“Inside Out”: 5 Important Take Away Messages for Navigating the World of Emotion

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I first saw a preview for the Disney/Pixar film “Inside Out” at a therapist’s training, no doubt! Immediately excited by the concept of a film that attempts to explain the function of emotions, I couldn’t wait to get to the theater. Anticipation was high, and the film delivered! Not all the metaphors are precisely accurate from a purely neuropsychological frame, but for a family film, they did an excellent job. The creative team beautifully executed the personification of brain and personality function in the mind of 11-year-old girl, Riley, as she negotiates the major life change of moving to a new city far from home. From this narrative, the main characters of her emotions Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear take the audience on a wildly informative and entertaining ride.

There are so many things I could say about this film, and have ad nauseam to my sweet patient husband! For today’s blog post, however, I’m going to keep it simple. Here are 5 important take-away messages from “Inside Out” to help you better navigate the world of emotion.

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  1. We have all our emotions for a reason, including “negative” emotions
    A major theme of “Inside Out” is the battle between the main characters, Riley’s emotions of Joy and Sadness. As Riley traverses the huge adjustment of moving across the country, time and again Sadness bellows out in complaint and Joy attempts to contain this truth. However, by the end of the film, it becomes clear that Sadness has a critical role to play in Riley’s processing of change and ultimate self-preservation. Without Sadness, necessary grief and healing connection aren’t possible. This is true for the necessity of all our emotions, including emotions beyond the scope of this film.
  2. Emotional experiences are often complex
    We often try to squeeze our emotions into neat definitions as a way to understand what is actually a very complex experience! “Inside Out” shows us that we can actually feel many emotions, even seemingly opposing emotions, at the exact same time. Riley learns she can be sad about missing her old life while also feeling happy that her parents are offering her comfort. Acknowledgement and synthesis of complex emotional experiences creates a rich and meaningful life.
  3. Emotions can influence our interpretations, memories, and personality traits
    Emotions protect us in many ways – joy helps us continue to engage in life-affirming behaviors, fear keeps us from threats of harm, sadness can draw important comfort to us, and on and on. But emotions are not unilateral facts. They do, however, have a powerful ability to color the facts of life to their hue. This happens not just in depressing times, but in healthy times, too, with a cascade of influence from how we interpret our world, to how we code and recode memory, and even to our personalities as they develop and change over time. It’s extremely important to honor the internal experience of our emotional truths while also appreciating the limits of emotion to fully ascertain external truth.
  4. Emotional validation is not only empowering, it’s essential
    In the film, Riley’s well-meaning parents ask her to show her happy face during the stressful time of the move. Unbeknownst to them, however, their lack of empathic attunement to her understandable fear and sadness made it much more difficult for her to process her loss and adjust to her new life. As children, we largely rely on others to validate our experiences and make them real for us. As adults, we can provide some validation for ourselves, but never cease to need others in this way. Showing up for ourselves and others to say, “What I’m/you’re feeling makes sense” is an essential part of integrating and healing from our experiences.
  5. Connection with others is how we heal and thrive
    Self-validation is a good start. Additional coping tools such as mindfulness, exercise, and creative expression (to name a few) are also incredibly helpful in creating an adaptive life that doesn’t veer off track at the least little bump in the road. But even with all of this, it is through connection with others that we experience our richest meaning and our deepest healing. Reaching out in a moment of anguish or need and having someone reach back is the exact medicine the moment calls for. As social creatures we simply do not know how to heal our wounds or build vital lives without authentic connection with others.

If you are confused about your emotional experiences, wonder if emotion has created unhelpful narratives about your life, or struggle with engaging in healing connection with others, a therapist may be helpful in guiding you to a more contented and meaningful life.

Amanda Carver, LMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Atlanta, GA. She specializes in providing Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT) in helping couples create and enjoy lasting love and affection in their relationships as well as helping women create deeply meaningful lives. All written content owned by Amanda Carver.

