by Bernadette Healy
How well do you know yourself? Are you able to make sense of times when you experience strong emotion? Do you accept that experiencing strong emotions is an ok thing to do? It can be very frightening to feel oneself in the grip of a strong emotion. It may be that the emotion itself is one you are particularly loathed to feel. You may, for example, feel fear and trepidation when planning to discuss something difficult with your parents, even though you are 30 years old or more! At other times, you may become aware of yourself experiencing a strong internal emotional reaction of a sort that is foreign to your sense of who you are. For example, you may define yourself as compassionate and then experience yourself feeling revulsion towards another. After someone describes such an event, I might ask “did you get a fright from finding out that you could feel such strong revulsion?”, or “were you afraid that you might act in a way of which you had no sense of being capable?”. Others do actually react in the moment of strong emotion, in a way that leads to various negative and unintended consequences. One such consequence is an internal conflict about who they are, as suggested by that behaviour, compared with who they thought they were.
It might be strangely reassuring to know that this kind of situation happens to many people. Do not misunderstand, I am not suggesting that behaving in a way that leads to your giving yourself a fright is something to aim for, but should it happen to you, take the time to reflect on that experience so that you can come to understand. Sometimes when we experience very strong emotion which we then react to, we are filled with shame – for example if we yell at a loved one, if we are unable to stop that ‘should never be said’ comment from slipping out.
If you find yourself in a pattern of behaving in ways that you do not like in yourself, you might like to consider the possibility that the emotion and behaviour in question originally had a positive purpose but has since outlived its usefulness and morphed into something ugly and unhelpful. Think of the first time in your life that you remember experiencing yourself in the grip of that particular emotion and behavioural reaction – what was happening? Were you trying to make yourself heard? Were you trying to obtain needed attention? Were you just using the same communication method as that modeled in your family? Did the behaviour protect you in some way? Or enable you to interact in an otherwise intolerable situation?
The point is, that often the behaviours that we don’t like in ourselves were originally adaptive in some way. One way of exploring this possibility is to return to your family of origin – just in your mind – and ask questions such as: when do I first remember feeling that strong emotion?; who was there?; what was happening?; what challenge was I facing? The answers to these questions will often enable you to re-negotiate your relationship with that particular emotion and reaction. You are then more likely – when in the grip of that emotion – to be able to say to yourself “It is ok, I am not x years old anymore and I now have the power to determine my own way in the world. I still feel the emotion but I can handle it and choose a different response than the one I used to”
It is empowering to notice yourself in the moment of having a strong emotional reaction internally, while also witnessing yourself choosing to behave in a way which is opposite to that feeling. Of course it is part of normal life, particularly organizational life, to behave in a way that is contrary to how one is feeling. In reality however, the emotion is often not really allowed to be ‘had’, but tends to be actively suppressed, even denied – “what me sad? upset? You’ve got it wrong”. Or it might be projected onto someone else – “can you believe how angry that woman got?”, “how ugly is that?”, “what a wimp, fancy allowing himself to be influenced by his emotions?”.
When you take the time to accept and understand your emotional reactions you may experience a shift, and what was once frightening or repulsive to you may even begin to be seen as a long-lost friend!
“Welcome and entertain them all” is a line from the Rumi poem, The Guest House