Peer Support for Abuse Survivors
Sitting With Feelings
source: Sara Lambert
Many abuse survivors find it hard to tolerate having feelings, even positive ones like joy. After a lifetimes of automatically dissociating from emotion for self-protection, it can be really scary to allow yourself to feel again. A common defence is to “act out” instead of getting in touch with your feelings. For example, you may throw yourself into work when you are scared about something, in order to divert yourself from the fear. Ways of acting out include compulsively overeating, self-harming, over spending, hurting someone else, damaging property, causing trouble in therapy, creating chaos in life, and so on. (Notice they are unhealthy behaviors). Once you have recognized the actions you take to get comfort or distraction from feelings, you can gain mastery over them.
When you have a feeling, resist the urge to act on it. It is important to simply sit for a moment and let the feeling be with you. Ask yourself, “how is it to sit here and not act out? How am I coping?” You may be panicking or in pain. That doesn’t mean you are a failure at this feeling business. Rather, it is a clue about how dangerous it was for you as a child to have feelings, and how brave you are going to have to be now, as an adult, if you want to associate with feelings again.
It doesn’t matter if you don’t know what exactly it is that you are feeling. After all, you probably don’t have much knowledge of what certain emotions are like, including what the words for them might be. You may have grown up in a family where expressions of joy were punished, so as an adult have joy and fear/hurt/shame all mixed up. That’s okay for now. You don’t have to fix it all right away. You just have to sit for a moment and feel the feeling.
This sounds easy, but in fact it can be an extremely difficult thing to do. Do not put any unrealistic pressure on yourself. It’s a lot like doing a physical exercise routine. You would not expect to subject your unfit body to an hour of sit-ups at the first session. You would begin with maybe two or three sit-ups and gradually work your way up, always pressing gently against your threshold but not overdoing it. So when you exercise your emotional capacity, sit for as long as you can with a feeling, even if that is only a few seconds, and the next time sit for a bit longer. You’ll find that your internal strength will increase as time goes on, and you will be able to tolerate feelings for a much longer time without needing to dissociate or act out.
While you are sitting with the feeling, you do not have to be inactive. You may wish to write down what you are feeling and what it is like for you. Don’t analyse things – just write from the feeling. Or you may wish to draw instead. This is not acting out if you use it to explore the feeling instead of distract from it.
Once you have reached the limit of what you can tolerate this time, switch the feeling off. This is one instance where dissociation can be used for good. Use whatever techniques work for you with this, such as turning off a light, closing a door, or unplugging a radio. Once the feeling has been put away for the time being, treat yourself to something small that has good connotations for you. This may be as simple as a round of applause throughout your system, some time to write the experience down in your journal, a hug, or turning instead to a feeling that you are comfortable with, like happiness.
By following this procedure, you will break your old pattern of automatically responding to feelings, which means you then have real choices about what you want to do with your feelings. You will find yourself empowered to be yourself in a fuller way.
Originally published in Team Spirit
Reprinted With Permission
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