Our “worst” or most maladaptive traits are often good and healthy coping mechanisms that have been turned up to such a high volume that they are now interfering with other healthy ways of being. For example, people pleasing as a child may have kept you from getting in trouble at home, but as an adult it may make it difficult to set appropriate boundaries in your relationships. One maladaptive trait that gets me into trouble is thinking my emotions more than feeling them. In fact, I have a friend who will check in with me by saying, “Are you intellectualizing your emotions again?” Talk about getting called out!
To really simplify things, we process our emotions best whenever we use both the thinking and feeling parts of our brain. Developing a healthy integration of our thinking and feeling is what leads us to healing, while getting lost for too long in one or the other usually results in us getting stuck.
Getting stuck is the last place we want to be with our own emotions. As the resident “over-thinker,” here are some ways to help take a step back when you find yourself getting lost in the feeling:
Look for Patterns
Whenever we’re faced with particularly confusing emotions or responses, a common response is to start to judge ourselves. “Why am I feeling this way? Why is this happening? What’s wrong with me?” If this starts to happen to you, try stepping outside of yourself and taking on the role of the scientist. When scientists have a problem they need to find a solution to, one of the essential steps in finding that solution is collecting data.
The easiest way to do this is to ask yourself questions. What happened right before you felt that way? What happened right after? What were you thinking? What were you feeling? Who else was there and what was said? What time of day did it happen? Try to be as non-judgmental as possible when you’re in this headspace, refraining from naming anything as ‘good’ or ‘bad. The goal is to situate yourself as a scientist who is dispassionately observing.
This doesn’t mean to ignore your emotions, it simply gives you the space to try to logically understand your emotions outside of feeling them, and try to understand more about them.
Everything Makes Sense in Context
Have you ever had trouble regulating yourself after hearing someone else talk about their emotions or opinions? Maybe when they start talking about their political ideology? (This seems to do the trick for many of us!) Thinking can help in this context because, as I think we’ve at least all seen, matching someone else’s emotional intensity rarely makes a situation better.
One of the ways you can use your thinking to diffuse an emotionally intense interaction is to move from a place of primarily feeling to a place of curiosity. Everything that we do, we do because it makes sense to us for some feeling or reason at the time. The same is true for everyone else. If everything makes sense in context, ask yourself why the opinions and reactivity of the other person make sense for them. Curiosity can move us away from an oppositional standpoint towards one of empathy and compassion.
Name It, Don’t Stuff It
There are times when we are all faced with emotions and experiences that have the potential to overwhelm us. I’m talking about those moments when what we’re feeling seems like it has the power to completely shut us down if we give in. Utter grief and sorrow. Shock and despair. The darkest corners of our depression and the frozen moments of anxiety.
It’s in these moments that our power to think emotions can truly come to the rescue, because without intentionally using our thinking, these emotions can get duct taped shut, closed into a box, and shoved into the forgotten places in our mind. These are the emotions we stuff down because we don’t know how to process them and would feel too unsafe feeling them. They are the emotions we stuff in order to survive.
When faced with these kinds of emotions, the first thing you can do is name it. Maybe you know it’s shock, or grief, or sadness. Or maybe you just know that what you’re feeling is overwhelming. Name it. Maybe even say it out loud: “I’m feeling despair right now. It’s really upsetting and I don’t know what to do with it.” Then you can put it in a box, set it on a shelf, and set a reminder to come back to it when you are in a calmer space. This gives your body time to calm down, and even just naming your emotion externalizes it enough to give you some space from it at that moment. Just remember to come back to it when you are feeling safe and calm. Coming back to the emotion later, when you’re feeling safe, will allow you to integrate your thinking and feeling, instead of just getting lost in the overwhelm.
Our bodies, emotions, and experiences are so intimately and intricately intertwined. And while we are all wonderful, we are also all wounded. I urge you to pay attention to both your thinking and feeling, and talk to a counselor if you need help with this. I found a lot of safety in thinking my emotions until I found I wasn’t able to heal fully without all of the feeling. Listen to your feelings. Listen to your brain. Listen to your body. It’s doing the best it can to heal you, so let’s help it along.
Thinking AND feeling with you,
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