By Caroline Fleck
We Cannot Change What We're Not Aware OfUploaded: Jan 19, 2015
"We cannot change what we're not aware of." This is one of my therapy mantras - statements I find myself saying over and over again to clients. Most of the problems with which people present in therapy are general - depression, anxiety, etc.; even seemingly more specific issues like marital and job dissatisfaction often become illusive when you try to identify what about those experiences is problematic.
The point is that many of us are aware of our emotions in a kind of distant, removed way; we have what I would call "meta-emotional awareness" - we know that we are generally anxious, depressed, or dissatisfied with a situation, but we don't necessarily know why. We can't pinpoint the specific emotional experiences that culminate in the meta-emotion with which we identify. We are, in a sense, painfully numb.
Here's where "mindfulness of current emotions" (Linehan, 2014) can be helpful. Mindfulness of current emotions is basically the practice of attending to your emotions in an intentional, nonjudgmental way.
You find yourself rolling your eyes at something your partner just said; why? What are you feeling in that moment? What words would you use to describe your emotions? Often when I ask those questions, I'm met with a slew of thoughts and interpretations - "she's being difficult and trying to get her way," or "he said that on purpose because he's trying to hurt me." The task becomes to differentiate those thoughts from the emotions that trigger them. Our thoughts are affected by our emotions, and vice versa, but they are not one in the same.
To describe emotions, use emotion words - angry, frustrated, annoyed, jealous, etc. I keep a document with a list of emotions to which I have clients refer when we are working on mindfulness of current emotions. This may seem like over-attention to semantics, but it's critical. Differentiating our emotions from our thoughts allows us to determine if our thoughts are justified, effective, and/or biased.
Mindfulness of current emotions also facilitates a range of insights; insights that are instrumental in breaking down your meta-emotional reality into actionable, resolvable issues.
As an example of how this plays out, suppose you notice, as I did, that you struggle when talking about a medical condition. I was terrified of telling my colleagues and clients that I had multiple sclerosis (MS). I experienced fear, but also intense shame. In reflecting upon this, I reasoned that the fear was perhaps justified - I didn't know how people would react - but the shame wasn't. Having MS is not against my values, something I think is immoral, nor an experience I can control. Acting in ways that were consistent with that shame - basically hiding my condition and pretending like I was feeling well when I wasn't - was ineffective on various levels: I wasn't getting what I needed from people in my environment, I was intensifying shame by acting in ways that reinforced it, and I was compounding the shame with loneliness and a sense of alienation.
Globally speaking, I would say I was feeling depressed and disconnected. But this meta-cognitive awareness alone was not enough to enable change. I needed to look closely at my emotional experiences, moment to moment, to more fully understand why I was feeling depressed and what I needed to do differently. In so doing I realized that I needed to act in ways that were inconsistent with shame, in order to decrease that emotion: I needed to talk about my disease, ask for help when I needed it, and be more gentle with myself.
I can honestly say that making those changes has significantly diminished the negative effect MS has had on my life. I feel less isolated in my experience, less judged by others, and more supported. Globally speaking, I feel less depressed and more connected to the people around me.
So the next time you find yourself reacting to someone or something, be it by rolling your eyes, taking drugs or alcohol, or snapping at a loved one, ask yourself - what am I feeling? Where in my body do I experience the emotion and how would I describe it?
Examine your emotions like a scientist would: objectively and thoroughly. Consider them as useful information, rather than experiences to be avoided or ignored. And aim to become increasingly familiar with how different people, situations, and experiences make you feel, as well as the habits, symptoms, and techniques on which you rely to manage those feelings.