As a human being, you feel all sorts. Jovial, anxious, excited, sad or happy. That faint sense of unease…just all sorts! In the months leading up to Christmas just gone I went through a period of “struggling” again with my OCD. I started to react to some of the “negative” emotions that were showing up in my body. I began to think anxiety meant something was consistently wrong with my external world. I interpreted sadness as being something inherently wrong with my internal world. So I started to perform compulsions again!! Who’d have thought a relatively experienced OCD-recovery agent such as myself could fall into such a trap? Oh well. I have learnt from my lapse and will now add it to my recovery arsenal, levelling me up to some sort of Recovery Rambo, slaughtering compulsions in dark crevices of brain matter. I thought this post would therefore be useful for myself to revisit some of what I have learnt in recent years about emotions. Plus, I hope anyone reading mignt find it beneficial. Recovery from OCD is generally about learning skills that improve mental health universally. So read on ye emotional one!
I find it is useful to go back to childhood to consider what many of us may have learnt about emotions as tots and tiddlers. From parents, teachers, and any other person who is bigger and more wrinkled than you at that age. The very reassurances and statements you receive from these folk, mostly spoken with good intentions for sure, could possibly deliver a not too helpful message. For instance, a common instruction from a teacher could be “don’t be nervous” to a pupil worried about acting in their first nativity play as the arse-end of a donkey. Or a parent may demand “don’t be angry” to their child who has just been told that a planned trip to the zoo is cancelled because the car is broken down. Another child could witness how sad cartoon characters always seem to have less friends than the jolly ones. So is sad bad too?
Society’s cultural message about emotions has not always been particularly helpful either. As males get older common instructions such as “man up” and “grow some balls” are thrown at them if they start to portray some of these frightful feelings. A big part of Britain’s cultural heritage in the past century has been built around the catchphrase of having the desired “stiff upper lip”. These pressures are of course not confined to men. Women too are severely judged on their emotions. Females can commonly be labelled as “hysterical”. This phrase brings about connotations of having too many emotions, of not being able to control them and hence being unpredictable because of them. Indeed, someone exhibiting this heightened state of emotion is at real threat of being accused of “being on her period” and therefore seen as irrational and not to be taken seriously.
So, we are repeatedly, throughout our lives and from multiple angles, bombarded with the same message: there are certain emotions that are bad. There are others that are good. Yet we all feel all of them. Which creates a problem. If we have been repeatedly taught to chastise and discriminate against some feelings, then how are we expected to react when they inevitably show up? I imagine anyone with any sense would try to avoid those emotions, they would try to hide them from everyone else. They may even get angry with themselves for experiencing them in the first place.
Judging emotions as either good or bad starts you on a dangerous cycle. Say you feel anxious about a meeting at work and you label that feeling instantly as a bad one. It would be natural for you to then feel guilty about feeling anxious. Then, knowing that this is quite ridiculous, you feel angry about feeling guilty about feeling anxious. Reflecting on this a little further, you might understandably feel quite sad… So you feel sad because you feel angry because you feel guilty because you feel anxious. How traumatic! All because you felt a very natural feeling…
Many anxiety disorders have the denial of feelings as one of their headlining acts. Think of agoraphobia. Someone cannot stand the thought being feeling unsafe and anxious outside the home so they eventually never leave. This avoidance of that anxiety reinforces the message to the brain that they cannot handle the outside world, that it is bad. OCD is looped in a similar pattern. Our marked sensitivity to anxiety means that we try to do everything to deny it. Which means that we feel it all the time. I remember I used to take myself off to bathrooms out in public and try to talk away my anxiety. I used to put my head in the pillow at home and pleaded with my body to stop despairing. That worked about as well as a fire extinguisher filled with petrol.
