Accepting Unwanted Emotions

Emotions: according to the dictionary, the definition of an emotion is, “a conscious mental reaction (such as anger or fear) subjectively experienced as strong feeling usually directed toward a specific object and typically accompanied by physiological and behavioral changes in the body”.

But emotions serve us in a variety of ways.  For example, they give us valuable messages (e.g., fear in an unsafe situation), reveal how important something is to us (e.g., you have stronger emotions in your romantic relationship than you do when you’re shopping for cereal or having a casual conversation with a stranger), and prompt us to act (e.g., you stroke a partner’s face with love or turn away from spoiled food in disgust).

But the story of emotions is a bit more delicate and complex, as it isn’t simply about what we feel in response to what happens around us.  We tirelessly size up our inner world and place value judgments on it.  Depending on the circumstances we’re in and the messages we’ve received along the way about what we’re allowed to feel, emotions (or at least certain ones) may get tagged as acceptable, healthy, or reasonable, or they might get labeled as wrong, crazy, or threatening.  For instance, researchers at the University of Oxford highlighted the following categories of disapproving beliefs when it comes to painful emotions:

  • Emotions are too powerful and can’t be managed.

  • Emotions are bad and/or ridiculous.

  • Emotions are defective and make no sense.

  • Emotions are unproductive.

  • My emotions could sabotage me or other people.

  • My emotions might spread to other people and I can’t let that happen. 

What’s thorny about this is that if we have a negative outlook on our emotions, we’ve got a whole new load to carry—we’re more likely to have another negative emotion layered on top of the one we’re already experiencing.  The emotions we have about how we feel are known as meta-emotions.  For example, let’s say we see sadness as a sign of personal weakness and inadequacy.  Because of this viewpoint, we might feel shame or fear in response to our sadness.  And it’s not just uncomfortable emotions that get a bad rap.  People can feel nervous about pleasant emotions too.

Our ideas about our emotional life don’t just impact how we feel about our emotions, but the steps we take to respond to them as well.  To illustrate, let’s stay with our example of sadness.  We regard it as a signal that we’re weak and defective in some way, and this idea stirs up intense shame. The big question now: What do we do with all of this?  Considering that we’re treating sadness as intolerable and we feel ashamed of it, we’re relatively unlikely to talk about it with someone else, to be kind to ourselves in the face of it, or to allow ourselves to feel sad and see what happens.  No, instead we’re probably going to be more inclined to react to sadness in other ways, such as:

  • Mentally beating ourselves up for feeling it

  • Racking our brains over why we feel this way and why we can’t get over it and feel happy like everyone seems to feel

  • Trying to cover it up when we’re around other people

  • Self-medicating with alcohol or other substances

How we choose to respond to our emotions also has an impact on how we feel and on our quality of life.  If we criticize ourselves all the time, that harsh voice gets stronger and we’ll continue unintentionally manufacturing more shame.  We could mull over why we feel the way we do and question why we can’t make it go away, but this approach is more likely to leave us feeling even worse.  If we try to hide our sadness and mask what feels so unspeakable, we’re liable to bear the cost of this strategy, experiencing more distress, less comfort, and more detached relationships.  And although we can try to escape through alcohol and other substances, this opens the door to use disorders and other problems.

There are a variety of other ways in which rejecting what we feel sets the stage for giving us more of the very thing we don’t want.  For instance, when people are scared of emotions, this forecasts difficulty managing anger, feeling more upset, drawing from pleasant memories to feel better, and symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  Moreover, people who view uncomfortable emotions as bad are also less likely to be empathic toward themselves.  And the idea that painful emotions are hazardous is related to lower odds of naming such emotions for one’s children, a valuable step in emotional skill-building. 

So if it doesn’t serve us to treat our emotions as off-limits, what’s the alternative?  When we accept distressing emotions as being a universal, natural part of life, it’s ironically linked to experiencing them less and, in the long run, having better emotional health.

But why might this be?  Why would accepting the emotions we don’t want generally be connected with them dwindling rather than growing?  Researchers have proposed several possible explanations:

  • Rumination can make people feel worse, and individuals who accept upsetting emotions don’t tend to ruminate over them as much.

  • Efforts to avoid what a person feels can go awry and have a boomerang effect, furnishing them with more of what they tried to push away.

  • Individuals who accept their emotions may be spared an extra layer of emotional pain by not having to feel upset about feeling upset.  

  • Disquieting emotions that we meet with acceptance are less likely to have as much staying power.

Acceptance is a mindset, an approach of giving ourselves permission to experience our emotions and taking the perspective that they’re human rather than silly, weak, crazy, wrong, dangerous, or beyond our power to ever be able to manage.  It’s about challenging that self-critical inner voice that says we can’t feel what we do, or that an emotion will harm us or be a badge of our inherent fault or shame.  Acceptance is about giving ourselves the space to listen to ourselves in a nonjudgmental way.  


Read the full article on Psychology Today.


