Category Archives: Emotions

Avoiding a Painful Past: To Leave a Place You Must First Arrive

The title of my blog post this week contains one of the essential insights of my work as a psychologist.

Too many people spend their lives leaving places they have never actually arrived at.

A person who had a traumatic childhood might say they would rather just forget about the past and move on, which is their way of leaving without first arriving.

Another person might spend their entire life in a search for meaning on the mountain tops of Nepal or in the pursuits of promotions or recognition at work, which is their way of not addressing the source of an emptiness, but simply displacing it into an ever elusive ambition of becoming someone better or of transcending themselves. They spend their entire life leaving a place without really fully understanding the place they are trying to leave.

Neurosis and Human GrowthAs the now deceased psychoanalyst Karen Horney has written about in her excellent book “Neurosis and Human Growth”, many people lose themselves in the empty pursuit of a never-ending self-improvement, and end up living an entire life trying to become someone other than themselves. They lose their life on what she calls the altar of glory, that is, in the pursuit of a better version of themselves that is really just another way to abandon a confrontation with the hurts of their own past.

The outcome of such a driven pursuit to simply move on without fully understanding that from which one is trying to move on, is a loss of a kind of happiness that comes from feeling rooted in one’s history and grounded within oneself.

The Price We Pay for Trying to Escape from Our Past:

So many people nowadays come to therapy complaining that they don’t really know what they are passionate about, or saying that their lives feel meaningless. Maybe they report feeling like a machine, and not really having access to the flow of emotions that would make them feel alive. Or maybe they report feeling lost and confused, empty inside, and in search of a purpose.

These are the symptoms of leaving without first arriving.

They announce to us that we are not in touch with ourselves, that we have taken leave of ourselves before first accepting the struggles, traumas, memories, or feelings that would allow us to work through our issues without abandoning ourselves. They are signs that we have attempted to leave ourselves by numbing ourselves, tuning out, avoiding, or prematurely conforming. They are signs that we have paid the price of trying to get somewhere safer and better by leaving our “luggage” behind or by leaving painful pieces of ourselves behind in our unprocessed and unresolved past.

But we can’t leave a place simply by avoiding it. We must first “say our goodbyes”.

Leaving Pain Behind Is an Active Process:

Truly leaving a place that feels unpleasant, overwhelming, shaming, or traumatic is an active process of facing and confronting that which haunts us.

To face and confront a belief about oneself, an emotional reality, or a painful memory we must first accept it.

Only when we accept that which we have tried to leave behind can we begin the active process of mourning our losses, shedding our tears, developing compassion for ourselves, or expressing anger at others for what we needed from them but never got. This kind of emotional repair work is only possible when we truly arrive at those places which we wish to leave behind.

Leaving can now become an active emotional process, rather than an avoidance that simply shuts out by shutting ourselves out.

Experiencing Transformation Through Our Emotions:

In the realm of emotions, getting away from something is paradoxically only possible by going into it.

Only by going into that which is unpleasant or overwhelming or distasteful, do we realize that we can come out on the other side with new realizations about ourselves. If we truly enter into our emotions, like one would ride a wave, we will see that emotions have a way to carry us to new shores. They don’t have to become stuck places in our lives, but can be starting points for truly working through sadness, anger, loneliness, and despair.

Rainer Marie Rilke: Austrian Existentialist Poet
Rainer Marie Rilke: Austrian Existentialist Poet

As the poet Rainer Marie Rilke writes:

“Where something becomes extremely difficult and unbearable, there we also stand already quite near its transformation”

And transformation through going through the motion of our emotion is exactly what is needed in order to leave a place.

Discovering the Joy of Our Aliveness:

By working our emotions through to completion rather than short-circuiting them in an effort to leave them behind, we can let our suffering transform us and in turn transform our suffering.

The Transforming Power of AffectDiana Fosha, for example, has found that clients who truly work through their emotions in therapy, experience a variety of transformational affects, like a sense of mastery, curiosity, confidence, joy, pride, and compassion. People report feeling moved and touched, or experiencing amazement and wonder. They no longer feel weighed down by the pain, or blemished by their past, but instead feel “lighter”, shed tears of joy, and get filled with tenderness toward themselves and others.

