Friday, August 19, 2022

Emotions: What's the point?

Deconstructing emotions is a recurring theme in my therapy practice. A lot of people, especially those of us who consider ourselves "thinkers" rather than "feelers", have an uncomfortable relationship with our emotions. To further complicate it, society often tells us that some feelings are "good" and others are "bad", prompting us to avoid or seek them out accordingly.

Unfortunately, when we attach unnecessary moral value to our emotions or try to dispense with them completely, we end up making our feelings even harder to understand and accept. It also yields some surprising barriers to healthy functioning. 

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the language we use to describe having emotions is the exact same language we use to describe physical sensations: we “feel” emotions in much the same way that we “feel” things like heat, tension, or pain. Just like physical sensations, our feelings only have meaning when looked at in context. Feelings might seem unhelpful, inconvenient, or overwhelming based on the circumstances, but that doesn't make them unimportant.

It would be strange to think of a physical sensation as “wrong” because our body sensations always have some kind of value that helps us survive. If I accidentally stepped into a bear trap, I would experience pain. Even though the pain would be unpleasant, it would be very useful. Without it, how would I know that I had a nasty wound on my food that needed attention?

Emotions offer us equally relevant information. We need to pay attention to them if we want to function effectively. If someone tried to live life ignoring their emotions (and many people have), they would be doomed to eventually suffer the consequences of overlooking the crucial information their emotions had to offer.

So what exactly do our feelings tell us? Each emotion has a specific function, giving us unique information about what we’re experiencing and how we can choose to respond. Just like we would want to collect as much data as possible before developing a scientific theory, knowing what our feelings are telling us allows us to make more informed decisions. 

I like to ask two main questions when investigating emotions:
1) What information is this giving me?
2) What is this motivating me to do?

Fortunately for us, each of the basic emotions occurs under specific circumstances, making them easier to identify. Additionally, they each have a purpose: to give us energy and motivation to do something necessary. Here's my breakdown of some of the most common emotions and the information and motivations they give us.

Anger informs me there has been a perceived injustice to myself or others.
Anger motivates me to speak up, defend myself or others, or do what I can to stop continued injustice.

Disgust informs me that something I'm exposed to seems repulsive to toxic me.
Disgust motivates me to either get away from the source of my repulsion OR evaluate my bias against it.

Fear informs me that there has been a perceived threat to one of my needs.
Fear motivates me to find a way to fight, flee, or play dead (freeze) to defend myself from the threat.

Guilt informs me that I have done something that is incongruent with my core values.
Guilt motivates me to stop the incongruent behavior, make amends, or reassess my values.

Hurt informs me that I have been wounded.
Hurt motivates me to take adequate time to heal and set protective boundaries to prevent future wounds.

Enjoyment informs me that I am appreciating something that's here and now.
Enjoyment motivates me to notice my gratitude, savor the moment, and seek it out again.

Loneliness informs me that I am lacking meaningful connections with others.
Loneliness motivates me to be vulnerable enough to seek genuine connections with other people.

Sadness informs me that I have experienced a loss.
Sadness motivates me to take adequate time to grieve and accept that the loss occurred and evaluate if I want to risk that kind of loss again.

Shame informs me that I am confronting my human limitations and imperfection.
Shame motivates me to accept my humanity and set realistic expectations and boundaries for myself.

That's all I have for now.

Thoughts? Feelings? Moral objections? Personally, I think living is a lot easier and more effective when we actually listen to our emotions and take action in a constructive way. If you've tried the alternative, you already know the consequences. 

Friday, August 5, 2022

Progress + Equality

It struck me recently how important progress is to our continued human existence. Not only does progress save us from despair by giving us hope for a better future (and hopefully one where we don't destroy the planet); but it also acts as a strong motivator to make the changes that are most difficult. Dedicating our efforts to making the world a better place is investing in our own well-being AND the well-being of future generations. Win-win, right?

Oddly, there seems to always be a subset of the population who are anti-progress. Remember back when America abolished slavery? There was an embarrassingly large group of folks who DIDN'T want slavery to end. There was a whole war about it. Remember when women were given the right to vote? There were protests and moral outrage from those who thought the very idea of an autonomous woman was unnatural. These not-so-long-ago examples are uncomfortably similar to some of our current-day debates.

Since empathy is a high value for me, when I feel myself starting to villainize another person or group, I try to take a step back and consider what the situation looks like from their perspective. I doubt that many people would actually say that they are against progress, so I wonder why so many political, social, and religious talking points seem to suggest otherwise.

From an evolutionary perspective, every living being on the planet is taking part in the slow but irresistible momentum toward adaptation and survival. No organic being is stagnant because we're constantly making adaptive adjustments as our understanding of the world increases. As humans, we're exceptional at learning, imagining, and creating new ways to adapt and progress. Modern medicine, automobiles, and the internet are just of few examples. 

Thanks to this progress, humanity is *finally* at a stage when nearly all of us agree that humans should be treated equally and no one should be enslaved. We're less tribalistic, less racist, less sexist, and much better at protecting vulnerable populations from being exploited. Good job, humans!

