Many people who present for Addiction and Mental Health problem have something in common: Challenges with their emotional world (or feelings). In my years of practice as a Registered Psychologist in Alberta, Canada, I have observed some general trends and thought it would be helpful to put forward some common myths vs. realities to support everyone (not just the individuals I work with) in their personal development journey.
Myth #1: Feeling your feelings is scary.
Reality #1: I can understand how feelings seem scary to you. This usually stems from years of programming where messaging around ignoring feelings was promoted and reinforced by early role models and care givers. Perhaps you even were reprimanded or abused if feelings were demonstrated. In adult life, your feelings may be so overwhelming and intense at times that they lead you to have no motivation, feel suicidal, and/or lead to other problematic symptoms that would feed into this narrative of feelings being scary. What I reflect to clients often is that the feelings themselves do not need to be feared, they are simply information about how we are interacting with our world. What is scary is what happens when we don’t feel the feelings. This results in an emotional backlog that builds a lot of energy and, eventually, this energy needs to go somewhere. Those are the moments of low motivation, suicidal ideation, substance use, or other problematic symptoms that are, indeed, concerning and scary. The feelings were not the problem in this scenario, however, it was the build up. Think of a dam. The more water and pressure behind the dam walls, the more damage that will occur when that dam breaks. If the water has other channels of release, even if the dam breaks the pressure is not so great and, therefore, the damage that occurs with a breakage is less. Think of your feelings as the water. If you can develop other channels for release (talking, writing, creativity, body movement, therapy, crying, etc.) than that pressure will be less and, as stressors build, you have more energetic space to deal with them with less chance of a dam break and flood.
Myth #2: Feelings are bad.
Reality #2: This story comes from similar places to Myth #1. It is often a combination of programming and experience that leads to this conclusion that feelings are bad. This is not the case. Feelings can be uncomfortable, yes, and as we discussed in Reality #1, not dealing with feelings can lead to outcomes that can be viewed as ‘bad.’ None of this suggests that the feelings themselves are bad, though. Feelings are actually incredibly helpful bits of information that can guide us through our life. Think of anger. It tells us when we have been violated and are not being treated fairly and/or when something is not where we want it to be in our lives. This important emotion can lead to re-evaluation and, ultimately, different boundaries and actions in life. Sadness tells us when we are dealing with loss, change, grief. It feels heavy, but is necessary to cue us to these changes that are occurring around us. Joy and happiness tell us when we are in harmony with our life and doing what we need to. This is all helpful to know.
Myth #3: I can eliminate certain feelings and keep the ones that feel good.
Reality #3: We can experience the whole spectrum of feelings, or have a warped relationship with all feelings. The over pursuit of joy and happiness often leads to an overload of dissatisfaction and discomfort as the brain works to find equilibrium and homeostasis. Joy, happiness, contentment, peace, tranquility, serenity, ecstasy and any other feelings you deem “good” can only truly be experienced when we have the other side of the spectrum to balance them out. Life would not be as passionate and fulfilling without the looming reality of death around the corner. Our brains seem to need that balance in order to create harmony.
Myth #4: The only way to deal with feelings is to journal.
Reality #4: No way! There are lots of ways to deal with feelings. Many people struggle with writing and this is a tool they have tried over the years to no benefit. That is okay. Reflection, asking yourself how you feel, talking, channeling feelings into other creative endeavors like music, poetry, song writing, sculpture, or drawing, emotion-focused therapies that are more body and somatic focused, meditation, body scans, body movement, crying can all be ways that emotions get processed and released. I do encourage people to revisit the tool of journaling from time to time (and any other tool you disregarded along the way as not useful) because you never know what will have benefit and when. Perhaps it was that particular time and space in your life that resulted in the tool not jelling, but things may have shifted and now it might offer benefit. With a tool like journaling, you can also change how you are writing. Doing feelings writing only? Try some gratitude writing. Only writing gratitude and it feels empty? Be more specific and/or focus more on the whole spectrum of feelings. I recommend people do a daily feelings check-in where they list all the feelings that they could connect with that day, followed by additional venting writing (if needed) and ending off with 3 specific points of gratitude from the day. This format seems to offer a nice balance of reality and channels the feelings, while also channeling the brain into a focus on what is going right, not just what’s missing.
I cannot emphasize enough how emotional awareness and regulation are for mental health and recovery from issues like Addiction. Without an open channel of communication with feelings, people suffer and I know you’re here because you are tired of suffering and/or want to support others in easing suffering. Open up the well of feelings, develop a harmonized relationship with them and take notice of them. Befriend them. They are only there to support you.
By Paige Abbott
Paige Abbott is a Registered Psychologist in Alberta, Canada. She has specialized in Addiction Psychology for the past decade and has gained a lot of wisdom about the brain and behaviour during her clinical practice. She is the coauthor of ‘Addiction is Addiction’, its corresponding workbook, and ‘Love, the Drug.’