Shining the Light on Sneaky Emotions, Part 3: I’m Not Upset, It’s Just a Stomachache

In my last posts, I’ve been sharing information about sneaky emotions as a way to help you shine the light on what’s really going on in your emotional life and increase your chances of feeling better.

We’ve discussed Anger as a Rowdy Ruse and Depression as the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing. Today, I want to talk about psychosomatic symptoms. To recap, psychosomatic symptoms are physical symptoms that arise in response to an emotional trigger. The energy of the emotion is converted, so to speak, into headaches, stomach pains, diarrhea, or other physical ailments. The reason this happens is twofold.

First, our emotional and physical experiences are always tightly connected! We do not have a mind separate from our body. Our emotional wisdom literally courses throughout our nerves. We cry when we’re sad, clench when we’re angry, tense when we’re anxious, and have all felt the literal ache of a broken heart. More and more, researchers are learning about the wonders of the vagus nerve in your abdomen that is the biological explanation for the long held concept of the “gut instinct.” Embracing the fusion of emotion and body is essential, and this post is certainly not about trying to unnaturally separate them. 22059_100569169979883_1506761_n

“Denial Ain’t Just A River In Egypt”

However, another reason emotional energy gets converted into physical symptoms is because of denial of our emotional truths. Denial is a powerful defense mechanism that when used sparingly, can effectively help us cope with difficult life experiences. Consider the person who denies the extent of a terminal illness to the point of seeking profoundly helpful treatments versus the person who denies the extent of a terminal illness to the point of ignoring her/his need for basic medical care. Some denial is helpful, and all denial is human. But when we can’t accept our emotional truths to the point of repeated psychosomatic symptoms, the level of denial can be deeply ineffective, not to mention literally painful.

If you are someone who struggles with chronic pain, such as headaches or gastrointestinal issues, and a doctor has confirmed that your pain does not have a physical cause, you may consider addressing it through an emotional route. I am not suggesting to dismiss your physical symptoms! Your pain is real and deserves your attention. I’m also not suggesting that your pain is “all in your head.” As I established earlier, there’s no such thing as a complete separation of mind and body. What I am saying is that in addition to engaging in appropriate medical care, you may also consider some deep soul-searching about other causes in the emotional realm, such as disowned anxiety, anger, or sadness.

Popping medicine, or worse, avoiding the activities of your life in some way due to chronic psychosomatic pain without also addressing the underlying emotional causes is much like slapping a Band-Aid on a festering wound: your pain will only get worse. Logically, we can see how this happens. If you’re anxious, say, by social interaction or job performance issues, and begin downing Mylanta and avoiding those situations as much as possible convincing yourself the whole time the real problem is this “bad stomach,” then your anxiety will worsen as you continue to avoid the situation, and your bad stomach will worsen as you continue to avoid your anxiety. On the other hand, if you can begin to connect the dots between your emotional and physical experiences, and then honor or heal those emotions, you will likely experience physical healing as well.

If this sounds like it could be you, take the followings steps:

  1. Admit to yourself that your physical problems may also be influenced by emotional distress
  2. Remind yourself that this is human, it’s not all in your head, and you are not weak or false for having this experience
  3. Confirm through a doctor that there aren’t medical issues causing your problems
  4. Through solitary self-reflection or with the assistance of a trusted friend or helping professional, begin looking at what emotion(s) may be stuck for you
  5. Allow yourself to honestly evaluate your dissatisfactions and insecurities
  6. Validate your emotional experience and if needed, seek validation from others as well
  7. Begin to look at ways to alleviate your distress, and accept help if needed: Do you need to learn specific coping skills? Face a fear? Confront an aggressor? Set better limits? Grieve a loss or old wound? Take steps toward your values and dreams?
  8. Give yourself time to heal, and trust in the wisdom of your mind and body to guide you in this work

Remember to be gentle with yourself as you embark on emotional discoveries and change. Harshly criticizing your experience is just as damaging as the original denial. With a curious and compassionate heart, allow your emotional truths to unfurl. With time you will blossom into all heights of healing.