Fundamentalists, whether religious or political, seem to have a different perspective, however. It seems that the preservation of their own truths and traditions is a higher priority for them. While I typically endorse letting people choose and pursue their own core values, this quintessential difference in priorities is really getting in our way. In centuries past, this clash was the source of significant frustration and stagnation. Today, it's threatening our very survival as a species.

Instead of giving into panic, I think there's an important discourse we need to have. It begins with some big questions: What does progress look like for humanity right now? Is the old way of operating really worth preserving? What would we be sacrificing if we stopped fighting our own evolution? 

Some of the most important forms of progress that we could choose to embrace right now are seen as threats to many who identify as conservative. A prime example is our evolving understanding of systemic inequity based on race, gender, sexuality, and other factors. Research, empathy, and science have offered us new insight into the unjust nature of our old systems. If you talk to a politically conservative or religiously fundamentalist person on these topics, however, they are very likely to respond with disgust, anger, and even fear. 

This crazy-making predicament honestly makes me hope that we're just having an epic misunderstanding. Because how could any human who values all other humans equally be AGAINST initiatives that increase equity? The problem seems to lie in our basic view of what EQUALITY means. 

If you believe that being transexual is not a legitimate identity, does that mean you're no longer obligated to treat people who say they are trans as equals? If you believe that women were designed to be submissive to men and feminism is wrong, does that mean that you have the right to deny women the opportunity to thrive independently? If you believe that people of other races are just "different" and that's why they have historically experienced more hardships, does that justify your choice not to change ongoing systems that disadvantage them? 

If you believe in Equality, you believe in progress. If you value empathy, you value the well-being of people you disagree with. As individual members of the human race, we don't get to choose which types of equality we feel like supporting. I know that the inevitable slippery slope, family values, and individual freedoms arguments are primed and ready, but ultimately those are excuses to put off making changes that would make all people equal. Maybe then we could focus on saving the planet we all share.

Am I wrong? I often am. If you have a differing opinion that still rests on the assumption that all human beings are equal, I would love to discuss it. 

Monday, July 18, 2022

The Shame Cycle + Religious Trauma

I've worked with therapy clients for long enough to know the telltale cycle that toxic shame turns into. It is the most common reason why people come to therapy, period; and that's especially true for people with religious trauma, even if they don’t know it yet. So what is the shame cycle and what does it have to do with religion?

In normal circumstances, the shame cycle can easily go unnoticed as it slowly demoralizes us. It's even more insidious, however, when a high-control religious group teaches us that it's the way we're supposed to feel. A simple self-defeating pattern gets elevated as the ideal way of living.

At the heart of the matter, people with toxic shame operate off the assumption that their problematic behaviors are a direct representation of who they are. In other words, they conflate their core identity with their external behaviors. This flawed way of thinking inevitably leads to the false conclusion that if we make a “bad” choice, it means that we are bad. 

Unfortunately, many high-control religious groups have inadvertently magnified the harmful impacts of toxic shame and are only now beginning to grapple with the implications. Today we're dealing with the fallout of an entire generation that was raised to believe they are inadequate, unloveable, and powerless to change. As a result, they're plagued by unrealistic expectations, poor personal boundaries, and emotional self-neglect.

Sound familiar? Let's break down the shame cycle step by step:

Shaming Worldview. Something in our upbringing planted the belief that we're not good enough. We try to avoid embarrassment by giving ourselves little shame-based pep talks about how worthless, selfish, or unlovable we are. In high-control religious groups, this can masquerade behind ideas like a "sinful nature" that is disgusting to God.

Imperfection. Since we’re human beings, we inevitably make mistakes or don’t achieve our goals. Our shame-based self-talk takes these opportunities to exaggerate our imperfections, making them doubly humiliating. In high-control religious settings, many are encouraged to confess their "sins" publicly to prove their remorse.

Misinterpretation. We make false interpretations of what our mistakes say about us, allowing them to define our capability, character, or worthiness. High-control religious groups often have a knack for little catchphrases that remind us how we've fallen short, deserve condemnation, and should avoid pride at all costs.

Perfectionism. To stave off self-hatred and the horror of rejection, we decide to prove our worthiness by working harder. We try to achieve absolute perfection by never setting healthy boundaries and working ourselves into exhaustion. High-control religious groups often capitalize on the volunteer labor, monetary support, and sheer desperation to please that comes from this.

Confirmation. When our self-defeating perfectionism eventually backfires, we take it as confirmation that we’re inadequate and incapable. Instead of learning from our unrealistic expectations, we feel doomed. This is the queue for our high-control religious group to offer the one and only remedy: salvation that hinges on total obedience.

Misattribution. Now that we're in a habit of blaming all bad outcomes on ourselves, we need someone to give the credit to when things go well. We attribute all positive experiences to something or someone else, never allowing ourselves to celebrate success. High-control religious groups often use over-spiritualization to attribute all good things to God whether it makes sense or not.

Reinforcement. The shame cycle is now solidly in place, feeding and reinforcing itself each time it repeats. The moral of the story is always that we're not good enough and we don't deserve good things. In high-control religion, this makes us even more ingratiated and reliant on the group that claims to have rescued us.

If this sounds like your story, you're not alone. Even more importantly, you don't have to stay trapped. Healing from the damage of toxic shame, whether it was reinforced by religion or not, is absolutely possible! Don't let shame convince you that you're incapable of change.

- Anna