Psychotherapy can be really effective at helping people feel better when painful emotions are at the surface. But how can it help when the pain is tightly held somewhere deep inside?
Sometimes we are so expert at coping with the pain of our early years that we block it off almost completely. As a short term coping strategy this can work reasonably well but unresolved it can leave a person feeling numb, detached, but strangely attracted to situations in which there is a risk of that pain being triggered. When external circumstances do topple us into the pain it can be sudden and scary. In desperation it is tempting to scramble for distraction (drink, drugs, TV, games, intellectualisation, relationship drama, etc) in the hope that the pain will go away again. It generally does. But nothing really changes. And the same patterns repeat themselves until the pain comes back again.
We can only resolve those things that we allow ourselves to become aware of. This can sometimes be somewhat intense, a “dark night of the soul”. If, rather than distracting or avoiding these emotions, one expresses them (moves them out) then this can lead to a much deeper sense of relaxation and embodiedness.
I received the following mail from one of my clients (reproduced here with permission). I’m so proud of the way they are courageously accepting and moving though the emotions as they arise.
I had another painful night last night – although I did fall asleep earlier, and slept longer, although I woke early.I’m doing my best to screen out the noisy thoughts – catastrophic and less catastrophic – that crowd in on me. I’m also trying not to pursue thoughts that appear to be life-lines from the pain I am experiencing. Instead, I am attempting to focus on the feelings themselves, in their rawest, most inchoate and uncomfortable form. I’m trying to keep in mind what you said about preparing for the worst – which I understand to mean the worst my emotions can open on to. I also tried last night to release my groans and other expressions of pain in a way that released them up and out, rather than in a foetal position.Today I feel a bit less raw. My body doesn’t feel quite so flooded with adrenaline (fight or flight), so I’m not feeling inner trembling and complete loss of appetite quite so acutely. *** I am trying to connect as much as I can with my feelings as they arise – not ignoring them, but trying to invite them in and sit with them as much as I can. The desire to clutch at anything that might offer relief from the discomfort is still there. I don’t mean alcohol, or anything like that. Rather, I tend to seek out anyone I can talk to and then talk, and talk, and talk. It can help, in the short term. But this time, I am attempting not to do that so much. Preparing for the worst means going towards to pain, not looking for ways to avoid or defer it.For now, I am not talking to *** about practicalities in our relationship. That will come in time, if it needs to. The act of opening the hand to allow the butterfly to take wing doesn’t require words. It’s a simple act, isn’t it? I would like to be that open hand, to know exactly what it feels like to take that step, and not to be afraid of the consequences. I realise that I am effectively ‘talking’ now. Yes, but I am also trying, in some way, to write out my feelings.I have come to *** to try and get some work done. I don’t really care how successful I am, so long as I remain open to the ebb and flow of the emotional tide I am rising on. I hope I can do that, and I hope – at least for now – that it will be enough.
Bad things happen to good people.
To make it worse, when these bad things are happening, the good person can become convinced that it is actually their fault and that they deserved it because they are a bad person.
That’s fucked up.
And it fucks us up. Some people get more fucked up than others, but most of us are at least a little bit fucked up. That’s normal.
So most of us grow up believing that, deep down inside, we are at least a little bit bad and probably don’t deserve to be happy, healthy, and wealthy.
Who wants to think of themselves like that? Who would want to hang out with us if they realised that we are bad? To avoid self-hatred and loneliness, we do our best to be good.
But that can be really hard work.
And, every now and again, when we are under pressure, we do something bad. And it hurts someone else. And we either feel guilty for what we have done (painful). Or we find a way of blaming the other person for the situation (less painful … for us).
And so the fucked up cycle continues.
Until you decide to change it.
Find a good psychotherapist.