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All content owned by Amanda Bowers. This post is dedicated in memory of her beloved dog, Ruby.

Shining the Light on Sneaky Emotions, Part 2: Depression as the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

In my last post, I began sharing information about sneaky emotions, such as secondary emotions and psychosomatic symptoms, as a way to help you shine the light on what’s really going on in your emotional life and increase your chances of feeling better.

Last time, we discussed Anger as a Rowdy Ruse. Today, I want to talk about the opposite: how disowned anger can spin you into a cocoon of depression.

IMG_2080Depression is Anger Turned Inward

As someone who has struggled with depression and a therapist who has helped others out of this boggy swamp, I can see how the idea of depression being anger turned inward makes sense. Though there are certainly chemical imbalances in the brain or profound life losses that can generate depression, sometimes depression manifests due to the repeated experiences of disowned anger.

Anger is an extremely important emotion that communicates to us that we are being threatened, disrespected, or our boundaries are being crossed. Anger is an emotion of action – it motivates us to make changes. With awareness, those changes can be meaningful and well-executed. We use anger to keep our own vitality from being stilted by the needs or demands of others. It’s a way of drawing a line in the sand and saying it cannot be crossed: this is my territory, my food, my money, my family, my tribe. It’s an emotion of survival.

In this first world country in these modern times, most of us thankfully do not have to physically fight to keep our food or territory and to protect our families. But anger is nonetheless essential to survival and actualizing a vitally abundant life. The line in the sand now says: this is my time, my energy, my self-respect, my meaning, my dreams. And at times even still: these are my resources, this is my body.

IMG_2080Some of us are raised in ways that teach us anger is bad. This is more often the experience of women, but can also be the experience of men. In both direct and indirect ways we are taught by our families and society at large that even the experience, much less the expression, of anger is wrong. To be angry means being mean, selfish, a bitch, or out of control. On a deeper level we’re taught that it means we are unworthy of love. We internalize these messages without even fully realizing we heard them to begin with, and overtime lose our ability to connect to the experience of anger.

When we can’t connect to our survival instincts through anger, deep depression can set in. We are no longer able to effectively draw those important lines in the sand that protect our authentic self and our abundant life. Instead of making thought-out and essential changes, we become more passive and withdrawn. We can have lives filled with emotionally or financially unavailable partners or domestic abuse, demanding and demeaning employers, self-involved friends and family, and even social institutions filled with racism, homophobia, or systems of poverty that keep us feeling lost or trapped. Even when our lives are filled with generally well-meaning people, we can lose touch with the inner spark of what makes us tic due to repeated experiences of not protecting our dreams and values.

If you are struggling with depression that appears to have no cause, find a trusted mentor or mental health professional to assist you with reconnecting with your inner self such that your spark for life is reignited. You may find that anger, too, rekindles. This may be scary. But it’s worth it! You can learn how to experience anger and use it effectively without being a selfish “monster.” You can learn how to set boundaries that protect your sensitive heart and vital spirit. You can take steps to cast off the sheep’s wool, and own your inner wolf that will protect your essence and help you survive. IMG_2080

Please note that Major Depressive Disorder is a serious illness. If you are struggling with depression that has not lifted for many weeks or months, has immobilized you, or has led to suicidal thoughts or plans, please seek the immediate attention of your local mental health professional. You may also contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 at 1—800-273-8255.

Stay tuned for I’m Not Upset, It’s Just a Stomachache, the last post in this 3-part series on sneaky emotions!

All content owned by Amanda Bowers.

Shining the Light on Sneaky Emotions, Part 1: Anger as a Rowdy Ruse

We’ve all been there – the experience where irritation or rage rolls over us and we’re not exactly sure where the thunder came from. “What the #$*@ were you thinking!” “I need to speak to your manager!” “Stop jumping on the couch!”

