Emotions are neither right, nor wrong. They just are. The one truth is that we cannot deny their existence. They is what they is and that’s that.
So why is it that we so frequently look for ways to numb, discount, deny or deprive our emotions? Can we trust our feelings?
In this chapter Livingston seeks to unravel the mystery of the relationship between feelings and action. As a psychiatrist used to treating individuals with mental health issues, including those with diagnosed diseases such as alcoholism, depression, anxiety and more complex borderline personality disorder and those with compounded trauma.
The way we feel can have enormous impact on how we go about our daily lives. Ignoring emotions leads to suppression and repression leading us on a perpetual merry-go-round. Over-emphasising emotions can lead us on a roller-coaster of reactivity and emotional instability.
Livingston puts it this way: “As much as we may try, we do not control how we feel or what we think. Efforts to do so are uniformly frustrating as we struggle against unwanted thoughts and emotions in ways that can only exacerbate them”. Our lives have taught us what brings pleasure and meaning, and this knowledge empowers us to “break the stalemate caused by inaction and its associated feelings of meaninglessness and despair”.
When confronted with the potential life-debilitating impacts of depression & anxiety, strong feelings arise can often lead to withdrawal, isolation and a sense of meaningless and despair. When we feel this occurring we do well to remind ourselves that successfully navigating the little things in life builds a base for facing our fears and withdrawal from the life activities that once held joy and meaning. In other words, hold on to gratitude, celebrate the little things and keep perspective about the big things out of our control.
Courage and determination produces change.
Talking about things is helpful – no two ways about it. Whether it’s with a trusted friend, family member, or a professional. Some say talk is cheap and when it comes to overcoming one’s own demons, inner darkness or ongoing negative self-talk, talking is simply not enough. To change requires strength, humility and ultimately courage and determination.
So here’s the dilemma…if my behaviour (i.e. the things I actually do and say…not merely think about doing or saying!) leads my feelings…how do I overcome my feelings when they seek to diminish my behaviour. It’s critical to be able to differentiate between what may now be viewed as difficult, and recognising that difficult does not make it impossible.
Let me share a personal example. Over recent months I’ve been back on my road bike (yes I’m a MAMIL (middle aged man in lycra…or those who may not know the acronym). There have been numerous occasions when I haven’t felt like riding. There are places that I’ve chosen to avoid riding because of past memories or wanting to avoid more recent pain, or simply because theres a mental block about my ability – namely tackling what’s commonly referred to in Melbourne as the 1 in 20.
The climb is as much a mental battle as it is a physical challenge. It’s a 7km winding steady climb from The Basin up to Sassafras. It’s been years since I’ve ridden this ride – in part due to injury, partly due to carrying too much weight and lack of fitness, but mostly, if I’m truly honest, because I used to ride it years ago with friends, one in particular who betrayed our 25 year friendship. It’s been an emotional lemon!
Livingston concludes this chapter with these words: “The role of victim is generally accompanied by a sense of shame and self-blame. This is true of those victimised by huge social catastrophes (slavery, the Holocaust) or by individual ordeals (crime, illness). This is why there is a fine line between expressing empathy and solidarity for those who suffer and endorsing a passive dependency.”
Let me conclude by sharing this personal story with you.
Some 18 months ago I played golf with a mate – we both lamented our present health, in particular our extra weight and lack of fitness. I’d been recovering from tearing 3 ligaments in my ankle and over compensating with comfort food dealing with a stressful work environment. I made a choice. I no longer wanted to feel like I did.
So I started walking. Initially a few times per week, nothing regimented and over the top. But I walked. I walked knowing I couldn’t run. I wasn’t driven, but I was determined to change. Only I had control over that. I started walking further, and faster and maintained initial weight loss gains through winter. Then I started swimming regularly in my pool as the weather became more favourable. After a few months I was back on my bike. Today, I’ve cycled over 700kms in the past few months and since that day on the golf course have lost 18 kgs. No fad dieting, no ridiculous training program, no deprivation of foods I enjoy.
There were days I didn’t feel like it. There were days I wanted to. Across those 18 months there was an underlying resolve, an internal decision, that I wanted to be a better me. I am happier, healthier, fitter and stronger – physically, mentally and emotionally.
Whether it’s facing failed NYE resolutions, desire to take risks, be more emotionally available, to be more free from others demands, expectations and perceptions or whatever it may be, coming to terms with the reality that I alone have the power to change how I respond, what actions I choose – including that of inaction!
So give life a go, get out there, embrace your feelings but don’t let them restrict you from embracing life and taking risks. Be courageous, make choices and take steps to be a better you.