A few years ago the manager of a mental health charity that I was volunteering at asked me to help them communicate the concept of ‘The Recovery Model’ to their staff in an accessible and easily digestible form. I’d never heard of the recovery model but they handed me a couple of articles: one by Jacobson and Greenley, and a print out of the recovery model’s wikipedia page (which is now re-directed to what wikipedia calls the ‘Recovery approach’).
Draw a f***ing diagram!
My old physics tutor Howard Stockley taught me that whenever approaching a new problem one should always set about drawing (a f***ing) diagram. As I read the sources I’d been given I set about trying to piece together what they were both communicating. This presentation is the result of that process. Almost all of the content comes from those two sources. All I did was add my own spin and draw a diagram to knit the information together.
You are welcome to use this presentation or parts of it in your own work. All I ask is that you please credit me and give a link to my website.
It is common for people to talk to themselves or hear seemingly external voices to a certain extent. Thankfully most of us do not have to go through what Eleanor Longden did.
I wonder if she still hears voices? At the end of the talk she says “What lies within us can never be truly colonized …” I’m not exactly sure what she means by this but I see the objective of personal development as colonizing our own bodies as fully as possible.
In order to assist people in more fully inhabiting their own bodies it is necessary to displace any other entities that may have taken up residence there. To do this I have developed a way of facilitating re-connection (facing towards the source of the voice), de-fusing (taking back what is yours and giving back what is theirs), and separation. I find that there is rarely (never?) any need for cutting.
Eleanor talks about her voices being companionable. One of the consequences of separating from entities is that people often have to experience their own feelings of emptiness or loneliness. This would be the next thing to work through in therapy.
When this process is successful I would expect clients to find that the voice has completely gone, that they feel more fulfilled, and they are more able to bring their full attention to the world around them.
For years I experienced high levels of frustration that would manifest itself as body tension and violent fantasies. In my dream world I would be an avenger inflicting violence on those who deserved it (usually thieves, disrespectful chavs, or litter louts). In the real world though I was afraid of violence and not sure if it was the fear of being hurt or the fear of the consequences of hurting someone else.
After I trained as a therapist I was comfortable with all emotions except anger and would unconsciously pussy foot around the subject for fear of provoking my clients. In my training I had been taught very little about the practicalities of working with angry or violent people.
It was not until 2010, on a somewhat esoteric shamanic training, that I learned how to engage with anger directly and work with it effectively. It was a turning point for my practice and for me.
Now anger is one of the emotions I’m most interested in at the beginning of therapy. I have a number of ‘anger meditations’. They are crucial for people who’s anger is very much on the surface and being expressed in ways that are hurting other people or themselves. They can also be very useful for clients who claim to have no anger in them as often these are the people who are experiencing most frustration. Anger contains so much energy … and containing it also requires so much energy. Relieving the pressure inside frees this energy up and transforms frustration into a powerful assertiveness that is especially useful for reconnecting and clearing out connections with others. I see these relationship connections as the pipes in my plumbing analogy.
This video shows some of the anger meditations that I recommend to my clients for practice both within the therapy room and at home. The idea is to practice ways of connecting with and moving the anger responsibly – so that you, the objects around you, and the people around you are safe. The video includes:
- Punching anger meditation
- Cushion slamming anger meditation
- Vocal anger meditation (with the Howl Towel)
- Silent screaming
- Throwing anger meditation
- Tantruming anger meditation
I don’t claim that these meditations will completely resolve any anger issues you may have. But they should take the pressure out of any frustration and provide a set of safer ways that you can channel your anger as and when it arises.
When I first met Richard I had just lost my significant other and I was in a sorry state. I wasn’t eating properly and I would bite at my skin so it was covered in sores. I was so frightened that I would spend hours hiding behind the sideboard.
Six months later and the transformation is remarkable. I’ve put on weight, my skin is clear, I am confident enough to defend my boundaries when I need to, and I’m able to fully relax and enjoy being fussed over.
Words are not enough to express the gratitude I feel. How about a half eaten bird?
Rebecca the cat