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Emotions have this way of converting quickly into a message that is more familiar or less disempowering. Emotions even have a way of converting into physical symptoms that may seem much easier to nurture than the confusion of the mind and heart. In psychology we call the former experience a shift from primary to secondary emotions and the latter experience psychosomatic symptoms.

A primary emotion is the initial feeling – primal in nature – that arises in a given situation to communicate something important to us. A secondary emotion is what comes next, either in response to the first emotion or due to the complexity of the emotional experience (i.e.: feeling several emotions at once – very common!). Psychosomatic symptoms are physical symptoms that arise in response to an emotional trigger. The energy of the emotion is converted, so to speak, into headaches, stomach pains, diarrhea, or other physical ailments. What’s interesting about secondary emotions and psychosomatic symptoms is that they almost always happen undetected by our conscious experience. This can lead us down dangerously unhelpful paths and often perpetuate a feel-bad cycle. Sneaky, right?

For the next few posts, I’ll highlight some of the most common sneaky emotional experiences as a way to help you shine the light on what’s really going on and increase your chances of aligning with your authentic experience, solving the problem, and feeling better.

The Collateral Damage of Turing Every Emotion Into Anger

Sadness, anxiety, and shame are extremely uncomfortable and potentially disempowering emotions. As you can imagine, they easily intertwine and are difficult to tolerate, generating an innate desire to hide or retreat and lick our wounds. Due to this, many people swiftly convert these emotions into anger.

You’ve seen this before – an executive loses a promising promotion and becomes irate about a parking ticket that normally wouldn’t have phased her; a parent preoccupied by his own father’s pending heart surgery snaps at his children to stop being so silly; or a partner initiates sexual intimacy and upon being turned down, nastily retorts about the other person’s libido or physical appeal. You’ve seen this during all the squabbling over funeral arrangements, and you’ve certainly seen this in your own or others’ divorces. The sadness, anxiety, and potential shame of these situations convert to anger because anger feels more powerful. It’s as if we suck the energy of our primary emotions out of our personal awareness into a ball of anger to lob at the nearest target we think we can hit – deserved or not. “Get that emotion out of me!” we say with our angry actions.

Although there are certainly ways we consciously harness anger for meaningful change, most often the unconscious conversion to anger is ineffective. You’ve missed out on the important communication your primary emotion was attempting to share with you and are likely focused on the wrong thing, making the situation much worse. In addition to whatever triggered your primary emotion, now you’re also angry – potentially about minor things. And now you’re lashing out at others – potentially others you care about. How hard is it to get the comfort or reassurance that may ease your original concern if you’re busy pointing fingers or yelling at the very people most likely to provide that support? In addition, the ball of anger is now being passed among you and your colleagues, family, or community in a “hot potato” of continuing disconnection.

Next time you find yourself irritably taking your bluer emotions out on others:
1. STOP!
2. Take a very deep breath and a quick moment to check in about what could be really going on. Try to name it – both the trigger and your emotion(s).
3. Consider steps for problem solving or healing that are more fitting to the emotion or situation at hand.

Remember that in addition to the action steps you may take to alleviate your discomfort, sadness also demands comfort while anxiety and shame often seek reassurance. Soothing your original hurts will do wonders for your mood, not to mention how shared vulnerability with our loved ones strengthens those important bonds. Even if you still slide into or decide on anger as a way to cope, this check-in with your truer self will help you harness your anger in more beneficial ways.

Don’t expect this to come easy at first! It will take practice – but the practice is worth learning how to choose the most appropriate salve for your wounds such that you can actually heal them.

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Stay tuned for Depression as the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing and I’m Not Upset, It’s Just a Stomachache in this 3-part series on sneaky emotions!

All content owned by Amanda Bowers.

