Tag Archives: denial

What We Didn’t Learn in Kindergarten: Thoughts and Feelings

One of the most important distinctions I’ve ever learned is the difference between thoughts and feelings. Sadly, I didn’t learn it in public or higher education. I didn’t learn it from my family. I didn’t learn it from my culture. I didn’t learn it, in fact, until I was 50 years old.

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What I understand now is that ignorance of the difference between thoughts and feelings effectively cripples us in every area of our lives. Our misunderstanding, fear and confusion about thoughts and feelings lie like a Gordian knot in the center of our psyches, inhibiting authenticity, clear communication, satisfying professional life, and healthy relationship. Our experience becomes a murky pond, breeding anxiety, fear and isolation.

To be human is to have feelings. It’s unavoidable. Some feelings are pleasant, and some are not. As very young children, we take our cues from others and label some feelings “good” and others “bad.” That is the starting point of our confusion, because “good” and “bad” describe thoughts about our feelings rather than the feelings themselves.

Feelings 101: Mad, sad, glad, scared and ashamed. This is a short list of basic human emotions that we all experience. Our feelings occur far faster than we can use logic, reason or language. Most of us recognize these core emotions in ourselves and others, though we often deny that recognition because of our thoughts about them. For example, many women of my generation have been taught that anger is unattractive and “bad.” Men are discouraged from feeling or expressing sadness. From our earliest childhood, we are taught how to think about our feelings, rather than how to identify and express them appropriately.

As a result of all this thinking, we suppress, distort, deny, and try to amputate our feelings rather than welcoming, exploring, experiencing, and discharging them in a way that hurts neither ourselves nor others.

The problem is that if we don’t properly manage our feelings and allow them to pass through our bodies and our consciousness the way clouds pass through the sky, they become locked in place, festering and putrefying and eventually tearing us apart, both emotionally and physically.

Now I think of emotions as data, neither positive or negative. What we choose to do with our feelings is where the trouble begins, but the feelings themselves are neutral pieces of information indicating the degree to which our needs are met or not met. Our marvelous brains are evolved to collect specifics and details such as thoughts and feelings and organize them into some kind of coherence in order to facilitate life. Glad is not better than mad. Sad and scared are not necessarily negative experiences to be avoided.

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I vividly remember receiving my second divorce decree in the mail. I sat at the kitchen table, looking down at those official papers, feeling a kind of numb despair, mixed with relief.

I reviewed what seemed to me a lifetime of failure. I believed I’d failed my parents repeatedly, my brother, my kids, and both men I’d married. I’d dropped out of college. I was always struggling with money. All I’d ever done was work as hard as I knew how, and it seemed to me the harder I worked, the more I failed. I must truly be ugly and broken. It was no wonder nobody could love me. That I could feel even a little relief just showed how hateful I was. I should be thoroughly ashamed of myself. I deserved to be alone.

Now look back at those last two paragraphs. The first one is two sentences long and identifies numb despair and relief, which are feelings. The second paragraph isn’t about my feelings at all. It’s about my thoughts about my feelings. My stories. My expectations. My beliefs. The second paragraph is about depression, the way I framed my past, and my inability to either accept or forgive myself. I offered myself no compassion or kindness that afternoon. I did not congratulate myself for having successfully exited an abusive marriage. I hated myself for my furtive but honest feeling of relief.

I don’t know about you, but the inside of my head is much better reflected in the second paragraph than in the first, and I would have, at that time, told you those were my feelings. They weren’t, though. They were merely my thoughts about my feelings.

I’m convinced that feelings are not what hurt us. In fact, they help us. When I feel mad, now I immediately ask myself if I’m experiencing or witnessing a boundary violation. Nearly always, the answer is yes. The emotion we call anger is helping me, giving me valuable information, pointing at something I need to deal with. That mad feeling is righteous and rightful, and it motivates action, hopefully appropriate and effective action.

Appropriate and effective action brings me to the most important aspect of learning emotional intelligence. It turns out that our thoughts and feelings, no matter how passionately we experience them, may not reflect reality.

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In other words, we can’t believe everything we think and feel. Or, rather, we can believe in our experience, but not necessarily our interpretation of our experience, and this means we frequently do not make appropriate and effective choices.

Managing our feelings requires we take responsibility for them.

As an example, many people walk around with PTSD triggers in their brains. I am one of those people. Now and then, specific circumstances trigger my panic, but that trigger is about me, not anyone else. I don’t expect the world to accommodate my PTSD. I don’t blame others when I get triggered. I feel the panic and all the other wretched symptoms, and those feelings are physiologically real. I’m not making them up. Yet I know what I’m experiencing is not real trauma in the moment, but a memory, a ghost, an echo of an old hurt.