These kinds of shifts are signs that we are rediscovering who we really are instead of spending our life running from ourselves. They are signs that we are getting in touch with an aliveness and resilience within, and that growth brings about a joy that avoidance can never obtain.

They are signs that we are finally leaving a place that we have truly arrived at, and that we no longer have to abandon ourselves in order to find peace and comfort with who we are.

image of psychodynamic therapist, Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., Psychologist in Houston Texas. I help people arrive at their past so they can truly leave it behind instead of spending their life running from themselves.

 

Ways to Deal with Heartache and Heartbreak

No feeling is so painful as the pain of the human heart…

One client of mine, when asked what it was like to feel shut out and rejected by her partner, used the word “soul-crunching” to describe her pain

In fact heartache and heartbreak are often described by people through metaphors of brokenness.

Heartache and heartbreak literally destroy something inside of us. We feel as if we have fallen to pieces, as if our lives are in ruins, and as if who we are and what we live for is no longer intact.

What Science Says:

Research shows that heart-ache and heart-break are not just painful experiences metaphorically speaking, but that they literally impact the same parts of the brain as physical pain. So when we say our heart is hurting, it literally is.

What You Need to Know about Heartache and Heartbreak:

Heartbreak, which describes the pain of a break-up, and heartache which is a more general description of the pain in the heart we feel when someone we love dies, are similar in many ways to the term “psycheache” which is a term used to describe the pain of being alive often reported by people who are suicidal.

All three terms express a pain of existing which only humans can feel. And there are really only two responses to deal with it. We can shrivel in the face of it and try our best to avoid it, or we can enter into it and become wiser from it.

The Two Ways to Deal with the Pain of a Broken Heart:

Avoiding the Pain:

The pain of heartache and heartbreak is so difficult to tolerate that our natural instinct is to want to run from it.

We run from the pain in different ways:

If we have just broken up with someone who matters a great deal to us, it might be tempting to simply get involved with another person and skip the the painstaking process of grieving the loss. However, a broken heart is not ready to love again before it has healed, and healing takes time. This is why a rebound relationship is never the best way to deal with a broken heart.

Another way we may distract ourselves is to simply keep busy and try to distract ourselves through activities, projects, work, or being social. In this approach, we simply try to never be alone or never fully stay long enough in the moment, to truly feel our pain. Of course, such a flight from ourselves, is bound to fail in the long run. Since we are not really dealing with the pain, the healing process never really begins, and we just end up postponing the inevitable.

A third way to deal with gut-wrenching pain is to shut the grieving process down by numbing ourselves to our emotions and hardening our heart. The pain of living is here dealt with by becoming a little less alive. While this might feel preferable to feeling the pain of existing, the long-term price of this strategy is steep, and we often end up feeling alienated and cut off from everything good life has to offer.

Learning from the Pain:

Because every attempt to simply avoid our pain is destined to fail in the long-run or to come with a heavy price tag, a wiser path to follow is to heed the message of the broken heart itself.

If you do this what you will discover is the following: Your heart is broken because you dared to love and let others matter.

Now in the absence of your loved one, you have lost a piece of yourself and are no longer whole. Your existence, without the other person, no longer feels full or sufficient. Love opened up life’s riches, and now that it has closed these riches down, the pain you feel is the pain of the absence and meaninglessness of a life without such love.

And although your heart is trying to warn you not hurry back into the same kind of vulnerability that left you bereft, it has also just revealed the meaningfulness, joy, and value of a life of mattering to someone and letting someone matter to you.

Its message is therefore not to avoid loving, but to take the time to reflect on the big questions brought about by the encounter with the inevitable pain and joy of an open heart.

  • What has loving and losing revealed to you about what is really important in life?
  • What has it revealed to you about yourself and about others?
  • Did you make mistakes and do you have regrets?
  • What lessons can you carry with you into your next relationship?

Only if you fully go into these often painful and quite dizzying questions about the meaning of your life, do you unlock the wisdom contained within your heartbreak.

Then you will live to love again, and be a little more prepared for the inevitable heartaches and heartbreaks of life.

