In my office I have a sign that clients can see when they sit in the “client chair.” The sign says, “Thou Shalt Not Whine.” It’s somewhat of a joke, not what people expect when they go see a therapist, but it’s also indicative of the way I work. I’ve never believed in whining—until now.
When I write about “whining” what I really mean is the need to express our feelings from a time in our lives when we felt like we were victimized. For the most part that kind of thing happened to us when we were children. Yes, adults can be victimized—and so many people act like they are—but it’s actually rare.
As adults, things do happen to us. We may be in an accident that’s not our fault, or we may receive a serious medical diagnosis that isn’t the result of our life style or behaviors—so, yes, adults can be victims. But, again, this is pretty rare. And for that reason I have strongly held to my belief that as adults we should learn to express our emotions in a mature way.
Any emotion can be expressed in one of two ways: maturely or immaturely.
Even if something bad happens to us, we still have a choice in how we choose to respond.
But for children the story is different. And once upon a time each of us was a child. We spent many years during which we were not responsible for what happened to us, nor were we able to choose how we responded. Our repertoire of emotional expression was limited.
So what happens to the hurt and fear that arises in childhood and hasn’t been dealt with by the time we are adults? We can repress those feelings. But repressing has consequences—mostly negative. We can do as I’ve always advocated and try to give mature expression to our immature feelings. This is a skill that serves us well in our relationships, but it still doesn’t fully address those old feelings.
I now have experienced a new approach. The short story is that I have gone back into therapy—a type of somatic therapy that’s proving to be extremely valuable for me. I actually think that as therapists we should all go back into therapy from time to time to remember what it’s like to sit in the client chair.
In this process I’m learning a new way to express feelings from childhood, and when I say feelings that’s exactly what I mean. I don’t even have any thoughts associated with my feelings . . . they are just raw experiences in my body.
I believe that we need to learn a constructive way to express emotions from childhood, which was a time in our lives when we may have been a victim. I encourage you to give yourself permission to express such feelings, with two caveats.
First, do this kind of processing in a therapeutic environment. I believe it is crucial that the person witnessing us is able to be neutral.
Second, only do this with feelings for which you are not responsible. This is a bit tricky to figure out, but the question I ask myself is, “Can I choose how I feel about this?” If the answer is no, then I believe it’s appropriate to voice my feelings as if I were the victim.
What does this sound like? The speech pattern I believe is most helpful to get in touch with my feelings is, “Sometimes I feel ________.” This is a very intentional and helpful speech pattern and you can learn more about this in the full article.
This speech pattern is very different from what I normally advocate, which is using ReSpeak. When we use ReSpeak we express ourselves as the creator of our feelings. For example, I might say, “I frustrate myself,” or “I disappoint myself,” or “I depress myself,” because as an adult if I feel frustrated, disappointed, or depressed it is the result of how I am interpreting the world. I am the one responsible for my feelings.
In summary, I believe that the vast majority of the time I help myself the most by giving mature expression to my feelings. However, there are times when it is appropriate to acknowledge feelings without assuming that I was responsible for creating those feelings. Most of these experiences come from a time in my life when I was a child. And when I express these feelings—most likely in a therapeutic setting—I free myself and grow myself.
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