Our thoughts can also lead us astray. We all have convictions, opinions and beliefs, but, and I can’t emphasize this enough, we can be wrong. In fact, we frequently are wrong. We misunderstand. We assume. We deny and distort. Our logic is flawed or we are ignorant of important pieces of information. We don’t think critically or for ourselves. We make up stories in our head, tell them to ourselves until we believe them, make choices as though our stories are true, and wonder why our relationships are disrupted and our lives don’t work well.

So, what to do?

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First, we need to go back to that 101 list of feelings and start recognizing, naming and accepting them when they come up for us. Where do we feel those core emotions in our bodies? What do we notice about our experience when we’re feeling mad, sad, glad, scared or ashamed? How do we manage the feeling? How is our coping style working for us? What happens if we sit down and hold an emotion in our laps without feeling compelled to take action, simply allowing it to ebb and flow through us? Who in our lives allows us to feel what we feel, and who doesn’t?

Secondly, we need to stop blaming anyone (or everyone) around us for our emotional experience. If we find ourselves in relationship with people who consistently make us feel angry, sad, exhausted and valueless, we need to take responsibility for exiting those relationships. We are not powerless. Chronic difficult feelings are asking for help, but we need to think clearly and carefully about the choices we make in order to help ourselves. Trying to feel better at the expense of someone else’s well-being is not appropriate. Self-destructing is not effective. It’s up to us to respond to our own emotional experience with kindness, acceptance and support.

Lastly, we need to monitor our thoughts, and challenge them frequently. I am constantly overhearing myself mindlessly repeating old beliefs and conclusions and saying, “Wait, is that true?” Nine times out of ten, it’s not true, or it only might be true. Another tactic I use now is to open my mouth and check out my perception. I live with a person I trust. If an interaction between us results in difficult feelings for me, I circle back around and talk about it, frequently finding out in the process that my thoughts and feelings have once again been skewed by old scars. I have misunderstood, or imperfectly understood, and leapt to mistaken conclusions and assumptions.

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Talking it over with someone we trust, someone who won’t gaslight us. What a concept.

Thoughts and feelings flow through our lives, sometimes in a destructive torrent and sometimes in a slow, life-giving trickle. They arise within us, are of us, and are our responsibility. Thoughts and feelings are two distinct pieces of data, and they do not necessarily reflect reality. We are not entitled to have them validated by the world. Our thought-and-feeling experience is not more important or true than anyone else’s.

I will not be a slave to my thoughts and feelings, or those of anyone else. My emotions are my friends and guides rather than my enemies or masters. They are not a matter of shame. I don’t believe everything they tell me about reality, but they do help me understand the places in which I can heal and grow, and they are part of my decision-making process.

I feel satisfied. I think this post is complete. My daily crime.

Rewrite

I’m currently reading The Intuitive Way by Penney Peirce. Various notes and bookmarks remind me I’ve started it before, but I didn’t finish it. I picked it up again because I’m also reading The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker (for the second time), and he talks about how important intuition is in our ability to avoid danger.

I’ve always been interested in intuition. What is it? How does it work? I know from personal experience that it’s a real kind of perception or knowing, but I also know many people view it as “woo” and scientifically unprovable. I’ve frequently been met with fury and denial when I voiced an intuition about someone’s state of mind or behavior. Certainly I might be wrong, but then why all the fuss?

As I began writing this post I explored Peirce’s website for a few minutes. I listened to an interview and read a couple of her posts. Yes, it looks rather New Age and “woo” to me.

On the other hand, that doesn’t mean she’s wrong!

As a matter of fact, science is catching up to what we call intuition. Scientists and researchers like Paul Ekman, who recognized how important fleeting micro expressions and body language are, have begun to assemble the neurological pieces of the process of intuition. Experts in their own fields like de Becker are revisiting the importance of intuition to our resilience and survival.

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In any event, I picked up The Intuitive Way again to see if it was something I wanted to work with and explore or pass on to the library for donation. I’m glad I did. I’m uninterested in debating whether intuition is real or a worthy subject for study, but I’m very much interested in any tools which might assist me in healing and living a more joyful life and/or shaping my creativity. The book is filled with provocative writing exercises. I remember now it takes me ten minutes to read a chapter and ten days to play with all the exercises.

When I learned emotional intelligence I was introduced to the work of Byron Katie. Her great question is: Who are you without your story? Peirce’s book asks the same question in a slightly different way, providing exercises challenging the reader to replace fearful, limiting beliefs with those that are loving and life-enhancing.

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Who am I without my story? What a wonderful, important question. What a game changer. It’s like asking ourselves who we are if we stand bodiless in some infinite but undefined space with no memories, no objects around us, and no other context. If we’re not a name; an age; a family member; a job; an ethnicity and tribe; a set of beliefs, experiences, memories and stories, then who the hell are we?

