Emotional Damage Control: Addressing Complicated Feelings

“So my last therapist said I needed to feel and express all of my feelings,” Sal explained.

“How did that work for you?” I was genuinely curious. Sal is an imposing figure and I’m not sure what complete emotional expression might look like.

“Well, kind of good. My girlfriend liked it.” Sal suddenly got quiet.

“What about everyone else?” I gently pushed.

“Not so good with my mom. Right before she died I unloaded 45 years of anger at her. It was the worst moment of my life.” Sal was holding back tears and fiddling with his phone.

“What did your therapist say when you told him about it?”

“I didn’t tell him. But I told my girlfriend and she left me. Said she didn’t want to be with someone who did that to their mother. Now I’m all alone and stuck with these feelings.”

Feelings and therapists are tricky. Some therapists believe it’s important to feel and express every feeling that comes your way. Other therapists give absolutely no value to emotions and believe they are obstacles to work around. Still others focus on increasing the “good” feelings (happy) and eliminating the “bad” ones (anger, sadness).

Sal and I started with awareness. What is he feeling in this moment? Anger at his old therapist. Since I have learned feelings come in layers I ask, “What’s underneath?” Second layer: anger at his ex-girlfriend. We keep going. Third layer: guilt about his mother. Fourth layer: sadness about his ex-girlfriend. Fifth layer: grief about his mother. Sixth layer: anger at himself for not challenging his old therapist. Seventh layer: rage at himself for being so angry at his mother in the first place. Eighth layer: deep sadness and fear that he is permanently broken. Over the next few weeks we work on this eighth layer. As he starts to feel more whole he notices the other feelings shifting for the better.

Where do you need to bring more curiosity and balance to your emotional expression?