Get closer or move away?

by Adrian W. Hall, MFT, ATR

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Sometimes it is hard to tell whether we should honor and stay with our difficult feelings or to distract ourselves and not focus so much on them.  Generally speaking, as a therapist, I am in support of honoring and staying with feelings, especially since most us of naturally employ avoidance tactics.  But what about when that is causing more suffering than necessary?

In the next section of the book, David Richo talks about affirmations.  Earlier in my life, my association to affirmations was that they were a way to bypass reality and ignore/avoid.  It is my understanding that David Richo suggests using affirmations in a meaningful way that supports creating a reality and state of being that is your choice, drawing from the best parts of you that already exist.  But before we get into that, I want to talk a little bit more about the question about staying with or moving away from feelings because this comes up a lot for clients and friends.

Feelings are agents of our emotional system that deliver messages to us.  They are meant to make a delivery and move on. Just like the FedEx guy comes and drops off your package (signature required, this is fancy mail!) and leaves.  He doesn’t stay and chat for the rest of the afternoon or move into your place, right?  Ok, same deal.  As soon as you sign for the package, that feeling is on its way out because it did its job.   If you don’t sign and acknowledge the feeling, the guy is going to have to come back.  The messages help us know what to do or not do, say or not say, get closer or move away.  Get good at opening the door and being there to sign when those packages come in.  It is important to honor real feelings.

Now, there are time when your tricky brain is not telling you the truth.  Your brain is actually doing something that it thinks is more important, which is protect you.  Sometimes your brain will send up the alert system, fear, in order to help you avoid experiencing pain that you have experienced before.  If there is something that has hurt you before, and it has, since we are humans living in a human world, your brain will do you the favor of trying to make sure that never happens again, without you even knowing.  Usually, the fear being activated is illogical and, what David Richo calls, “neurotic fear”.  How do you know if it is neurotic fear?  You can do a little test.  Ask yourself 1.  Is this true? (meaning: is the thought causing the fear true?)  2.  Is it helpful?  If you get “no” on either one, that is illogical fear that you don’t need to get into.  It needs to be acknowledged, but you don’t need to spend a whole lot of time on it.  Here’s an example:  Is it true that there could be a big earthquake?  Yes.  Is it helpful to walk around every day thinking about the fact that it could happen any second?  No.  You can prepare reasonably.  But obsessing about it is not going to help you.

So, what do you need to do?  You can reframe it.  For example: “I know that an earthquake is not happening right now and it is not probable” or “I know this fear is not real.  I am completely safe right now”.  And/or, you need to start thinking about or doing something else.  Literally, get into something else.  Call someone and ask about their day, listen closely and get absorbed in what they are saying.  Play a videogame.  I really don’t care what you do as long as you are super into it and it is safe.

Another situation when it is better to move away from your feelings (after acknowledging them, you can tell the FedEx guy he has the wrong address) is when you have a false belief going on that is giving you some really unpleasant feelings like fear, hopelessness, anxiety, shame.  Here’s how you know this is going on:  you have had this thought or some version of it going on for a long time.  It causes regular suffering.   You can ask your friends if your worry is a familiar theme.  They likely know.  There probably is some pain in there that comes from your past that you need to pay attention to and work out at a certain point.  However, if you have already worked on it, this thought/feeling cycle might just be a habit.  You need to stop poisoning yourself and get off that racetrack.  There’s a good chance that the thoughts and feelings around that false belief are not only unpleasant, but also reinforcing more of that theme to show up in your life.  Why do you want to reinforce negative things that are not even true?  You don’t.  So, that is another time when you need to acknowledge that thought/feeling pattern and back away, get into something else.  Catch yourself in the act and move away from it.

If you want to read more about neurotic fear and identifying it, check out Distinguishing Types of Fear.  To know more about the system for healthfully processing your feelings (i.e. opening the door, signing for and unpacking your delivery), readBuild Your Bridge.

*This post is written in response to a section in David Richo's book "When Love Meets Fear: Becoming Defense-Less and Resource-Full".  

Being Triggered

by Adrian W. Hall, MFT, ATR

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Oh, wow.  Being triggered is not fun.  Especially when you don’t know it is happening.  In this section, David Richo is talking about fears that come up, particularly old ones that cause us to act from the space of the neurotic ego (I just think of the neurotic ego as a space of unhealed pain.  And, because we are all human, we all have a little bit of it).  Usually this pain is showing up when you are really upset about something or you’re involved in a disagreement with someone…during your least favorite moments, let’s just say.

The fear David Richo talks about is related to what he calls a “cellular memory” which connects the mind and body.  So, something unpleasant happens, adrenaline is released because of the fear being experienced and it is encoded as a fear in the body.  This usually happens early in life.  The tough part is that these fears aren’t always being activated with a picture memory to help us know it is happening. 

David Richo gives us a couple of hints to help us know a fear is being triggered:

1.        You revert to your worst fear or most disabling belief (i.e. I can’t survive alone,        there’s something deeply wrong with me)

2.       You feel powerless which can often times translate to rage

3.       You experience a visceral response (it makes you want to tear down a telephone pole, hurt someone or yourself…not for real, but almost)

4.       You may be indignant and looking for validation and agreement from others to prove that what you are upset about is not irrational

The way to handle the fear is to know it is happening (use those four points to check yourself when you’re upset or some of my suggestions below) and create a pause between the experience of the fear and your response to it.  When I talk with my clients about this in therapy, we look for different ways that my client can know they are triggered.  Is it a feeling in the body?  It is a re-occurring thought that comes up when the fear is activated (maybe something minimizing “this is stupid” or maybe something self abasing “everything is always my fault”)? Is it self destructive behavior?  Once you find your cues, you can know the fear is coming up and you can create space, a moment before you react. 

This takes practice, so be patient.  Once you know the fear is happening, stop the action.  Let it pass by.  Do things that don’t require emotional effort.  I let myself go to the grocery store, run errands, listen to music, watch TV, exercise, vent to my sister because she makes me laugh.  It also helps me to remind myself that I am just triggered and that it will pass (even though it seems unbearable sometimes).  It always does!  Some things that are definitely not on the approved list: making any big decisions or having any big talks with anyone about the state of your relationship.  Seriously.  If we can stop ourselves from automatically reacting (i.e. attacking your partner, quitting your job, deciding you need to move immediately, doing something to sabotage yourself), we can eliminate collateral damage.   The more practice you get with recognizing the fear and stopping the action, the easier it will get.  Also, the more you will be able to show your body that you are safe even when the fear is activated.  This means you are resolving the fear experientially (i.e. scary stimulus is paired with a non-scary reaction) and addressing what David Richo talks about: the fear being stored in our cells.  You are literally changing your body and your brain, moving toward health, when you create the space by having the presence of mind to have a different response.


*To learn more about this blog and the author, please visit the About section of this website.

 *This post based on the section "The Past of Fear: Cellular Memory" (pp. 21-26).