Falling in the Hole, and How to Get Out

My close friends and I have taken to calling it, “falling in the hole.” That feeling of walking along in your life and then, whoops, finding yourself unexpectedly in the hole of depression or anxiety complete with confusion about how you got there or how to get out. Falling in the hole can look like difficulty getting out of bed and completing anything other than necessary tasks, cancelling social plans due to feelings of insecurity, avoiding the very elements of your life that give you more meaning, and finding yourself unexplainably irritable or sensitive toward friends and partners. Falling in the hole is a bit different falling from falling of the horse, as I discussed in my last post. Falling in the hole is a less profound experience that lasts for a few hours or a few days at most.

Having fallen in the hole countless times in my life, as well as helping many others – both friends and clients out of their respective holes – I have a few ideas about how to gain the most from these experiences while having them impact your life the least.

Try to Pin-Point What You Slipped On – the very nature of falling in the hole means there’s likely some confusion about how you got there. What on earth happened? Just yesterday you were glowing with stability. But if you look more closely, there are usually clues. Despite what some people think, emotions do not materialize out of thin air. Neither are emotions facts – they don’t always make sense, and aren’t always helpful. But they do always have a cause, and they do have the function of communicating something potentially important to use. Take time to listen. Think back over the past hours or days and see if you can notice a moment that in hindsight, caused you unease. It could be an upcoming work deadline, the success of a friend that has you thinking about failures, or an unusually disturbing nightmare. Still unsure? Journaling is a great way to help. Just write whatever comes to mind. Even if it seems unrelated at first, something may pop up.IMG_0419

Accept That It Could Be Biological or Historical – emotions always have causes, but sometimes the causes are very chemical in nature. After all, our beautifully complex brains are an electric circuit of synapses firing at will. Pre-menstrual Syndrome is a very real experience for many women caused by the plummet of estrogen and rise of progesterone in the days leading up to a period. Or maybe you’ve been exercise-deprived, eating too much sugar, drinking too much alcohol, or not getting enough sleep. Sometimes our circuitry gets re-fired by a historical trigger – something that happens in our present reminds us, even on an unconscious level, of something that happened in our past. It could be as simple as an anniversary of important events, or even watching a mother scold her child the way you were scolded such that shame rises to your face and yet you can’t connect the dots as to why.

Problem Solve It If You Can – if you can figure out the likely culprits to your situation, then take some time to problem-solve. That’s one reason we have emotions – to spring us into action! To set boundaries, escape dangers, take steps to creating more fulfilling lives. This could be a quick fix in some instances – such as letting a partner know it is important to celebrate your birthday after all, or setting aside some extra time to get ahead on that work project.

Try “Opposite Action” If You Can’t – in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), a treatment for mood dysregulation championed by Marsha Linehan, there is a skill called Opposite Action. It’s one of my favorite skills. In brief, it goes a little something like this: feeling depressed with urges to isolate? Act the opposite – get out of bed, get active, get social. Feeling anxious with urges to avoid people or situations that you know will not bring you harm? Approach those people and situations anyway, with as much confidence as you can muster. Feeling really angry at your partner for minor irritations? Rather than attack, gently avoid until you can calm down or even act kindly toward him/her. The idea is not to suppress your emotion, but to still act opposite to it, such that the actions themselves help you regulate again. This only works in situations where your emotion doesn’t fit the facts (your friends aren’t likely to reject you) or where the intensity of your emotion is a little extreme (your partner hurt your feelings but didn’t mean to).IMG_0420

It’s Okay To Take a Day Off – don’t be too hard on yourself if you just can’t get out of the hole immediately. Sometimes our minds or bodies need a break, and falling in the hole is a way to get that break. Allow for some down time, some tears, some worries, some self-care, and some sleep. Just don’t stay stuck for too long. If you find you repeatedly can’t get out of the hole day after day, that’s a good indication that you may need some assistance from others – either professionals or those wise ones in your tribe.

All content owned by Amanda Bowers.