Empty Hearts and Full Hearts:

 As Jon Fredrickson, a social worker and practicing psychodynamic therapist has said:

The person whose heart has been broken and gives up loving ends up with an empty heart.

The person with a broken heart who continues to love has a full heart, knowing that everyone we love we lose through death or abandonment.

That is why there are only two kinds of hearts: empty hearts and loving hearts.

It takes courage to face the inevitable losses and yet, in spite of it all, to keep on loving and being open to life

(Source: Jon Frederickson: Co-Creating Change)

image of psychodynamic therapist, Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., psychologist and psychodynamic therapist in Houston Texas. I help people move through their difficult emotions to find greater peace and comfort with who they are. Visit: www.bettertherapy.com for more information. 

How to Overcome Trauma and Make Peace with Your Past

One of single biggest issues that stops people from living the life they want is their inability to let go of negative memories from their past.

Most often when people experience hurtful events in their life they tend to prefer to suppress their memories, or to simply silence their emotional pain by trying their best to ignore what happened.

When you ask them about why they want to avoid revisiting their past, they often say that there is no reason to dwell on their memories, since there is nothing they can do about their past anyway.

They will say things like: What is the point of remembering your childhood sexual abuse? It doesn’t change anything about what happened. And why should I remember that I grew up with an alcoholic father? or a mother who abandoned me? Crying about what happened or didn’t happen would simply be wasted tears.

At first glance this way of thinking seems reasonable. And it would be a great solution indeed, if it were really possible to simply let go of the past like this. The problem, however, is that our body remembers, even though we don’t. What this means is that whatever unfinished business we have not addressed will keep getting activated and wreak havoc on our lives, until the day we really confront it and lay it to rest.

What to Do about Negative Memories from the Past:

The positive news is that there is a lot that can be done about unpleasant memories and experiences from the past. Although it is true that we cannot change the past, we can in fact change how feel about it and what meaning we attribute to it.

The best way to do so is to go back into the experience rather than to avoid it.

Les Greenberg, a psychologist and researcher at York University in Canada, has studied how people work through unfinished business in talk therapy, and has proposed that change happens through a process he refers to as changing an emotion with an emotion

How to Change an Emotion with an Emotion:

When you don’t shut down a negative or unpleasant emotional memory, but are helped to fully enter into it, you will be able to learn something from it. Emotions tell us something about ourselves and about our needs, and this information helps us transform our emotions by giving us access to other emotions.

How to Overcome Negative Memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse:

If you were sexually abused, for example, this memory is oftentimes initially experienced as unbearable, repulsive, or shameful. But if you enter into the emotion and get some help from your therapist, you will soon see that the initial experience of disgust, or pain, or shame, can give rise to a whole set of other emotions, which in turn change the overall meaning of the experience.

The emotion of shame, which causes you to want to hide, or the emotion of disgust, which causes you to want to push away, are often turned against oneself in people who were abused. They often think of themselves as “broken”, “damaged”, “vile”, “unlovable”. They sometimes want to hurt themselves as a form of punishment, or hide who they are from others because they don’t feel worthy of acceptance.

However, by fully going into these emotions, rather than shutting them down, the person may be able to access other facets of their emotional experience.

Sadness:

They may begin to access sadness at what was lost or what was taken away from them and to enter into the grief that was previously blocked by shame.

Anger:

The sadness may in turn give rise to anger at the perpetrator for violating a helpless child, or at caregivers for not picking up on small signs that things were not okay.

As the person gets more in touch with their anger, this changes their sadness, by making them feel more empowered. In this way the person can go through a change process from initial shame or disgust, to sadness about their loss, to anger about what should have happened, but didn’t happen.

Self-Compassion:

As they begin to feel more indignant at the other person, rather than blaming themselves, they may also better be able to soothe themselves or care for themselves. It is only a short step from “I was so helpless and alone” (sadness) and “it wasn’t right and shouldn’t have happened” (anger), to feeling compassion for one-self “I didn’t deserve it; it wasn’t my fault and I shouldn’t blame myself”.

By entering into the initial emotion, which was very unpleasant, it became possible to change the original emotion with another emotion, and thus to change the experience of the memory itself.

