Sunday, April 20, 2014

Emotional Acceptance: How Feeling Bad Can Be Good For You

       It’s only natural to want to avoid feeling negative emotions such as anger, depression, guilt, remorse or fear.  As soon we become conscious of these feelings we immediately seek ways to extinguish them. Feeling unpleasant emotions is extremely uncomfortable and very difficult to tolerate.  It is understandable that we would want to avoid them.  But, in actuality, our avoidance perpetuates the cycle of feeling bad.  When we avoid our feelings, we deny ourselves the opportunity to learn what underlies our negative emotions. As a result, avoidance creates feelings of powerless, it’s impossible “to fix” what we don’t know is “broken” in the first place so we do nothing.  

     We avoid feeling negative emotions in various ways; by over eating, over spending, over drinking, and even hyper sexual or dormant sexual behaviors are all forms of avoidance.  At first avoiding our negative emotions may seem like a reasonable response.  Negative feelings are disturbing and often times linked to the very events and circumstances we want to forget.  We can all relate to the immediate relief avoidance can provide.  However, this relief is temporary and we pay a heavy price in the long term when we avoid acknowledging and accepting our negative emotions.  The short term gain we get from avoiding our negative emotions creates more complicated problems for us in the long run.  Not only do we need to resolve the original problem, we now need to resolve the problems we’ve picked up along the way because of our avoidance behaviors.
     In actuality, our unpleasant and negative emotions (depression, anxiety, fear) are signals telling us something is wrong and these emotions need our attention and understanding rather than us ignoring them. We avoid our emotions by using defense mechanisms, such as repression, minimization, fantasy, rationalization, projection, somatization, wishful thinking, and idealization to name a few. Not all defense mechanism are unhealthy but certain ones are thought to hold us back more than others from living more authentic, richer and satisfying lives. Learning how to tolerate our negative emotions rather than defending against them allows us to understand our emotions and gives us a context surrounding them. This new understanding enables us to effectively "fix" what we realize is "broken".  

Below are 4 tips to help you tune into your emotions in order to make effective changes:

1. Develop the ability to "sit with" negative and unpleasant emotions such as depression, anxiety, fear and anger.  Tolerating negative emotions allows us to process our feelings and gives us the time to understand ourselves and our feelings more deeply.

2. Be patient with yourself. It takes time to sort out emotions and to understand the full circumstances surrounding them. Emotions are complicated and often times we feel several at once.

3. Accept that negative emotions are normal and a part of being human. Our goal should not be to never feel bad--that's impossible. Instead, learning how to manage our negative emotions should be our focus and goal.

4. Try not react impulsively in response to your negative feelings. Impulsive reactions often make circumstance and feelings worse. Instead, try to slow down your reactions by being patient and allowing yourself the time to sort out what it is your feeling and why. When you have a greater understanding of your feelings and the circumstances surrounding them, your reactions will be more effective and less damaging to you.

I would like to hear from you. How do you avoid negative emotions? Do you struggle with tolerating your negative feelings? How do you manage your negative feelings?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Your Opinion? A Reader's Question About Guilt.

Dear Dr. Durlofsky,

I read your blog entry about the differences between healthy and unhealthy guilt today, and I would like to ask your opinion on something.

I am a middle-aged married man. I recently confessed to my wife of 12 years my habit of visiting internet cyber chat rooms and pornography sites. I also confessed to her that several months ago I ran into my high school girlfriend. I hadn't seen her for numerous years and we ended up kissing for about 5 minutes on a bench in public. Although I told my wife about this encounter, I did not tell her that I kissed her too. I do not intend on having an affair. I told my wife that when I visited chat rooms I always made it clear that I was married and that I ended all contact with people I chatted with when it became clear it was going to harm my marriage. ( I did not use the word cybersex in my confession).

My wife was angry when I told her these things. She did not talk to me for about 10 days. She then told me that she was hurt and that she hated the feeling of being betrayed, but she forgave me and that she wanted to leave the past behind. I also made the decision to seek treatment. I gave my wife passwords to all my email accounts and placed my computer in the dining room where there are no doors. So far I stayed porn and chat room free for almost 7 months (202 days as of this writing).

The problem is I am still feeling guilty for what I have done. I know that what I withheld was relatively minor and that none if this has done lasting harm to my marriage. We are in good shape as a couple and family.

My question is this: is what I am feeling unhealthy guilt? I feel I have made some critical changes and done no real harm, but I would appreciate your thoughts.

Many thanks,
Robert M.

Dear Robert,

I want to congratulate on your courage to share this information with your wife and your decision to seek treatment. You stated a few times in your email that you believe "no real damage was done" and you did not disclose to your wife the fact that you kissed another woman or engaged in cybersex. Based on this it sounds like you are minimizing your risky actions and the damage your past behaviors have had on your marriage and your self-concept. You seem to realize you have not been fully honest with your wife and probably with yourself.  All of which could be reasons why you still feel guilty. Minimization is a common defense people use when dealing with addiction or feelings that are scary for one to acknowledge.

Re-building trust and forgiving ourselves for past wrong doings takes time and understanding. Although trust can be rebuilt, with lots of hard work, you may need to keep in mind that the reason for rebuilding the trust in your marriage, is the result of your dishonesty.

Exploring your guilty feelings, whether your guilt be healthy or not, should help you to understand the issues and reasons underlying your past risky behaviors. And most importantly, help you to address them in a positive and effective way.

Best of luck to you. Looks like you are well on your way!

Dr. Durlofsky

If you have a question you would like to ask? Email me at drpauladurlofsky@gmail.


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

When Having It All Is Not Enough

     We can all relate to experiencing anxiety stemming from the fear that what we have is not enough. We ask ourselves, "Do I have enough money, friends, education, a big enough house, have I achieved enough accomplishments or have a prestigious enough career?". For some this feeling is a reality; there are many who struggle to support themselves on a daily basis and truly do not have enough. But for others, who have an abundance, unrealistic fears that what they have is NOT enough is an emotionally debilitating problem. This is analogous to enjoying a six course dinner at a elegant restaurant and at the end of the meal leaving famished. Continuous and unrealistic anxiety and fear of "not having enough" prevents us from enjoying and appreciating what we actually have.

    This nagging, " not having enough" feeling is often caused by an underlying belief that one is "not enough" on the inside-simply stated, feelings of inadequacy. This void gets filled by buying more "things" and/or by achieving greater and better accomplishments in the hope of being enough. At first, having more and accomplishing bigger and greater things might "hit the spot". However, this false feeling is temporary and after a brief period of time passes, the feeling of not having enough returns. And what was accomplished or accumulated during this time is then devalued.

     This does not mean we should not set goals that challenge and help us lead richer and fuller lives. We are all entitled to want more and have more. Problems arise when we believe we are inadequate to begin with and having more or doing more does not resolve this issue.

Below are a few tips to help you not get caught in the "when having it all is not enough" trap:

1. Set aside time to write a list of what you believe you don't have enough of and why.

2. Review each assumption and challenge yourself to imagine what you hope to accomplish from having more. The goal here is to develop realistic expectations of what you will accomplish from having more and how having more will improve your life. Realistic expectations and overall understanding helps to create genuine and lasting change resulting in improved self-esteem and happiness.

3. Start a gratitude journal. Write down all the things in your life you are grateful for and why.  Set aside time each day to read it and add to it regularly. This should help with developing a healthy perspective about one's life.

4. Consider psychotherapy to examine and explore underlying issues contributing to your feelings of not having enough or inadequacy that prevents you from enjoying what you already have.

I would like to hear from you. Do you struggle with feelings of inadequacy? Are you constantly craving more even when what you have is more than enough?