Getting Back on the Horse

I’ve been through my fair share of troubles. There was a span of time in my early thirties where I experienced many tremendous losses in quick succession. When I say I spent months hibernating except for work, I wouldn’t be exaggerating. Being asleep where I could either not feel my pain, or could reconnect with a better life through dreamland was far preferable to facing the reality that I had to rebuild my life. And yet I did wake up and slowly but surely rebuilt it. I don’t assume that my personal journey of healing is the one and only way to get back on the horse. I also know sometimes we get knocked down in smaller ways that still feel deeply impacting and strangle us from moving forward. From a personal and professional place, I’ll share some ideas about how to get your feet back under you.

Honor the Pain

In mindfulness there is the concept of neither ignoring nor clinging to thoughts, emotions, or experiences. You let them come and go as ripples in the water of your life. Sometimes this is a really difficult thing to do. You either want to completely push down your upset feelings, or you wallow in them, soaking in the tub of despair until your fingers get pruney. In the most mindful way you can muster, it is imperative to honor your pain. This may mean powerful crying jags, brutally honest journaling, speaking your truth to others, delving into artistic expression, or even allowing time alone to just sit with the sadness or anxiety or anger of your situation and notice it rise and fall again and again. It’s ok to feel bad. Allowing yourself to feel it is the only way to heal it.

Enlist Support

Whether it’s in gaining a wiser perspective of your situation, or in simply having someone to acknowledge your pain with you – enlisting support is essential. Support comes in many forms: friends, family, professionals. Choose carefully! Don’t expect that well intended but emotionally stunted sibling or friend to suddenly know how to validate and encourage you. Instead, seek the guidance of those you know to be supportive, or even from professionals, such as therapists, life coaches, or other healing artists. Allow those offering their support to do so. Accepting a dinner date with your best friend may be tremendously soothing to your bruised ego or aching soul, even if it won’t “fix” it.

Nurture Your Body and Soul

This seems obvious, but it’s often during our most difficult times that we forget the basics, such as sleep, nutritious food, moving our bodies, and engaging in spiritual practice. These basics are essential to your recovery and to making the wisest decisions about how to proceed. I’m not suggesting that you put pressure on yourself to dramatically change your diet or exercise routine in a moment of high stress – but do at least eat, clear your head on a walk around the block, and read an inspiring poem or trusted scripture. Allow yourself to be grateful for the smallest things, knowing that gratitude is not a way to discount your pain – you can hold both in your heart at the same time.

Begin Re-imagining Your Life

When you’ve had a bit of recovery time under your belt, get real about who you are and where you want to be headed. If you’re not sure about your goals and are feeling rather directionless, then check in with personal values, passions, and curiosities. Do you value community? Then begin considering ways to be helpful to others, maybe volunteer work or a change in careers. Are you passionate about decorating and crafts? Then maybe it’s time to figure out new or bigger projects to inspire you. Keep to the promises you’ve made to yourself to be healthier, more authentic, and more engaged with life. Don’t get bogged down imagining a life that can’t be (such as with someone who has broken up with you). But DO allow yourself to dream big – there’s no telling the brilliant, beautiful life you can create!

Start with Teeny Weeny Baby Steps

We’ve all heard the famous Lao-tzu quote, “A journey of thousand miles begins with a single step.” It’s true! But don’t worry so much about the miles, just take a step. A teeny weeny one. I can’t emphasize the teeny weeny enough. Whether you have a detailed life plan, or just a glimmer of something that could provide you hope, start moving in that direction. Be both structured and spontaneous. Don’t get too caught up in all the planning. This step is mostly about ACTION. Pick at least one thing to do differently, and then DO it … just one tiny little bit at a time.

I promise no matter what curve balls life has thrown you, the heartache and bitterness can fade into gratitude and vitality again, or you may even feel those things for the first time because of the important lessons you’ve learned.

IMG_0617All content owned by Amanda Bowers.