Acceptance:

According to Les Greenberg this emotional change process will eventually lead to acceptance and agency. Once we accept who we are and what happened to us, and work through our feelings about it, we come out on the other side as feeling empowered and having a choice about how we want to move forward.

Instead of being stuck in a past that keeps wreaking havoc on our lives, we can now take control of our lives, give ourselves a pass, and orient ourselves toward the future with a renewed confidence and a more positive sense of self.

 

Psychodynamic therapist, Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist at Better Therapy PLLC. I help people experience change at an emotional level and overcome traumatic memories and experiences that are holding them back.

How to Overcome Excessive Guilt Feelings

Many people feel marred by guilt feelings that are preventing them from fully enjoying their lives.

Sometimes, of course, guilt is a useful signal to ourselves that we have done something we can’t really be proud of or have done something we shouldn’t have. It allows us to to seek forgiveness and correct a wrong. Without this kind of experience, we would not be able to become remorseful, and would end up not caring about other people’s needs, thoughts, and feelings.

When Does Guilt Become Excessive?

Many times, however, guilt becomes attached to a wide variety of healthy feelings, thoughts, or behaviors, and starts to work against us rather than for us.

We may for example feel like we have done something wrong after having sex, or we may feel like we made a transgression by standing up for ourselves when we really needed to.

Because the feeling of being guilty of a wrong is so unpleasant, it is likely that we end up avoiding situations that would make us feel this way, or that we become apologetic and remorseful in situations where we should really stand our ground.

In this way, our guilt feelings can begin to control us, and can make us cut off pieces of ourselves and live restricted lives.

The Woman Who Was Consumed by Guilt:

One woman, for example, had the propensity to feel guilty about asking for what she needed in her marriage. She would not be able to enjoy a movie if her husband didn’t pick it, and would not be able to tell him “no”, if he asked her to take on responsibilities, which severely encroached on her other commitments and plans. On her birthday when she chose a restaurant for her birthday celebration, she could not enjoy the dinner because she was too worried about others not liking the restaurant she picked. In situation after situation, she would therefore avoid making a decision, or avoid telling others no.

At the end of the day she paid for her guilt-ridden existence by feeling “trapped” in her obligations and responsibilities. Her conscience had turned against her. Rather than being a source of good, it had become a cross to bear. She was living a life of repentance of sins she had never committed and had become imprisoned by the prohibition against making any demands or stating any wishes. Being herself had become guilt-inducing.

Neurotic Guilt

In this situation the woman’s guilt had become “neurotic”.

Neurotic guilt is guilt that has stopped serving as a useful moral compass, and has started to become aggression turned against oneself.

The voices of adults we internalized when growing up, and which helped shape us into a moral human being with empathy and consideration for others, has in these instances begun to over-function.

What is Guilt?

Guilt is in its essence the experience of remorse for having done harm to others by our actions, feelings, or thoughts.

In a supportive environment, we learn that even though we hit our little sister, we can seek forgiveness and can repair the situation. But if for some reason, the repair was not an option, or if others seemed to be excessively hurt by our expression of a thought, or our display of a particular emotion, the experience of guilt can find no release, and instead become traumatic.

One woman expressed how her father during a time of depression, had told her that the reason why he became suicidal is that he thought she did not love him. The woman internalized this message as a perpetual guilt about her actions and omissions. She started to feel that there was something destructive about expressing her needs or feelings, and that she had the power to destroy the people she loved, by the mere expression of her thoughts.

Other situations that can lead to excessive guilt are early messages that you will go to hell, or that mommy and daddy won’t love you anymore, or any other message that communicates the lack of possibility of redemption, or the withdrawal of needed love and affection. The guilt in these situations can become overwhelming, and so aversive that life itself, with its spontaneous desires and wishes, has to be inhibited.

The Cure for Excessive Guilt:

In the examples stated above, guilt in its natural state has really been corrupted by the experience of intense anxiety and fear, or by excessive pain, or even self-loathing.

To remove the excessive guilt is therefore to come to terms with these feelings or fears. In many situations, guilt or the anxiety associated with asserting one’s needs or wishes, are really rooted in a fear of one’s own aggression and the erroneous belief that there is something destructive about one’s needs and feelings.

