Emotions turn up quickly, with a force and direction of their own that makes them feel like unassaible features of who we are. In many ways this is so – invalidating a person’s feelings is a sure-fire way of trashing their sense of self and causing them great discomfort. How we feel is a big part of who we are, but what happens if how we feel isn’t how we want to feel?
Emotions can be changed, responses can be altered over time. I know, because I’ve done it. While it’s possible to change how you think in a relatively short time frame – weeks are generally enough, the emotions can take months, or years to retrain. Panic triggers are a good example here. (Nothing triggery is coming up). Panic triggers happen when we experience something that brings a memory of trauma too close to the surface. If we aren’t in danger, we can still panic because the body responds with fear. That fear can be unlearned.
My main method (and there may be others, I don’t know) is to get myself somewhere I feel safe, and to think about the emotion I want to change. This can involve visualising the situation I react to, and working on telling myself how I want to feel about it. For example, go back a few years and a kiss from a friend would panic me. It took me months of deliberate work to change this, and while I’m never going to want random people kissing me without permission, I can now comfortably kiss and be kissed by close friends.
Where the thinking mind leads, the feeling part of a person will eventually follow. What works best for me is to think my way into imaginary situations that would provoke a response I don’t want, and to use a mix of thinking and feeling my way through, over and over again so that I can change how I feel. This can also be done by working in actual ways with other people – having very safe and supportive spaces has allowed me to feel easier about other people telling me what to do with my body (thank you Vishwam!). Working alone in my head can be quicker than waiting for people who can help, but there comes a point when you have to dive back in to actual situations and see what happens. Having supportive people to help that happen safely is invaluable.
Changing emotional responses brings up questions about sense of self. There are a number of emotional responses I can generate that cause other people problems – I get upset easily, I feel things keenly. There have been times when I’ve felt under a lot of pressure to tidy up my emotions so as to be more convenient for other people. I don’t recommend it. The time to try and change emotional responses, is when you don’t feel that how your body reacts is in line with your authentic self. This is a call only an individual can make, no one can or should try to make it for you. If your grief, or your anger, your distress or your fear are not manifesting in ways that sit well with who you think you are, then work to change it. These are probably maladaptive survival strategies that worked in some context, but mostly don’t work and are not, in fact, you.
It’s important to remember that our emotional reactions are not a manifestation of pristine nature. They are not a wilderness we have to protect. Our emotions seem very natural, but we have all been conditioned to react in certain ways – what we’re punished for, or rewarded for, what’s ignored, what’s taken seriously – the families and communities we grew up in have taught us patterns of acceptable feeling, and those feelings may not sit well with who we really are. Consider the many men who have been taught not to cry, but who have been allowed to shout. Consider the religious communities that bring up their LGBT people to hate who they are and feel guilty and worse… we do not learn to feel in isolation, and sometimes what we have learned needs to be unlearned.
I decided a long time ago that I would believe that my most authentic self is the person I choose to be, the person I work towards being. It may not be the answer for everyone, but when approaching dysfunctional emotions, I’ve found it a useful place to start.