release if it is constantly self-soothed and stuffed deep inside.
It is NORMAL to feel emotions that are commonly labeled as “negative”.
It is also possible to release the negative connotation attached to certain emotions.
I will explain how I finally, in my 40s, learned how to do this!
It all started with my meditation practice, in which I discovered that I could be an observer to all the crazy caca that went on in monkey-mind brain. I learned that my thoughts and feelings were not “me” and that I could, with practice and awareness, detach and become a non-emotional observer.
For many years I had self-soothed feelings of anxiety and self-criticism with sugary treats. When I began to take on the role of an observer of my feelings I increased my awareness of the appearance of anxiety and self-critical thoughts.
Then (and I realize this sounds a little kooky), I would greet and get curious about the feelings instead of trying to push them away. For example:
Oh, hello anxiety! It’s you again. I see you are asking for that chocolate bar in the cupboard. That old trick again? I’m curious, why are you here? Is it because of the upcoming presentation? Interesting!
I discovered that if I took the time to allow (and almost welcome!) the feeling of anxiety, to sit with it and curiously question it, I could release it naturally and with a relative quickness.
This was huge, because for so many years my automatic response to anxiety would have been:
1. Think about making cookies.
2. Say, “No, I shouldn’t.”
3. Obsess about why I should or should not make cookies.
4. Declare: “I feel like crap. I deserve cookies.”
5. Make cookies, feeling momentarily happy as I imagine how yummy they are going to taste.
6. Eat too many cookies.
7. Feel guilt, shame, physical discomfort AND the return of the anxiety.
This reframing of uncomfortable emotions, and the release of automatic self-soothing behavior has been transformative.
If you recognized patterns of self-soothing behavior in your life, but you feel that “welcoming” uncomfortable emotions is too big of a stretch, do not fear! Next week I will be talking about the cultivation of awareness, which is Step #1 in this process.
Questions? Comments? Email them to me: firstname.lastname@example.org. I would LOVE to hear from you.