Only when a person gets in touch with these underlying realizations and learns to undo the false impressions of their needs and feelings, can these feelings be transformed. A person can then be released from the chains of their excessive guilt and find peace and comfort in being who they are.

image of psychodynamic therapist, Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., psychologist in Houston, TX. I help people undo negative learning from their past that has led to excessive guilt, shame, or anxiety. Visit my website to learn more.

 

 

Shame: The Hidden Root of Most Psychological Problems

You won’t find “disorders of shame” as a category in the DSM-5 (the official American catalogue over mental health diagnoses), and yet shame is probably the biggest single cause of most of our psychological problems.

Shame is often the secret engine that get us started on a path of disordered eating, makes us feel bad about our bodies, causes us to be depressed or have social anxiety, makes us engage in pathological lying, leads us to feel lonely and empty in our relationships with others, and makes us escape into addictions of all kinds.

Shame: A Personal Story

When I was first starting out in this business and had to learn to market my private psychology practice, I had a very shameful experience.

I had been invited to a radio show to talk about my views of therapy. Thinking that this would be an excellent opportunity to plug my practice, I spoke at length about how listeners could contact me, and sought to market my website and my blog. After the show was over, the radio host did not realize that he was still on air as he turned to his assistant and bad-mouthed me for being so self-promoting. My initial reaction was one of embarrassment. The radio host had seen me and judged me in a way that was not flattering, and had pronounced it to the world. He had attributed qualities to me that I both recognized as somewhat true and felt were undesirable and incongruent with how I would want to be. In spite of this, the experience was probably most shameful for the radio host who had been caught off guard in a role that put his professionalism into question. He too must have felt ashamed that these private thoughts had now been broadcast to the world and to his radio show guest.

The example illustrates well what shame is really about. It is about being seen by others in a way we do not want to be seen and in a way that make others pass negative judgment on us.

The initial reaction that comes with shame is the urge to hide or run away. We feel as if we would rather cease to exist for a period of time as evidenced by the expression: to “die of shame”. And yet, if all goes well, we learn through these experiences to adjust our behaviors to become more acceptable to others: to be less self-promoting, or be more careful about what we say and when we say it. In short, we learn from our mistakes, and forgive ourselves and forgive others for their faux-passes.

Shame, in this way, is not altogether bad. In fact, without out it, we would not be able to adjust or regulate our behaviors to the socially acceptable norms, and would not be able to coexist with others.

The Benefits of Shame:

Shame makes us inhibit ourselves to preserve and protect social bonds. It is what makes people not just prattle on endlessly about themselves at a party, and it is what makes us “get a hint” when someone politely brushes us off. In this way it makes us able to function in our society without getting shunned or bothering others too much. Some people who have too little shame, may in fact find it very difficult to get along with others and may feel shunned and rejected in their lives, without quite knowing why.

Pathological Shame:

Shame only becomes disordered when it over-functions or over-regulates our behavior. Instead of becoming a learning experience about the particular norms of a situation, it may instead become a permanent mark on our personality or a permanent rejection of some aspect of who we are. Instead of just becoming the occasion of embarrassment, it may turn into a more permanent sense of ourselves as bad, wrong, repugnant, or unlovable.

The wish to hide now gets attached to an aspect of the self, which we can no longer allow others to see because it would be mortifying for that to happen. We may become ashamed of our body, our sexual desire, our need for others, our desire for independence, or any number of other things. When the shame is really deep, we can’t even access these attributes of ourselves without confusing them with our judgment of them. I may for example refer to any consideration for myself and what I need as a sign of “selfishness”, I may think of sex as inherently “bad” or “dirty”, or I may think of a healthy ability to rely on others as “being needy” or “weak”.

The more powerful my experience of shame, the more I have a need to hide those aspects from others, and even from myself. A part of who I am or how I feel must now be disowned, silenced, or hidden at all cost, and I essentially become estranged from a part of myself.

The problem with this desire to push aspects of myself away is that my shame continues to exercise influence even when it is disowned or goes unacknowledged.

Unhealthy Ways of Dealing with Shame:  

Whenever who we want to be begins to diverge from who we inherently are, the result is almost always some form of psychopathology.

