In my previous blog, I outlined a few behavioural patterns we engage in when we’ve closed off to ourselves. We tend to engage in such ‘distancing’ behaviours subconsciously – inevitably as a result of past hurts which we’ve responded to by ‘shutting down’. Because the nature of the mind often operates on an unconscious level, we’re more often than not unaware of the patterns themselves – instead we’re left with unfulfilling interpersonal relationships with the people around us. We’re left wondering why we find ourselves constantly engaged in relationships where people aren’t showing up for us in the way would like or in which we feel lonely and isolated.
When we find ourselves in these situations we can become increasingly frustrated with our inability to make authentic connections and that frustration can fester into resentment and desperation. The more we want these connections, the harder we try and the harder we try, the more elusive they seem to be. In an effort to stave off loneliness, we may distract ourselves with constant socialising, seeking new experiences or new people to fill the void. Or simply to keep our social media pages looking cool and reflecting the lives we wish we were having.
More often than not we may find ourselves in a state of anxiety or depression, looking for a more constructive way forward.
So, where to now?
The three factors outlined in part 1 of this blog certainly aren’t exhaustive – human beings ideally want to move toward pleasure and avoid pain wherever possible. This results in a multitude of behaviours designed by the subconscious and the ego to keep us ‘safe’ from pain. So, how do we get past self defeating behaviours once we’ve recognised we’re the problem? Well, there’s good news and bad news here: the bad news is that the way forward isn’t easy, there’s a very good reason the psyche operates the way it does. There’s a reason we’ve shut down. Coaxing ourselves back out into the world can be excruciatingly painful.
So what’s the good news? The good news is that there are several practices that, once established, prove significantly more productive than continuing to grasp at external scenarios – or people – in increasing desperation.
There’s no ‘one size fits all’ solution or practice for everyone – and I use the word ‘practice’ deliberately, because that’s what integrating a new way of thinking or behaving becomes. It’s practice. We have to consciously make an effort to implement something that feels weird, that feels alien to us. Keep the end game in mind and know that, when you’re sick and tired of feeling sick and tired*, you’ll find the strength to make the necessary changes. Everyone will have their own way of finding what works for them – once you put the thought out into the universe that you’re ready to make a change, the universe will work surprisingly quickly to throw solutions at you. So, once you’ve accepted that you are the common denominator and you need to change the way you’re approaching things, the following are some of the easier starting points;
Develop an emotional vocabulary
I would consider this to be the first step. Every ‘self-improvement’ practice you attempt will require this as a starting point. I have to say, this is one of those things that I assumed everybody already did. Not because my family were particularly emotionally intelligent – hardly – but because we are the type of people who will use 1,000 words when 1 will do. It took me a long time to realise that for many people, talking about their feelings – or talking about much in general – didn’t form part of their landscape growing up. I do think this is changing over time – I see the shift in how we engage with our children, how we now encourage an emotionally conscious landscape in our family life – but for a lot of my generation, and the generations before ours, this wasn’t their experience. Emotional Intelligence (EQ) like social and physical development, is an evolutionary process that improves with each generation.
So, what’s the big deal? A lot of people are perplexed when they’re told how important this is – ‘Our family didn’t talk about every little thing under the sun and we’re all fine’, or ‘I just think this breeds narcissism, I think it’s self-indulgent’, or ‘Well, in my day we just got on with things. No-one had the time or the luxury to sit around having deep and meaningful chats all the time’. This is certainly the attitude held by earlier generations. But at the end of the day, most of us can point to the earlier generations of our own families and identify glaring dysfunction so I don’t know if we want to look to them for their expertise in emotional fulfilment.
The problem of having no emotional vocabulary is in how we communicate with our inner most selves. It becomes the equivalent of trying to connect on a deep level with someone who speaks a different language to us – sure, we can perhaps grasp the basics enough to develop a functional relationship (although even this would be unlikely), but the chances of developing any real understanding of or connection to that person’s emotional condition, would prove very difficult. To be able to provide them with any sort of assistance or support – despite our best intentions – would prove impossible. And so, we have to find a common ground, a common language. So, how do we do this? If it’s not something that we learned growing up, if it’s not something that we have any understanding or experience of, were do we start? We begin by learning to correctly label our various emotional states. And this is the tricky part, because it requires us to consciously bring those emotions to the surface.
Ultimately this can be done in any way that you comfortable doing it and it can be done either alone or with a therapist or trusted friend. My inclination is to suggest that the initial practice should perhaps be done alone as this removes the potential for self censorship.
Start by making sure you have enough time alone without the possibility of being interrupted. Find a quiet place where you feel safe and comfortable. Using a fresh, clean piece of paper, start with the simple phrase;
‘I feel ……’
Start with what you feel at that very moment: irritated, frustrated, happy, contemplative, angry, confused, etc. Whatever you’re feeling at that moment, write it down. As many adjectives as you can think of. Repeat them or use different adjectives for the same emotion, it doesn’t matter at this stage. As you become more comfortable with this, you’ll find the words come more easily. If you find yourself stumped early on in the process, then Google is your friend. Once you feel comfortable with consciously identifying how you feel at this moment, then move on to more challenging phrases;
‘The situation that happened made me feel ……’
‘This person makes me feel ……’
Once you’ve started with this opening sentences, you can move forward with more direct probing;
‘I feel ………. because ……..’
Or even direct statements, testing yourself out;
‘I feel sad’. ‘I feel angry’. ‘I feel shame’. ‘I feel drained’. ‘I feel tired’.
Whatever it is that comes into your mind is perfectly acceptable. The intention is not to solve all your problems in one – or even several – attempts at writing words down. This is simply the first step in cultivating a healthy vocabulary for how YOU. FEEL. There is no right or wrong. No-one else is looking over your shoulder judging you, this is for your eyes only. The only purpose of this exercise is to introduce our consciousness to the correct language for how you feel – you don’t need to analyse any of the emotions or try to untangle anything. You just need to start using the words.
The purpose here is twofold: firstly, you’ll be able to actually label both negative and positive emotions which will allow you to steer yourself toward communicating with your inner self. Secondly, at the same time you’ll be bring these emotions to the surface. If you’re confident that these emotions are already at the surface – and indeed, this is one of the problems you’re having, then the process of consciously labelling them and writing them down may prove surprisingly cathartic. The practice of writing down your emotions is of course, the pre-cursor to more extensive journalling which I write about here. Journalling can be both a soothing, meditative process as well as an enlightening one, offering us the chance to ‘brainstorm’ what might be going on beneath our conscious awareness.
Once you have mastered this early stage of cultivating an emotional vocabulary – of learning the language necessary to communicate with your inner most self – you then need to learn how to navigate the conversation in a constructive way. After all, you don’t want to upset someone you’ve just learned to communicate with, do you?