Recently a client asked what does emotional processing really mean and what does it look like. Great question!!
I talk about emotional processing all the time in therapy. It is an abstract concept but is a very very important one to help us move through and release pent up, repressed emotions. Essentially, emotional processing is about identifying, unpacking, and working through baggage associated with self-defeating feelings. That is, feelings that are negative, derogative, and overwhelming. By working through them, we get to let go of the toxic, possessive hold that these feelings have on our relationship with people and life.
Sometimes we don’t realise that there are feelings to be processed. We kinda live our lives oblivious to the spell that keeps us ambushed and trapped inside of our protective forcefield.
Before I go on and give you some hints on how to process derogative emotions, it might be helpful to give you a summary of why emotions are important to survival and the benefit of having a protective shield of defences.
When we are born, we are pretty much a blank slate. Well, that’s not entirely true. We do come with genes that to a great degree dictate how we will look, what form we will take, and even influence some of our behaviours and personality. But, we now know through epigenetics, that it’s the influence of the environment and our lifestyle that will shape most of our reactions, what we learn, how healthy we are, and so forth.
Having said that, does it mean we are limited by our environmental experiences? Absolutely not!! Through free will, we can influence our lifestyle and the way we think about our circumstances, which in turn may influence our outcomes.
As we grow and interact with our environment, we respond and react accordingly. That is, our mind and our body respond in a pleasurable way towards safe, incoming signals, or we defend ourselves from insecure or harmful signals. During this process, we are developing our defence mechanisms that will protect us from danger. That is, our fight or flight stress syndrome is being shaped so we intrinsically know, without having to think about it, what dangers to run away from or which to fight.
By the time we become adults we are automatically responding to incoming signals according to the defences we have inadvertently created. For the most part, these defences are quite functional and rational. For example, we run off the road if a car gets too close, we might defend ourselves physically if threatened in any way, we might use a lawyer to fight a legal battle, we might slowly retreat if we are confronted by a snake or bear, or we defend our country in a war.
However, we might defend ourselves from some irrational experiences too. For example, taking things personally if we assume that someone is judging us, catastrophising about an event that hasn’t happened, generalising that just because something happened once that it’s happening all the time, or beating ourselves up for making a mistake.
I should add that in the case of trauma, our rational expression of painful emotions might be repressed and delayed. The later expression of these emotions is a valid and necessary experience for healing, as is the expression of all negative emotions.
Regardless of whether we deem an event as rational or irrational, we experience emotions associated with each event. The formation of memories and emotions is a complex process, so I will keep things simple. The memory of the event is then filed away charged with the emotion that we experienced in the moment. This memory – along with a host of other memories – become a template for how to react in similar situations.
During this process, we have a tendency to repress hurtful emotions. Repressing means we are keeping painful emotions away from our conscious mind by locking them up in our non-conscious mind. This is a protective mechanism and is normal because the mechanism is designed to ensure we function and operate constructively from day to day.
However, the irrational memories that remain negatively charged, may affect us in ways that cause dysfunction. This could lead to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and a host of other psychological difficulties. To deactivate a negatively charged emotion, we need to process the emotions associated with the memory. That is, we need to understand, make sense of, and find a way to dissipate and let them go.
How do we do this I hear you ask? Well, it’s using the strategies I talk about in therapy. We need to explore and feel the painful emotions by reflecting, resolving them by understanding and reframing them, and then we deal with similar future events by responding constructively based on the rationalised version of the event. Part of the healing process of emotional pain is to help the brain realise that any negative experience, including trauma, is no longer happening in the present. Hence the importance of rationalising, reframing, and emotionally processing past events.
I have provided a comprehensive outline of my 3 R’s Reflect, Reframe, and Respond model in a previous newsletter. You can find it here https://mailchi.mp/9c9e7873e254/newsletter
I have added some contemplative questions and a summary of the 3 R’s technique on my FaceBook page