• Shannon Murray


How do we get on board the right train?

Years ago, I would have said that above all else, we need to pay attention to our emotions.

In other words, if we are sad, we need to sit in that sadness, really feel it, and explore the source of our sadness; if we are angry, it is important to deal with the source of our anger; if we are depressed, we need to pay attention to our depressed feelings...

Now, after parenting a teenager AND after working with clients from all backgrounds and walks of life, I have come to believe that listening to our emotions is NOT always best for us or our mental health. In fact, it is the opposite.

You might wonder how can I say this as a psychotherapist. Isn't that essentially in the job description - to support people with their emotions?

Of course - BUT what I have also come to appreciate and what I now try to help my clients understand is that our emotions don't always take us down the most helpful tracks.

Imagine the metaphor that our EMOTIONS are TRAINS passing through a train station. We are standing on the platform looking out onto the tracks and throughout the day, multiple trains (emotions) come and go through our own personal train station. The doors on the trains are always open and at any given time, we can get off and on whichever train we want.

So, let's say we fail a test in school, don't get the job we applied for, or our partner is upset at us for something we did. For many of us, our automatic reaction is to immediately jump on a train (feel an emotion). Let's say it is the Self-doubt train. Once we are on board, we tell ourselves familiar stories that are full of self-doubt - about how we aren't smart; how other people are so much smarter or better than we are; how we can't do anything right in our relationships. We can immediately think of many examples that validate those feelings.

Now, we don't just feel terrible about failing the test in school or not getting the job, but we ALSO feel terrible about all the other things that we have piled on top of ourselves once we were on board the Self-doubt train. And depending on how long we stay seated on the Self-doubt train, we are only going to feel worse and worse.

For most of us, we have particular trains that we get on board most often. Buddhism calls this "habit energy". In other words, it is almost by habit that we do something - so many times, when we have felt that sense of failure, we have gotten on the Self-doubt train that now, we don't even think about it; we literally step off the platform and onto the Self-doubt train.

Some of us get on the Guilt train. We feel guilty so much of the time - guilt that we aren't a good enough parent; guilt about not being a worthy partner; guilt if we express what we need; guilt if we set boundaries... Guilt can be such a powerful emotion that it is almost like this thick grey smoke layer that blocks all of the other trains in the station from sight - we can't even see them there.

Some of us get on the Anger train because anger can trick us into thinking that we are strong when really, we feel vulnerable or sad. Some of us really are angry but don't get on the Anger train when we should. Instead, we get on the Self-sabotage train.

For those of us who struggle with addiction, we are even more likely to feel that we have no control over which trains we get on and off. Our emotions can feel like they just take over.

Then, what is the goal when we stand on the platform in our train station?

Our goal is actually fairly simple. Our goal is to learn how to PAUSE and BREATHE when a strong feeling comes over us so we can feel the feeling for what it TRULY IS.

Back to failing the test: when we fail a test, chances are that we will feel disappointed or upset. So, we pause - acknowledge that in that moment, we feel disappointed. Then, we step onto the Disappointed train and we ride that train for a bit and acknowledge that it is disappointing to fail a test. BUT we DON'T take that disappointment to thoughts of "I'm stupid" or "I hate myself" or "I'm the dumbest person in the class because everyone else did well."

That is going to be the hardest part for all of us - to sit on the Disappointed train - because psychologically, we all want to jump off the Disappointed train and onto another - EVEN WHEN THE OTHER TRAIN IS WORSE!

Logically, it may seem counterintuitive or ridiculous but yet, we all do it! We all want to jump off the Disappointed train or the Sad train and immediately go even more negative and that is where we have to learn to STOP ourselves.

This is where we DON'T listen to the emotions that are pulling us to even more negative places. Our feelings are NOT helping us so we don't have to let them control us.

So many of my clients struggle with what I refer to as over-riding their positive thoughts and feelings.

Why do we rarely stop ourselves from getting on board the negative trains but we constantly over-ride positive feelings?

This is where our work is: to pause, identify our authentic feeling, get on board the matching train, and eventually find our way to the positive trains so we can support ourselves and feel better.

What are the trains you find yourself most often riding? Is there any circumstance in your life where you know that if you picked a different train, the situation would be better?