My mind boggles, and the artist in me salivates. So much of my self-identity is bound up with stories about my life and experience, and many of those stories are small, hard, stony things about breaking, severing, smashing, exile and futility.

I have fantasies about who I’d like to be and how I’d like to feel, of course. They’re fantasies, though, not the real story. I know the difference.

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But do I?

We write our stories from our feelings and experiences, many of which occurred in childhood. Do children necessarily see a wide picture? Are they able to understand all the behavior and choices of the adults around them? Are they able to process their feelings and separate them from their thoughts about their feelings?

I doubt it. I certainly wasn’t able to.

As we grow up, we have opportunities to compare our stories with those of our siblings, or others who inhabited our childish world, and we notice then that our stories aren’t the only ones in the mix. Everyone has a story, and they aren’t the same one! A word or event burned in my brain might be something no one else even remembers.

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Stories are slippery things, powerful as an anaconda and just as hard to pin down.

All that being so, how would it be to simply erase the parts of my story that limit me, to find the file, open it, hit “delete” and then empty the trash of all the feelings, conclusions and thoughts my story carried? No more story. Just a clean space …

… In which to write a new story!

As a storyteller, I’m fascinated by all the creation stories from around the globe. As a writer, I’ve even written a couple of my own. I’ve never considered writing a story about my own creation before, though. After all, I already know all about the story of my first ten years. I’ve been telling it to myself for decades. It’s shaped me profoundly.

But would a different story have shaped me differently?

Would a different story shape me differently now?

I don’t suggest we deny or bury our feelings and memories. I’ve never found that particularly useful. I think of my story as an old-fashioned quilt, carefully pieced together out of all kinds of scraps of feelings, memories and experiences from which I formed conclusions and beliefs over my lifetime.

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I can lift that quilt out of the cedar chest of my psyche, unfold it, hang it on a clothesline in the sun and spring breeze and examine it. Which pieces make me feel stained, frayed, torn or damaged? Which pieces are vibrant, vivid, gorgeously colored and textured?

After the quilt has aired, I can unpick stitches and remove the pieces that hurt, distort or limit me, replacing them with scraps that make me feel happy, confident and loving. I can rewrite some of those childhood monsters and villains, understanding now that people are complex and we don’t always know their motives or secrets. I can consider painful pieces of my story from the view of another character in it instead of from my own narrow perspective. As I unpick stitches and loosen up my old story quilt, I can think about forgiveness, gratitude and being wrong, and revel in stitching new patterns and colors into it.

Rewriting our story, like reworking a quilt, takes time. Writing our original story took time. Events happened in our lives. We had feelings and experiences. We had thoughts about our feelings and experiences. We came to certain conclusions about who we are, who others are and how life works. We wove a story and told it to ourselves over and over again, until we believed it completely and it became unconscious. We carry our story with us into the world and it influences every choice and action.

The thing about story is that it’s limited and limiting. It can never catch all of reality, even in a single moment. If we understand this and work to bring our personal stories back into consciousness, we become aware of all the ways our stories hurt and/or help us. They can limit and paralyze us or inspire us with courage and confidence. It’s all up to us, because we are the authors of our own stories. We have the power to rewrite.

Many cling to their stories as though they were a matter of life and death, not to mention identity. I’ve noticed that some people with miserable stories cling the hardest. I can only conclude that for some, even the most wretched and harrowing story provides some kind of a payoff for the one holding it. Such a person doesn’t want to rewrite their story, in spite of how ineffective or painful it may seem to be.

I choose not to be run by my story. I can do, be and contribute more than parts of my old story say I can. I don’t want to validate and reinforce outdated conclusions that made me fearful and small. I don’t want to continually irritate and open up old wounds.

I refuse to be a victim, especially not a victim of myself!

So I’m writing my own creation story, from before the beginning, when two cells joined and created the miracle of my life. From those two cells came the complex human being that I am, and a complex human being contains and creates many different kinds of stories with many different feelings, experiences and thoughts.

Rewriting my story. My daily crime.

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Emotional Deception

My partner and I have been watching Lie To Me, a television series that ran on Fox from 2009 to 2011. The show is based on the work of Dr. Paul Ekman, the world’s greatest expert on facial expression.

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I am absolutely fascinated.

All my life I’ve been extremely aware of body language and what I’ve always called the “energy” of the people around me. I’ve frequently had the experience of picking up the hidden emotions of others and taking on responsibility for them, a result of ineffective boundaries. When I was trained in emotional intelligence I cleaned up my poor boundaries and many other destructive habits. I also began to openly and unapologetically trust myself after a lifetime of cognitive dissonance caused by the difference between words and nonverbal cues.

