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".