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  • Shannon Murray


Why Listening to Our Emotions Is Not Always Helpful

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, we should identify the source of our anger; if we are depressed, we need to pay attention to our depressed feelings...

Now, after parenting a teenager and working with clients of varied ages and backgrounds, I have found that listening to our emotions is NOT always best for our mental health. In fact, it is the opposite.

You might wonder how can I say this as a psychotherapist? Isn't that in the job description - to support people so they can be more in touch with their feelings and emotions?

Of course - but what I have also come to appreciate and try to help my clients understand is that our emotions aren't always correct, nor are they always helpful or even honest or authentic.

Imagine the metaphor that our EMOTIONS are TRAINS passing through a train station. We are standing on the platform and throughout the day, multiple trains (emotions) come and go through our train station (our minds and our hearts). The doors on the trains will always open and at any given time, we can get on and off whichever train we choose. (Of course it is not that simple but for the sake of the metaphor, let's say it is.)

For most of us, we have certain trains that we board most often because we have become so accustomed to taking those trains and following those paths. Buddhism calls this kind of behavior "habit energy". In other words, due to this habit energy, we automatically, without intention or thought, step into familiar trains partly because of our habit energy.

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 when we express what we need; guilt when we set boundaries; sometimes we feel guilt for even existing and taking up space. Guilt can be such a strong feeling that its train puffs out a smoke so thick that it nearly blocks our ability to see any other trains in the station.

Shame is similar to guilt in that way and when we are on the Guilt or Shame trains, we tend to think there might not be other trains coming through the station at all.

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 we avoid the Anger train and instead, get on the Self-sabotage train where we turn our anger inward.


Let's say we get passed up for a promotion at work and our coworker gets the position instead. Naturally, we have a reaction. For some of us, our automatic response is to immediately jump on the train (or react with an emotion) of Self-doubt. Once on board the Self-doubt train, we tell ourselves familiar stories that are full of self-doubt: it's no surprise I didn't get the promotion, my coworker is so much smarter and better than I am; I didn't go to a prestigious college like she did and that's even more proof that I'm inadequate; my boss definitely doesn't like me; I've never been good enough.

We then make ourselves right at home in our Self-doubt train. We sit in our personalized cushy seat, cuddled in our nice warm blanket; our drink in our special cupholder, and we are surrounded by all of our old familiar stories of self-doubt. At this point, familiar and comfortable is one and the same and we now know "the truth": we didn't get that promotion because we are worthless.

So now, our feelings are not even in the same universe as the job promotion.

We are now having feelings about all of the negative stories we have piled on top of ourselves and most likely, those stories bring up the past so we aren't even talking about the present moment; our feelings are now about other people, places, time periods that most likely are unrelated to the job promotion.

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

Our goal is to first PAUSE and BREATHE when a difficult or stressful event occurs.

Then, before we react, we try to NOTICE our bodies and our surroundings. We can do this by looking around and identifying 5 things we see, hear, smell, and physically feel as we take deep breaths.

As we are pausing and noticing, we then try to DECIPHER what feelings are old habit energies and old reactions and what feelings are more authentic in the present moment.

So, back to the moment when we hear the news we didn't get promoted. We take that pause and breathe and notice our body and the surroundings. We look out onto the tracks and conveniently, we see the Self-doubt train has pulled right in front with its doors wide open, ready for us to hop on board. How conveniently lovely. We can see our familiar chair with our blanket and there is something that feels comfortable and yes- we are definitely going to feel a Star Wars-like vacuum force pulling us into that train. But instead of our old knee-jerk response of immediately jumping on board, we stop ourselves and we resist that pull.

We pause on the platform and we tell ourselves: O.K. I can see that Self-Doubt train - right in front of me - it is the same old train that always arrives first in my station, toots its horn and invites me on board. My habit energy and the faux fuzzy feeling of familiarity are trying to lure me to accept the invitation which I do most of the time without hesitation BUT NOT TODAY!

Only now can we decipher what we really feel because we have created the space to find out now that the Self-doubt train has moved out of the way and we can actually breathe and see.

In the new open space, we learn that: Right now, in this moment, my actual true feelings are disappointment and hurt that my boss didn't pick us for that promotion. Disappointment and hurt are our authentic feelings in response to what is happening in this very moment.

You might ask, "Well, how is feeling disappointment any better than feeling self-doubt? Both feelings don't feel good!" and that's true - the authentic feeling that comes up may not feel good either. But the goal is not to magically change the event or have a kumbaya moment.

The goal is to give ourselves the chance to experience the event and have an authentic and honest emotional response and to realize that regardless of what feelings come up, we will survive and we can recover, even if the feelings don't feel good or comfortable.

Why is this the goal? Let's say we go with our habit energy and our emotions and we jump on the Self-doubt train and our head is now spinning full of old stories of how we aren't good enough. What is the likelihood that all those negative beliefs are allowing us to see the present situation with an honest perspective? Not likely.

By contrast, when we give ourselves the GIFT OF AUTHENTICITY - or the space to allow our authentic feelings to exist - we can actually learn valuable information.

By stepping aboard the Disappointment train and sitting there with that feeling, new thoughts come into our mind such as I really wanted that promotion because I wanted to do x,y and z instead of what I am doing in my current position. This is honest and valuable information that is helpful!

I would even argue that this can become exciting because what is suggests is that maybe we want to look for a new job that is more satisfying or maybe we want to talk to our boss to see if there are opportunities for introducing x,y, or z into our current job in some way. If we stay on the Self-doubt train, we are stuck in negativity and we miss out on everything we could learn if we let ourselves actually feel our authentic feelings.

We are also sending ourselves the message that we can handle our true emotions and that is extremely important. As a therapist, it is notable how much energy my clients exert having feelings that mask over or distract from their actual authentic feelings. We all do this and I don't think we consciously tell ourselves: I am avoiding feeling sad because I don't think I will survive the sadness but on some level, that is the message we are sending ourselves when we avoid something.

So when we turn that notion completely on its head and look at our authentic emotions as a gift, we tell ourselves: I can let myself authentically feel my feelings and have my reactions because I know I will be OK and I will survive and I will recover. These messages to ourselves make it easier and quicker to recover even when our feelings are difficult or painful or uncomfortable.

Changing our habit energy and boarding new trains will be the hardest steps for all of us because psychologically, we repeat the familiar - even when it harms us.

Logically, it may seem counterintuitive but yet, we all do it! We may resist getting on "new" or different trains but we must learn to use Pause, Breathe, & Notice to instead find the authentic emotion train instead of boarding our old familiar ones. Those feelings may be painful but the authenticity of them is the gift that will provide us with more kindness and compassion when our old habit energy tries to pull us to even more negative places.

This is where our work is: to pause, identify our authentic feeling, and get on board the matching train to see where it takes us. From there, we can find our way to the positive trains that will support and encourage our true selves and leave us feel better and stronger.

What trains do you find yourself boarding most often? What are the authentic feelings that boarding that familiar train obscures? Is there any circumstance in your life where you know that if you picked a different train, the situation would have been better?

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