Recently, I wrote about working with jealousy in therapy. Although I addressed it from within the context of poly relationships, jealousy is an issue that can crop up in any relationship structure (and frequently does). In my post, I talked about how I help my clients manage their jealousy just like any other difficult emotion. This time, I thought I’d branch out a bit and discuss how I help my clients manage emotional distress in general.
In moments of distress, whether it’s anger or despair or jealousy, the world looks different. You see situations through the lens of a narrative that is driving your distress. There are an unlimited number of harmful narratives, but here are just a few:
- “My partner doesn’t REALLY care about me, and they’re just waiting for the chance to abandon me.”
- “I could never measure up; my partner will only stay with me if they never see how lacking I am.”
- “I have to hide my own opinions in order for my partner to like me, so I can’t speak up when I’m unhappy.”
- “My needs aren’t important; I need to put everyone else first.”
Whatever the narrative, it feels very real, as if you are simply responding to the reality of your situation. Perhaps you imagine that you’re seeing the unvarnished truth about yourself or your partner for the first time. In moments like that, it’s hard to imagine ever feeling differently.
People often make bad decisions in moments of heightened emotion. They say things and do things that they regret later. Maybe you’ve had a moment like this–after coming out of a spell of rage or hopelessness, you look back and wonder “What was I thinking?”
Being in the grips of a heightened emotion really is a kind of altered state. You can’t imagine not feeling this way. But the counterintuitive truth is that emotions come and go. If you don’t get tangled up in a negative story, the emotion will ebb all by itself. Here’s the hitch: if you engage in a negative thought loop that feeds the emotion you are experiencing, you can keep that emotion on top of you and running your perceptions and actions virtually forever. Returning again and again to the justifications for your emotion is one way to keep it hanging around forever. So is obsessively beating yourself up over it. If you can step back and self-soothe, the heightened state will dissipate.
Emotions come and go. You can’t control when they come, or what situations trigger them, but you can choose what to do while you are experiencing them. You can choose to feed them, or you can wait them out. When you start to feel clenched up, try to notice your body and your breathing. Take a deep breath and let it out slowly. Relax your muscles. Try and disengage from the situation that’s triggering your emotions for a little while. If you’re in an argument with your partner, let them know that you can continue the conversation in a little while, and step out of the room for a minute. Find a good distraction to help you let go of obsessing over the damaging narrative. Let yourself return to equilibrium.
Are you wondering how this fits with being in denial about your life, relationship, and choices? Does this sound like sweeping real problems under the rug? If so, read again next week, when I’ll tackle those very valid questions.