So…what’s the answer then? Change the relationships with those feelings. If they are going to be around no matter what then it makes sense to let them in. Welcome them in with open arms actually. It is a foreign concept at first and can feel weird. Your body and brain may have been attempting to get rid of the “horrible” emotions for so long that at first you might even feel like you are in serious danger, going against all conventional wisdom. Interestingly and reassuringly, after a while, those feelings just begin to feel more normal. They are a part of your daily existence in the same way moments of excitement and joy and connection have been. Life begins to flow. And that we like.
How do you start this challenging process? Firstly I would say don’t put too much pressure on yourself. You can explore the concept gently. At the bottom of this post there is a meditation titled “Exploring Difficulties”. It is less than 10 minutes long and it instructs the listener to think of something that has been challenging them recently and then to explore the feeling that evokes. Essentially, this is the practice of not attempting to get rid of emotions you once thought were negative. I find that once I stop resisting it can be quite soothing. It gives you distance between you and your emotions. So you are someone experiencing or even watching anxiety. Rather than fighting it and becoming it personified. When you observe anxiety in this way it can end up feeling interestingly pleasant, even exhilerating. Butterflies in the stomach, energy under the skin and a raised heartbeat. Very close to its opposing partner in the emotional world – excitement.
This is classic mindfulness and the more you practice it the better you get. I think something that trips us up as humans again and again is that we make the mistake of treating our internal worlds the same way we do our external worlds. If there is a poisonous person in your life who always makes you feel terrible about yourself, eventually it makes sense to cut that person out. Or if your toaster kept setting fire you would chuck that out too. The issue is you can’t do this with your internal experiences. I cannot easily discard that feeling of dread about the dentist or put the thought about disease in the recycling bin. We humans do suffer. We experience pain, loss and despair. Just as we experience joy, excitement and connection. The cruel irony, as with “nasty” thoughts, is the more we try to avoid one set of emotions and cherry pick others, the more our minds find possible ways we could feel the to-be-avoided emotions. So you can end up feeling them everywhere.
Another way to start to get comfortable with the Emotions Formerly Known as Bad is to do something incredibly simple. Talk about them. Call them out. I dare you to say to someone “I’m feeling anxious today”. Because the person you say that to will know exactly how you feel. They too are having a human experience. They too feel anxious and sad and scared sometimes. As a society we are still chronically awful at opening up in these ways. There is the fear of judgement, of seeming weak. So instead we keep it inside and judge ourselves, ironically making us weaker. For years I feverishly tried to cover up emotions I did not want others to see. It was exhausting. I was so desperate for people to not see me anxious or vulnerable. I became pretty masterful at it. It just caused untold pain internally. When I started to speak of it the relief was tremendous. It was like bleeding a radiator of horror. Then feeling lighter and free.
Lastly, I would suggest looking closely at the labels you place on emotions. If you think anxiety is bad, how about reframing that? Could anxiety just be anxiety? Could anxiety even be seen as good? Could you get excited about the next time you are going to feel anxious? A case in point would be a recent personal experience of my own. I had a presentation to do at university in front of classmates and examiners. In the past, despite best intentions, I would become self-aware and red-faced. I would be thinking too much about how I looked rather than what I said. I wanted to escape the platform. This time, just the other week, I knew those feelings would come again. I knew I would feel nervous and a sense of dread. So I thought “bring it on” and I said to myself “just how anxious can I get?” I felt the heat on my skin and the beat of my heart and said to myself “this is awesome this is happening, I am grateful for it”. After a while those bodily sensations just accompanied my experience and I enjoyed doing my presentation. It was a good buzz.
There you have it. A whistle stop tour of emotions. I should add that I am not saying lets all get really sad and live a life of misery. Of course we all want a life full of joy and peace and connection. It just makes sense to me to re-evaluate that rocky relationship with parts of my life that are going to be there whether I resist them or not. Especially when, if I accept them, they tend to not show up as much. Re-visiting this stuff has helped me to get back on track to having some really positive mental health. That’s not to say there are not hours or days when the struggle feels real. But now I’m seeing that struggle as a challenge rather than a disaster. Or even as an opportunity to practice feeling anxious rather than an ordeal to be terrified by. Thanks for reading!