Many people with histories of shame develop an obsession with becoming someone other than who they are. Their entire life may now become a flight from self and a desire to merge with an ideal image of themselves. They want to be free from blemishes and embarrassing traits, but can only hope to achieve this by cutting off a part of who they are.

Unfortunately, the solution they are seeking and the problem they are trying to escape, are two sides of the same coin. The more I pursue my aspiration to become other than myself, the more I increase my judgment on who I really am. Shame and the pursuit of overcoming shame are thus often one and the same.

The problem is of course that I cannot run away from my past, nor can I heal the wounds of shame by simple trying to run away from myself. Shame will always follow me as my shadow, unless I attend to it and address its root cause.

No amount of money in the future can ever heal the wounds of childhood of someone who grew up poor and was teased and ostracized by his classmates, and no amount of self-sacrifice can ever heal the shame of someone who adopted the belief that their lack of love for their parents was what led to their parents divorce.

If we want to overcome our shame, the cure does not lie in ridding ourselves of our shameful attributes, but rather in learning to accept who we really are.

The Cure for Shame:

The antidote to shame is love and self-compassion. However, since shame is such an interpersonal experience and is tied to how we view ourselves in relation to others, simply reciting self-affirmations or telling ourselves we love ourselves, will not produce any real results.

Since shame was created through an emotional experience originating in a social encounter, or was internalized from messages we received from others about what is acceptable and what is unacceptable, the cure for shame must be “a corrective emotional experience”. Love for oneself has to come from the experience of being lovable or acceptable to others. One has to be able to open up to others, to show oneself as one is, and to experience that others can still love and accept one in one’s most vulnerable and exposed state.

This corrective experience is in large part what therapy is about. Therapy helps create the safety and trust to reveal ever more of who one truly is from underneath the layers of social pretense. Sometimes this means getting in touch with facets of one’s experience, which are even foreign to oneself, since one has spent most of one’s energy repressing them in order to fit in and become what one thinks others want one to be.

Ironically, the greatest change in oneself and how one feels about oneself, doesn’t come from changing who one is, but rather from truly becoming who one is. Too many people are embroiled in battles of self-improvement that are nothing but concealed manifestations of an underlying shame. The distance between who one truly is and who one feels a need to be in order to fit in, be normal, or be acceptable, is often the culprit of many of the psychological problems that people report with in therapy, and is often what needs to be dealt with if a person is going to experience lasting peace and happiness in their life.

> Also Read: Social Anxiety and Shame

image of psychodynamic therapist, Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist in Houston, Texas who helps people get to the root of their psychological problems, so they can experience real change and not just temporary gains. Click to visit my website.

 

What Do I Do with My Anger?

Anger is an uncomfortable emotion for most people. We often wonder what to do with it when we feel it, or want desperately to get rid of it because we associate it with being out-of-control, find it to be destructive, or are afraid it. 

The Benefits of Anger:

Anger has gotten a bad reputation, but like any emotion can be quite useful and adaptive at times.

Just imagine the life of someone who cannot feel angry. Such a person will likely feel compelled to make their life all about other people’s needs. He or she will have a hard time saying “no” to other people, because to do so requires the ability to feel inside of oneself where one’s boundaries are, and to assess what is fair and just, and therefore what one will do and not do.

Anger is that initial alert that things are out of balance or that a boundary has been crossed. It calls upon us to be assertive: To say what we want or need even when it goes against what somebody else might want or need.

A person who is out of touch with themselves and therefore does not experience this “alarm” could therefore easily become stuck in a series of one-sided relationships. They might become a perpetual care-taker, but have nobody there to take care of them. Or they may attract a series of people who do not know how to set limits on their own desires, or might purposely take advantage of the self-sacrificing nature of the unassertive person.

Ultimately without access to what we could call righteous anger, we would not be able to build or sustain healthy relationships based on give and take, and would find ourselves becoming like a chameleon who adapts and changes to each situation, because we wouldn’t really know how we are different from others. Many people who are uncomfortable with anger therefore end up living rather passive lives and have a hard time defining who they are outside of the use or value they have for others.

Read: In another article I have described how this lack of access to righteous anger is one of the key issues involved in Borderline Personality Disorder

Isn’t Anger Destructive?