If you live in the Los Angeles or Westlake Village area and are interested in therapy, I invite you to contact me via email at: tanyasamuelianmft@yahoo.com . I provide a complimentary consultation. Check out my services to see which one might fit your needs. Contact me now to see if we might be a good fit to work together! Or book your appointment here!

Demystifying Couples Therapy

There’s a stigma around couples therapy, we don’t end up having those conversations, and we can wind up feeling alone when, of course, that couldn’t be further from the truth. People associate it with divorce. However, most people who come to couples therapy are not getting divorced—they’re building a healthier relationship.

Q: What can you expect to get out of therapy as a couple? And what can’t you expect?

A lot of people come to therapy thinking that they’re going to change something about their partner. When you come to couples therapy, you have to be prepared to make changes yourself. You can’t change another person. But you can influence another person. And that’s why it’s important to know that if you make changes, you will instigate change in someone else. Meaning you can’t tell someone to change, but if you change your behavior, they will change in response to you.

We think: How can we get them to do something that we want? But really, the way we can do that is by helping them first. If you can do something in a way that helps them, you will get back something that helps you.

Q: How do you take the first step?

By the time a couple gets into an office, there’s often some resentment. And because of the resentment they don’t feel generous toward each other. They have to remember that they do love this person, and that the person isn’t acting in this way to harm them; the person is acting this way because they are also struggling. If you can look at it that way, you might have more compassion for your partner, because you’re not the only one who’s struggling in this relationship. When you have more compassion, you can carve out a place of generosity for the fact that your partner is struggling, too.

Your partner’s reality doesn’t cancel out your reality. Just because your partner sees the situation differently from how you see it, it doesn’t mean that that person is wrong or that you’re wrong. It just means there’s room for both. Sometimes people don’t want to take the first step because they think: I need you to see it this way. I need you to see it accurately. I need you to see it my way. It’s important for both people to listen to how the other person sees it, but that doesn’t mean they have to agree with it.

Q: When is going to couples therapy a good idea?

Sometimes there’s a concrete issue, like you don’t see eye to eye on something like money or how much time you spend with the other person’s family. Or you have different ideas about how you are raising the kids. You want to go before it gets to the point where you’re both backed into your corner and you can’t listen at all to the other person’s point of view. A good time to go is when you can say, “Hey, there have been a few times when we’ve gotten really agitated when we talk about this with each other. Maybe we need somebody else to help us learn how to have this conversation, because it’s a really sensitive topic for both of us, and it’s hard for us to hear each other.”

Q: How do you approach the idea of therapy if your partner is averse to it?

It’s very important not to make it sound like, “We’re going to therapy because you have problems.” Some people even say, “We’re going to therapy because I can’t handle what you’re doing.” Or “I can’t handle something about you.”

Try something along the lines of: “We’re going to therapy because I love you so much, and our relationship is so important to me, and it breaks my heart when we argue. I would really like to go talk to somebody so maybe we can get some help with that.”

Q: How do you go about finding the right therapist?

Word of mouth is a great way to find a couples therapist, but if you’re hesitant to do that, you can look on Psychology Today. Look at therapist profiles in your area and see which ones have an approach that feels comfortable to you. But really, you won’t know until you get into the room and you see what it’s like when all three of you are sitting there.

“It’s tricky, because there’s so much shame around couples therapy—even more than with individual therapy. People associate couples therapy with divorce. But in my experience, most people who come to couples therapy are not getting divorced—they’re building a healthier relationship. The people who end up getting divorced are often the people who never got help.”

It’s really important to know that couples therapy is hard work, but it’s also very rewarding. You’re very exposed in a way you aren’t in individual therapy. In individual therapy, you can present yourself the way you want to present yourself. In couples therapy, your therapist is going to see you and your partner and the way you two interact with each other. You can feel very vulnerable. And you should—that’s largely the point, to be real with each other.

After your first session, did you feel like the therapist heard both sides of what was happening? Did you feel like the therapist understood some of the ways you two interact? That’s a good way to assess initially.

(Also, take a look at my post about how to find the right therapist)

Q: What else can you expect from that first session?

You should feel that the therapist can hold both of your realities at the same time. You should also walk out knowing there’s a definite possibility that you have some flawed assumptions about your partner’s motives, and maybe some of those will come out in the first session. And that he or she has some flawed assumptions about yours. The therapist can help point out that maybe you were thinking that the reason your husband is never home for dinner on time is because he doesn’t want to be, or because his work is more important than you, or vice versa. But your assumptions are often wrong. A good therapist can help you learn something new—even in that first session—about the way your partner thinks and feels about you that isn’t as harmful or hurtful as you had imagined.

It’s always helpful for the therapist to reframe for people: “Hey, the reason that this or that might be happening is not because your partner doesn’t care about you. The whole reason that you’re both here is because you care about each other. If you didn’t care, nobody would be sitting in this room right now.”

Q: What kind of commitment is couples therapy, emotionally and timewise?

It depends on what’s going on and how long it’s been going on. That’s why people need to come in earlier, because if something is a relatively new issue between a couple, that can be resolved pretty quickly. If something has been going on for decades, it can’t be undone in four sessions. That might take a little bit longer.

