Emotions: feel and adapt.
“Affect Regulation” – sounds mysterious, but it simply means “managing emotions.” And like the other things listed in the Balance Key, how we regulate our emotions can get out of balance in two different directions. One extreme is called “flat affect,” or emotional numbing – in other words, blocking our own ability to feel. Something we needed to do as children, but as adults it often takes the joy and depth out of life because when we block the negative emotions, the positive ones get blocked too. Bury sadness, and joy gets buried with it. The other extreme is being overly emotional, sometimes with intense uncontrollable outbursts.
Before we ‘jump in’ to emotions here, make sure you have a safe way to ‘jump out’ if you need to. At times it’s helpful for our wellbeing to slow the flow of emotions. What are good ways to do this? Some examples are watching TV- especially shows that make you laugh, playing a video game, reading a book, exercising, or cooking. Humor and distraction are great strategies! If you’re ready to be compassionate with yourself, Focusing offers a simple way of getting bigger than the emotion.
So, what exactly are emotions and why do we have them? It’s not what you’ve learned! The answer I give here is based on a new theory of emotions that is gaining traction, so if this feels new – that’s why. But don’t let that scare you – it’s simple and logical. We have emotions for the same reason we have legs, eyes, lungs, etc – because that’s how we adapted. Emotions are adaptive – they help us survive and thrive. How? Emotions call our attention to things which need attention, much in the way that physical pain calls our attention to the part of our body that’s hurting and needs attention. We would never just ignore a pain signal coming from our finger on a hot stove, yet we often do the equivalent with our emotions: we don’t listen to the important messages they give us. Different emotions give us different messages. When we cut them off, they are no longer available to serve us.
How do we reach a healthy way of experiencing and expressing emotions? Just like changing other habits – with practice. And often if we’ve been in one extreme with our emotions, we must swing first far to the other side before we can return to center. Here are a couple ways to begin to reestablish connection with emotions:
- Track emotions in your body, and try to find the emotion’s “signature.” Where in your body do you feel it? Does it have a particular sensation? Get curious the next time you notice that sensation in your body. Are you having the same emotion?
- If you think you “should” feel an emotion, but aren’t aware of having that emotion, try the emotion on by holding your body as if you are feeling that way. For example, if you think you “should” be angry, then clench your fists and your teeth, and scowl.
Once we feel, what do we do with these emotions? Different emotions call on us to do different things. Let’s take a closer look at two big emotions as examples: Shame and Guilt. The definitions presented below are copyright Charles M. Jones, and are included here with his permission.
Shame is often interpreted as “I am bad.” If we’re ashamed because of something in our past, we are helpless to do anything about it, and get stuck in a cycle of feeling bad about ourselves. Here is an alternative way to look at shame, that is not a dead end, and opens up options for working with it:
Shame arises when
I am committed
to personifying an ideal
for a role I play
in a group I belong to
and I am failing to do so.
When we use this definition of shame, suddenly we have options. We can use the acronym BITES to explore these options. We can change our Beliefs, or the Importance that we assign to the ideal, or the Tactics we use to strive for the ideal, or the Environment of the group, or our Setting – by leaving the group.
Shame is an isolating emotion – and I believe one of the most destructive outcomes from having been sexually abused as a child. Working through shame in this new way can pave the way for rejoining community with pride. For more on working with shame in this way, see TheShameLady.com
Guilt arises when
I am committed
to upholding an ethic
and I am failing to do so.
Guilt is different from shame, because we can feel guilty independent of any membership in a group. But, since "being ethical" with the other members of your group is an ideal in most groups, when guilt arises, shame will usually follow.
The opposite, however, is not true. We will often experience shame even when we don't experience guilt. For example, if you've ever thought to yourself: "Why do I feel ashamed for what happened to me as a child when I didn't do anything wrong?!", you've experienced shame without guilt.
The same “BITES” process we used with shame can be used to work with guilt. Since a common Belief for survivors who feel guilt is that they are responsible in some way for what happened, let’s “play” with this belief.
Still think the abuse was your fault?
Try this exercise: look at a child who is the age you were when you were abused. Imagine that if someone were to abuse this child, would you think it was this child’s fault? Sometimes it’s easier to have compassion for another child than it is to have compassion for one’s own child-self.
Here’s another exercise: Compare for a moment the case of a doctor having sex with his patient, with the case of a man sexually abusing a child. Research shows that there are similar “long-term emotional consequences”. There’s a big gap in power between a doctor and a patient, just as there is a big gap in power between a man and a child. Keeping this comparison in mind, read some things that the literature on doctor-patient impropriety says:
- The onus of responsibility…falls on the person who has the most power in the relationship, which is always the doctor.
- Meaningful consent to a sexualized relationship cannot be given in a situation of unequal power.
- No matter how difficult or boundary testing the patient/client may be, IT IS ALWAYS the professional’s responsibility to maintain appropriate boundaries.
- What if the patient initiates the relationship? Will that save a doctor from discipline or civil liability? The answer is clear: “in no instance shall consent of the patient or client be a defense.”
- It is the lack of reliable or true consent on the part of the patient which has led researchers to compare physician patient sexual contact to other sexually exploitative situations such as sexual assault and incest. It is noteworthy that several states specify that consent of the patient or client cannot be used as a defense to charges of sexual misconduct.
Note that they are talking about adult victims here. You were a child.