Processing thy feelings

Processing is a familiar and commonly used word used by any individual who has the desire to be self-aware, doesn’t shy away from paying attention to his emotions and invests in his mental health. I found the understanding of what processing means quite limiting and misguided for most people. Many a times I hear people expressing the need to process their emotions and associating that process with the need to ‘fix’, ‘shut down’ and ‘resist’ what they are feeling and imagining that to be a process. It is understandable that external factors like unique parenting styles, cultural conditioning, inter-generational messages, all discourage emotions from being experienced in a way where there is an implicit permission granted for emotions to be fully met within and processed and contained. On the contrary, one hears judgments like ‘emotional’ or ‘over-sensitive’, all rooted in criticism that perceives emotions as a tsunami that will catch us unawares and throw us off balance.
We are going to experience emotions whether we like it or not. We can resist surrendering to the emotion by distracting ourselves with work for example; or making a voice within louder that constantly criticises us for feeling a particular emotion, mostly sadness, which is the most discriminated against sentiment of all. That’s another thing, that some emotions are acceptable whereas others are not. So, I fail to understand when someone says, ‘stop being emotional’ as if it’s a borrowed self-state that we have to return.
We are feeling all the time; with and without awareness at sensory-somatic, emotional and cognitive levels, embedded in conflicting self-states. We are choosing all the time; be it real-life choices that provoke conflicting emotions and then further conflicted into imagining that we have to choose between experiencing that emotion or not.
I believe that people shut down or attempt to, in a way to cope and because they fear an emotional imbalance where they might impulsively act into those emotions. So one commonly hears people saying, use your mind and don’t listen to your heart. I believe that’s another myth that the heart is the seat of all emotions whereas the mind is logical and rational. The truth of the matter is that emotions are experienced in every part of our being at a body-mind level and they find their home in one way or another.
For example, if one resists them, they manifest in the form of physical illnesses. So yes, it’s scary to imagine surrendering to those emotions thinking it will lead to emotional dysregulation but in reality, the chances of that happening is more if we don’t give our feelings a home to be felt and experienced. When we don’t let ourselves feel the stirring of an emotion like anger for example; the build up can convert into rage and turn into harmful behaviour for oneself or the other.
So what will processing the emotions look like? All therapists tell their clients to sit with their conflicts and the emotion attached to them. For example; a person feels angry towards the wounding parent but also feels guilt for feeling that anger. He will attempt to resist those emotions; for example; the anger by challenging and shaming himself for his feelings and reminding himself for all that his parents have done for him and compensate for the guilt by self-criticism or overcompensating the parents. Sitting with the emotion would mean that you allow yourself to feel the anger and guilt without judging the feelings and accepting all that you are feeling with curiosity. Emotions are organic and they have information for us. Processing means to tolerate the uncomfortable emotions and not rushing into moving away from them. There might be an overwhelming need to act into an emotional state and that’s where containment comes in where we simply allow ourselves to feel. That’s all.
Dr. Leslie Greenberg, one of the primary developers of Emotion-Focused Therapy states that “Emotion is not opposed to reason…emotions guide and manage thought in a fundamental way, and complement the deficiencies of thinking.”
So, when a strong feeling comes up; don’t rationalise it; don’t challenge it but surrender to it and let yourself fully experience it no matter how long it takes and that’s what processing means.

Zara Maqbool

The writer is a BACP (British Association For Counselling and Psychotherapy) accredited individual and couple psychotherapist based in Islamabad. She can be reached at or her official website.

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