There are times when I have heard something so profound that I was grateful I lived to reach that moment. Suddenly, my life made more sense, or my understanding of what I will be able to accomplish opened up. I had one of those moments in therapy this week.
My therapist and I were discussing my ex-husband. When my ex sees me now, he won’t look me in the face. It’s very strange for me. We were married for almost twenty years, and now he ducks his head and wears sunglasses to avoid regarding me. My therapist said, “Well, don’t you think it makes sense? He’s probably in pain. Feeling too many emotions at once. He never could ‘do’ emotions. After all, if you can’t name it, then you can’t regulate it.”
Did you catch that?
If you can’t name it, then you can’t regulate it.
His words stunned me a little. That is therapeutic gold. It’s just a stark and unvarnished truth. I love it. This truth alone is exactly why we go to therapy or even find a life coach. To learn to give names to our feelings so that we can finally regulate ourselves. This is called ‘gaining insight’.
What does it mean to regulate our emotions? Regulating means to control or maintain the speed or rate of something so that its process operates properly. When we self-regulate properly, we are able to apply a level of control to how we process our emotions and thoughts, even under stress, so that we are not overcome and controlled by them. Part of regulating our emotions is naming them. Knowing what we are feeling. Having insight. We may not know why we feel a particular emotion immediately. Naming an emotion, however, is the first step in regulating it.
What happens when we deny our feelings or can’t name them? I’ll paint a picture. A few months ago I found myself in an interaction in which I was triggered and became hypervigilant except that I had no idea I had been triggered. I didn’t even know that I was in a hypervigilant state. All I could say to describe my inner emotional state was, “I feel cornered. I feel trapped.” I was crying. I was suddenly highly anxious. My thoughts were running wild. I felt like I needed to run away. I was analyzing every exit strategy. My heart rate was high. I was sweating. I felt under threat. I could not calm down. I felt irrational. I had some insight into my own irrational responses, but I could not explain any of this. It had come on so suddenly, and I was awash in panic. I called a friend for help. As soon as she said, “I think that you have become hypervigilant,” I felt sudden relief. She named what I could not. My amygdala had been sounding the alarms so loudly that I could not overcome my own internal turmoil. I needed someone else to provide a name for me so that I could begin to regulate myself.
What happened when she named my feeling for me? I started to regulate my emotional processes. I know how to handle my own hypervigilance because I’m practiced in it. I have a workable system in place around hypervigilance, but I can’t access it if I don’t know to do it.
This is why we must develop curiosity around own inner movements. Asking and learning to answer questions like, “How do I feel about this? How did I feel when s/he said or did that? Why do I feel this way when that happens?” become necessary. It’s important to note that a “feeling” question is not the same as a “thinking” question. One way to fool around in therapy and interpersonally is to answer “feeling” questions with “thinking” answers.
Therapist: “How did you feel when she said that to you?”
Client: “I really thought that she was a different person. I did not expect her to do that.”
That’s a clever answer, isn’t it? That answer was based in a belief but not in an emotion. I am highly skilled at “fooling around” in therapy when I am feeling avoidant.
Therapist: “How did you feel when she did something that violated what you believed about her?”
Client: “I felt hurt. I felt disappointed. I felt betrayed. I felt angry.”
Therapist: “How do you feel now?”
Client: “I feel like it’s going to be very hard to trust people going forward, and I am bothered by that. I want to be able to trust people, and it scares me. You can’t have successful relationships if you can’t trust people. I am afraid.”
Thinking vs. Feeling.
When we name our feelings and gain insight into the movements of our inner life, we are able to understand our behaviors and motivations. This allows us to increase our interpersonal skills because it cuts down on maladaptive behaviors like passive-aggressive behavior, cynicism, and sarcasm.
Part of getting better is learning to name your emotions so that you can learn to regulate your inner processes and, hence, the outer expression of your emotions. This is part of learning to do something. Being a person of action. Implementing a system that will move you forward. Is it hard? It can be. Is it worth it?