The good news is that once you start seeing the underlying patterns, it changes most of your interactions. It won’t just change the one thing that you came in to talk about; it will change the way you see each other. You’ll see each other with more generosity and more compassion. You will take what your partner is doing less personally, and you will feel less injured by the other person’s behavior. That helps globally in the relationship. You don’t have to keep coming back every time you have a problem, because now you know more about each other in a way that helps you to resolve your own problems.

Q: How does couples therapy work in conjunction with individual therapy, if one partner already has a therapist?

Lots of people do that. You get different things out of them. You learn a lot about yourself individually in couples therapy, but sometimes people need extra support, or they’d like the extra support. Or they’re working through something personally that they need an individual therapist for. A couples therapist will generally not see either member of a couple for individual therapy, because we want that relationship to be clean. We don’t want any perception of the therapist favoring one person over the other. There’s often a lot of sibling-like rivalry in couples therapy, where people feel like they want the therapist to take their side, or they want the therapist to like them better. It’s not really in their awareness. People want the therapist to validate their position, but we’re not there to do that—nor would that be helpful.

Q: What are some tools that couples can try using to resolve conflict?

A lot of people say, “You’re not listening to me. You’re not listening,” as they’re talking over somebody else. Before you say you don’t feel heard, consider how well you listen.

People don’t realize they do that. They feel so unheard that they don’t realize that they’re making the other person feel unheard. You will be heard much more expansively by the other person if you truly listen to them. A lot of people don’t realize that they’re terrible listeners; they really just want to get their point across.

One of the most important things is to realize that you’re two separate people: You’re going to have different ideas and perceptions. And you don’t have to convince the other person of the truth of your perception. It’s important only that they understand how you feel about it. But neither perception is more valid than the other.

Q: How do you know when you can pause on couples therapy?

When the couple feels like they’re relating to each other better. When they feel like whatever they came in for isn’t really happening anymore, or at least it’s not happening to the same degree. Or even if it’s happening, they are able to stop before it escalates and not go down that rabbit hole the way they used to. It’s about changing the pattern between them.

All couples do a dance. If one person changes the dance, either the other person is going to fall flat on the floor or they’re going to have to change their steps. Usually what happens is the other partner changes their steps, too. And now the couple’s doing a different dance, and if they’re doing a different dance and it’s working for them, then they don’t need to be in therapy anymore.

Sometimes people are scared to leave couples therapy because even though their problem has gotten better or is mostly resolved, they fear that if they leave therapy, they will backslide at times. But that’s to be expected. I say, “Go out there and try it, and if you backslide, come back in. You know you can come in for a tune-up.”

There’s nothing wrong with coming in for a tune-up, but I do want clients to learn to trust themselves, to trust that they can do this and that they are going to backslide. We all have longstanding reactions that are very visceral, and sometimes we screw up. But that’s okay—nobody’s perfect. It doesn’t have to be very significant. It’s kind of like when people go on a diet and they eat two pieces of cake and feel like their entire diet is ruined. It’s not—you ate an extra piece of cake, and you move on.

You can always come back to therapy. It’s a conversation that you have with the therapist and with each other. But it’s not as though everything needs to be perfect for you to stop. No couple is perfect.

Read the full article on Goop.


If you live in the Los Angeles or Westlake Village area and are interested in therapy, I invite you to contact me via email at: tanyasamuelianmft@yahoo.com . I provide a 15-minute complimentary consultation. Check out my services to see which one might fit your needs. Contact me now to see if we might be a good fit to work together! Or book your appointment here!




Forgiveness

What does forgiveness mean to you? What does it mean to forgive someone? What does it mean to forgive yourself? It sounds like it would be an easy question to answer, but I challenge you to pause and really think about the last time you forgave someone, or even yourself. Many times, it’s easier to forgive someone else before you can forgive yourself. Here are a few key things to remember when forgiving yourself:

  • admit the wrong: take ownership of what you did. You have to deal with it, face what you did, and how the situation was created by what you did. We are all human and you’re going to make mistakes.

  • prepare to restart and try again: continuing to punish yourself for the past only blocks you from your own happiness in the present. You are allowed to grow and become a better person. Make amends with others and yourself, keep what you have learned, and let go of the rest.

  • a restart is not an undo: although forgiving yourself is important, you have to remember that others may continue to hold on because you cannot control how anyone else thinks or feels, and forgiveness is not permission to do it again. You can’t force someone else’s forgiveness, and just because you apologize doesn’t mean that the person who was affected will accept it; however, that does not mean have to continue to punish yourself for whatever happened.

In order to grow as people, we have to learn from our mistakes and our past. We have to forgive ourselves even when others might not. Forgiveness is an important and necessary part of building a loving and trusting relationship with yourself.

What are some ways that you forgive yourself? Share in the comments below!

If you are finding yourself struggling with forgiveness and live in the Los Angeles/Westlake Village area and are interested in individual or couples therapy, I invite you to contact me via email at: tanyasamuelianmft@yahoo.com . I happily provide a complimentary consultation. Contact me now to see if we might be a good fit to work together!