The problem is that people confuse the feeling of anger with the expression of anger, and may have images in their mind of anger as an explosive and destructive emotion that is quite dangerous and out of control. They may be thinking of the anger that led to domestic violence at home, or the anger that got them fired from a job because they told their boss off. If they were the recipient of this kind of anger, they may be reminded of fear, or if they were the one’s who lost control of their temper, they may be reminded of the sense of shame or remorse they felt after “letting someone have it”.

Ironically, these kinds of violent or exaggerated expressions of anger, are often the result of not paying sufficient attention to anger in the first place.

Don’t Ignore Your Anger:

Anger is one word, but covers a whole spectrum of angry emotions on a continuum from annoyance and irritability on the one end to murderous rage on the other.

Oftentimes, a person will have signs of irritability or annoyance long before they simply become irate. But if they are ashamed of past outbursts or afraid of the experience of anger in themselves or others, they will try their best to ignore these early signs.

This means that they will not have the opportunity to assess what their anger is really about, and will not have the opportunity to address whatever feels boundary violating with an appropriate assertive response. The anger therefore has nowhere to go and may become bottled up until it erupts in a moment of out-of-control behavior.

Why Am I Angry?

At other times, a person may experience intense anger very quickly, and may bypass the feeling of frustration, annoyance, and irritation altogether. In these cases, it often pays to step back to examine what the anger is really about…

If a person is able to be curious about why they feel so angry all of a sudden, they will often discover that their anger is a response to a more vulnerable emotion, and that that this more vulnerable emotion was triggered, causing anger to arise as a natural defense.

Anger mobilizes a person to defend themselves or demarcate a territory. But what is that thing that needs defending? Or what is that territory that is threatened?

Is it my self-esteem that has plummeted, making me feel like I want to hurt this person who doesn’t seem to respect or value me? Or is the territory that is threatened my sense of having a place in my relationship, having a voice, having a role to play, mattering?

Anger often offers us valuable insights into ways in which we feel wounded, rejected, unappreciated, afraid of losing someone, or unable to be ourselves.

It is an alert system that calls for rapid action to restore an equilibrium, or right a wrong. But like any alert system, we have to first examine what set it off, before we can know what action steps to take.

Anger as Path to Self-Understanding:

If we can allow ourselves to feel our anger, we will be able to examine why we feel angry, and will be able to have more control over when and how to express it.

Then we can realize, for example, that the anger we feel at our friend for calling out a flaw in us, is really about embarrassment or shame, of finding it humiliating to agree, of not being able to maintain a positive view of self while taking a critical view of an aspect of ourselves, of having our feelings hurt, or not quite knowing if we are still valuable, likable, and acceptable to our friend or to others at large. In fact, it may protect us from feeling sad or down, or shameful or worthless.

If we can decipher the full message of our experience of anger, then we are free to respond in a more accurate and balanced manner to the perceived threat or violation of our boundaries. We will not have to erupt in rage, but can better express what is really going on within us.

Sometimes this may mean deciding against expressing our anger because we know the anger is really more about us than the perceived threat. At other times this may mean expressing our anger at what we have assessed to be a legitimate concern. And at yet other times, it may mean expressing the actual feelings underneath the anger, and letting people in on the vulnerabilities or sore spots that the anger is simply there to protect ourselves from.

First step in managing our anger is therefore never to suppress it, but to feel it. Sometimes this means working through the fears and shame that makes us uncomfortable accepting this most natural emotion into our repertoire of feelings. At other times, it means undoing cultural messages that make us feel weak or pathetic if we admit to vulnerabilities and mistakes, and make us unable to express what is really causing our anger because it would be too shameful or humiliating to do so.

image of psychodynamic therapist, Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist in Houston Texas, who can help you discover the underlying causes of your anger, so you will gain more control of your emotions and feel more effective in your dealings with others. Visit my website to read more about my approach to psychotherapy.

Why Should I Feel My Unpleasant Emotions?

One of the most frequent objections I hear as a therapist, is the objection by clients who don’t see what the point is of re-experiencing unpleasant memories and emotions from the past.

How is feeling sad going to help me?” they ask.

Or: “How is getting angry at people in my life who mistreated me really going to serve me?”