Now, at last, I have real world validation for the way I can sometimes “read” others. It’s not magic, and I’m not a freak, a fantasist or crazy. Science now recognizes the universality of human facial expressions for basic emotions (fear, surprise, contempt, happiness, sadness, disgust, shame), and technology allows us to slow down video footage and capture microexpressions, which occur in much less than a second, as we speak and interact with others.

Our words can lie, but Dr. Ekman’s work reveals that our bodies give away our emotional experience in all kinds of ways of which we’re not even conscious. The way we hold our hands, a slight shoulder shrug, the way we move our heads, how we direct our gaze and small, fleeting expressions that pass across our faces with the help of 42 complex muscles can contradict our words.

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We know that some people have a great deal of difficulty reading and interpreting body language and subtle cues, while others are skilled at it. Paul Ekman’s work and research makes it possible for anyone to consciously learn how to detect emotional deception. Every episode of Lie To Me incorporates not only a story line told by actors, but also footage from real people — politicians, leaders and other famous and infamous folks — displaying exactly the same facial expression or body movement. It’s amazing.

Some people are difficult to read. I’ve worked hard to develop a stone face and have often been told I’m opaque. My oldest son is extremely provocative, and my expressionless countenance stood me in good stead when he was a teenager and woke me in the middle of the night to tell me he was going to ski naked at midnight with a girl in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other. Any show of outrage or upset only egged him on, so I learned to control myself. I’ve also had some exposure to narcissists and other Cluster B people, who feed on emotional energy, and I know the best way to deal with them is to become a grey rock, that is to be so completely flat, uninteresting and uninterested that they move on, a technique far more effective than trying to get rid of them directly. Yet even though I may be harder to read than average, I know my body language gives me away every time, or would to a trained observer.

(Fortunately, my teenage sons were not trained observers. Let us be thankful for small mercies.)

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Sedating substances and Botox injections can interfere with or blunt muscle movement and smooth out microexpressions, but eventually we all give our truth and lies away. We can’t help it. Microexpressions and body language are often totally unconscious on our part.

I’ve been told I have an intense gaze that can make others feel uncomfortable. I suspect this is a function of the focus and presence necessary to evaluate how the people around me present themselves as I compare what they say with what their expressions and bodies tell me. If I feel confused or receive a mixed message, I always go with body language. Words lie too easily and too frequently. We lie to ourselves and we lie to each other. When I experience cognitive dissonance as I observe and interact with others, now I no longer tell myself I’m making things up. Even more importantly, I don’t allow other people to make me feel bad and wrong. Nobody likes to have their cover blown, and someone with things to hide is naturally not going to appreciate feeling exposed. Rage, denial, projection, gaslighting and other abusive behavior can all be effective distractions from the truth.

A lie comes with a cost. The truth may come with a cost as well. We navigate our lives between the two, making the best choices we can. I have no desire whatsoever to uncover the secrets and lies of others, but I am interested in being able to evaluate if there are secrets and lies. I don’t believe we owe others 100% of our emotional truth, but every healthy relationship and connection requires some level of trust, and I don’t want to be with people I can’t trust. I think of mixed messages as a red flag.

It’s amazing to learn, after all these years of mysteriously and often uncomfortably picking up more information from others than I ever wanted to know, that inconsistency is a red flag. Words that are incongruent with facial expressions and body language are untrustworthy. My ability to recognize concealed emotions is not hateful or crazy.

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Frequently we don’t seek to deceive others as much as we wish to deceive ourselves. The lies we tell ourselves are perhaps the most powerful of all, and we protect those kind of lies the most ferociously.

It’s important to understand that recognizing the presence of a lie does not mean we know the substance of the lie or why it’s being told. As a writer, I find that why infinitely interesting in its possibilities. What kinds of things do we conceal? What motivates us to do so? What are the consequences of our various lies, great and small, to ourselves and to others? How do our bodies unconsciously communicate our emotional deception? If we spot emotional deception in someone we’re close to, what do we do with that information? What kinds of lies are terminal in relationships, and what kinds survivable? How do we forgive ourselves and others for emotional deception?

The looming presence of social media in our culture means many of our daily interactions, perhaps most, are not face to face, which greatly diminishes the complexity and depth of human communication and makes emotional deception easy. Body language is invisible. Tone, pitch and other verbal clues and idiosyncrasies are unheard. We use sanitized little emojis to represent our meaning, or at least to represent what we want others to believe our meaning is.

Paul Ekman has written several books I’m looking forward to exploring, and one can take online classes and learn more. I intend to learn a lot more.

Detecting emotional deception. My daily crime.

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Jennifer Rose
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