Dear Dr. Norquist:
I’ve spent time in therapy – yet I still have trouble managing my emotions, particularly situations where I end up feeling not as good or not as important as others. I know this goes back to my feeling about how my parents adored my brothers and, I felt, didn’t feel the same about me, but I still can’t seem to overcome this feeling. When something triggers it, I feel bad, and I retreat into a subdued place. It’s like I want to crawl into a shell and hide ‘til the feeling passes. I’m in my 30s now and feel I should be beyond this by now. Do you know anything I could do to help myself with these feelings?
Dr. Norquist responds:
Your awareness of the pattern that you want to change and your willingness to invest energy in the change process are important assets that you already possess. You can use them to make your desired change a reality.
Much of our response to the external environment is dominated by mental/emotional/physiological habits that are a result of the way experience is stored, processed, and triggered in the brain. When an emotional memory is triggered (such as your experiences as a child of not feeling valued) the part of the brain that processes emotions (the limbic system) can react by inhibiting the analytical aspects of the brain (in the neocortex) and flooding your present experience with emotions and assumptions imprinted during an earlier, powerful (usually negative) emotional experience. Consequently, you can end up experiencing earlier traumas over and over, as if they were occurring in the present.
The key to healing in this situation is to involve the neocortex so that you can get a perspective on the situation occurring in the present moment, and consciously decide on an appropriate response.
‘Mindfulness’ is one technique that is perfect for doing this. Mindfulness, in essence, involves training your mind to be present and aware in each moment. As humans, we have the ability to think or feel something and at the same time ‘witness’ or be aware of the fact that we are thinking or having a feeling. It is developing this witness part of yourself that is essential in mindfulness. In witnessing your experience, you are engaging the analytical part of the brain, rather than just responding with a conditioned habit. Through mindfulness, we all move from a life dominated by automatic habitual/instinctual reactions to a consciously lived life.
Start by noticing the physical/emotional signals that precede the habitual emotional state that you wish to alter. Follow this with a moment’s pause by taking several slow deep breaths. This triggers a relaxation response in your body and allows your analytical, reasoning brain to kick in and process your reaction from a place of greater awareness. In addition, it’s very helpful to uncover old negative beliefs and assumptions surrounding this negative emotional pattern, and replace them with positive, more appropriate and helpful beliefs. Focus on these new positive beliefs when the old emotional response is triggered.
This practice requires patience, much repetition over time, and an accepting, kind attitude towards yourself. The great news however, is that with the continued practice of mindfulness your old brain circuits, conditioned by the painful childhood experiences of feeling devalued, can be replaced with new neural connections created by your new positive beliefs and experiences. With sustained effort, mindfulness can be your ticket to more emotional freedom. Resources to assist you in this endeavor include: John Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living (1990) and the website for the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness, at www.umassmed.edu/cfm.
(Dr. Sallie Norquist is a licensed psychologist (NJ #2371) in private practice and is director of Chaitanya Counseling Services, a center for upliftment and enlivenment, in Hoboken.) Dr. Norquist and the staff of Chaitanya invite you to write them at Chaitanya Counseling Services, 51 Newark St., Suite 202, Hoboken, NJ 07030 or www.chaitanya.com or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by fax at (201) 656-4700. Questions can address various topics, including relationships, life’s stresses, difficulties, mysteries and dilemmas, as well as questions related to managing stress or alternative ways of understanding health-related concerns.Ó 2017 Chaitanya Counseling Services