Here is my answer to their concerns…

The Desire to Be Rid of Negative Emotions:

Anger, sadness, loneliness, emptiness, despair, grief; these are all emotions that many people don’t know what to do with, and would most of all like to dump in a dumpster or bury deep underground.

And so they typically do…

They try to quarantine pockets of unpleasant experiences from the rest of their life, and spend much of their time trying to actively repress, ignore, rationalize, or minimize how they really feel.

Why Emotions Should Not Be Pushed Away

Of course emotions don’t go anywhere just because we don’t want to feel them. The more we fight them, the more havoc they generally wreck on our lives:

  • You don’t want to be overcome by grief at the passing of your beloved mother, so you push your grief away. Now the grief instead becomes a depression and the loss, which can never be mourned, a perpetual companion rather than a passageway to a better place.
  • You don’t want to feel angry at your parents for the mistreatment you felt as a child, so you tell yourself it really wasn’t that bad. Now instead your unexpressed anger interferes with your ability to have a REAL relationship with your parents, or gets pushed down so far that when it finally erupts, it erupts as rage.
  • You don’t want to get in touch with the loneliness and emptiness that haunts your marriage, so you try to distract yourself by going on expensive trips, redecorating your house,  or having another child. Now instead the emptiness becomes a perpetual hollowness, and the lack of satisfaction in your marriage the cause  of a manic frenzy of activity that never quite fills the underlying void.

The Price We Pay for Ignoring Our Emotions:

As a general rule the more we fight our emotions, the bigger and “badder” they become. If we don’t allow ourselves to feel them and to hear what they have to tell us, they will keep haunting us until we finally get their message. Fighting them is a losing battle and we always pay a price for denying their reality.

As long as we are not at peace with ourselves, but must deny aspects of our emotional reality in order to feel good, a sense of genuine happiness, calmness, and self-acceptance can never take root.

By getting rid of the “bad”, we also ironically get rid of the “good”.

Why? Because we divert our energy from a path of genuinely accepting ourselves, and replace it with a perpetual fight to deny the realness of our own experiences, which means denying the reality of who we are. Happiness constructed on such as a deceitful basis is not real happiness, but a flight from ourselves that can only lead to perpetual unrest.

The Benefits of Our Negative Emotions:

Contrary to what many people think, all emotions are adaptive and purposeful when experienced accurately and expressed appropriately.

Anger, which to many people can feel scary and unsafe to express, is a signal to us that our boundaries have been violated or that we feel mistreated in some way. If we allow ourselves to experience our anger, examine what boundaries might have been crossed, assess the accuracy of our evaluation of the situation, and express our concerns in a calm and constructive manner, our anger will have served its purpose. Our needs can now become known to others, disagreements can be resolved, relationships can be repaired, and we can command respect even when relationships need to be severed.

Sadness also serves a purpose. It tells us what matters to us, or alerts us to what we are missing. If we can allow ourselves to feel it, we will become wiser about our needs and longings, or the things we missed when growing up. Sadness can lead to self-examination, and can lead to greater acceptance of that which we cannot change. It can also lead to greater clarity about what we really value in life and how we should move ahead. When expressed to others in an appropriate way it can bring others closer to us, invite comfort and caring, and make us feel that we are less alone.

Emotions are Really Movements not States:

The myth about unpleasant emotions is that they are rather static experiences that simply take us over, dominate us, and keep us stuck. However, emotion is really more accurately described as a process or a movement. It is derived from the Latin verb “movere” which means “to move”.

Emotions help move us or motivate us, they give us direction, help us to clarify our thoughts and priorities, and serve as vehicles for making changes to our life. Only when we do not allow ourselves to move with them, do they become static road blocks: obstacles rather than passageways.

So to those clients who wonder, “why should I feel my unpleasant emotions?”, my answer is, “to let them move you to a different place”.

By moving into them, you move through them, and by moving through them, they move you to a different place.

By not fighting your negative emotions, you will be transported to the other side, where they no longer bother you, because they have now served their purpose and set you free.

Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D. a psychologist in Houston, TX who believes good therapy involves a transformation through your emotions. To read more about the process of therapy, visit my website.