I used to hate it when people told me that feeling bad was a choice.
Talk about pressure. Geezus, talk about feeling misunderstood!
I mean, who were these people that had such easefully stable nervous systems that they could say to themselves, “Calm down,” and their bodies abide? Did they not understand how trauma robs you of that choice? Ugh!
“Woo-woo flower pickers with secure upbringings and no real commitments,” I would gripe to myself, jealously wishing I could just spend my life somehow making a living off writing poetry and selling herbs from the community garden. It beats me if this is what those folks were actually doing with their lives, but feeling totally inept at their suggestions, I chalked them up to toxic positivity and decided to keep my inner gremlin in social check.
Okay, now what I’m about to say here is not a concession to the realm of the “Good Vibes All Day” thought cloud. But I think I found a path to “choosing to feel good” that doesn’t feel like a punitive thought punishment enacted by the Granola Police. And believe me, I say this from the inside. I’m pretty damned granola, but like anyone who works in the field of mental and physical illness, I’ve seen terrible suffering that doesn’t necessarily go away because someone sees a beautiful sunset.
I wasn’t going to get excited about anything that implied you’re an emotional failure because you could not immediately change your perception to one of monk-like balance.
What I have discovered, however, is that, with practice, we can start moving the needle on how often we feel positive things. I’m not saying at all that you’ll totally replace the crustiness with constant joy, here. Let’s set ourselves up to succeed, shall we? We are human, which means having challenging emotions at times. But on the other side of that coin, I have found it really helpful to recognize, and to validate for clients, that:
Sometimes, we are afraid to feel good
If we’ve had a lot of scary or overwhelming stuff happen to us throughout our lives, we have likely cultivated a finely-tuned threat response system that won’t go softly into the night. As soon as we try to feel joy, calm, or even neutrality, we reach what is called an “upper level of tolerance,” and all those loud-mouthed ‘what-ifs’ come screaming into our minds.
I think of those old Warner Brothers cartoons where some character (usually Wile E. Coyote) looks carefully up and down train tracks before crossing them. It’s totally silent until he steps on a track and the train comes charging through, plastering him to the front. After that, how could that poor coyote ever trust his intuition, apparent quiet, or Amtrack again?
We actually choose to stay in hypervigilance or numbness in order to cope with the next threat. Our bodies remain in constant anxiety or collapse, reinforcing and being reinforced by our disturbing thoughts about all that is wrong in our environment.
Unconsciously, we believe we have to stay activated to deal with issues. Or said another way, we do not trust ourselves to be able to handle life from a more calm state. We don’t believe we will have the mental or physical capacity to meet life’s demands if we are relaxed.
But look at the neighbor’s dog!
Non-human animals are great models for releasing stress. I remember watching my friend’s dog get all up-in-arms about the Amazon delivery truck. Soon as that thing drove away, the dog was back on the floor, completely relaxed in horseshoe formation. That’s when it hit me:
Feeling good is a birthright.
Okay, so that being said, so is feeling like crap. But we already knew that. However, our body is not only meant to process turbid emotion, but to spend time in a rest-and-digest state regularly. Nature abhors wastng energy—including in the energy expensive threat response states (fight/flight/freeze/collapse). If we allow the emotional systems of our bodies to regulate, they will. And on top of that, if we can recognize good feelings—joy, calm, relaxation, curiosity, awe, quiet confidence—we are actually feeling the healthy biological response of our parasympathetic nervous system, or the balanced activation of the systems that govern feeling safe enough to branch out and explore.
So how can we make this work for us?
We have to practice FEELING goodness
The above statement is one in which you could accentuate a different word every time you read it. If we want to be able to feel more good stuff, we Have to Practice (many times!) Feeling (not just thinking!) Goodness!
In How Emotions are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett says our brains are not so much responders to stimuli so much as predictors for what will happen next. She says, over time, we form maps in our neurons of previous experiences, and our brains will induce certain emotional/ activation states based on those maps and the current context. Our brain is so efficient at creating emotional states that she says it is essentially creating a simulation of our surroundings.
We give meaning to body sensations based on these simulations. Like, say your stomach is tight. If you were on a roller coaster, it’s because you’re excited and screaming. If you’re at the dentist, it’s because you see smoke coming out of your mouth. This lets us know that our body sensations are more neutral than we think they are. Which is very important when we are processing and decoupling our awareness from the sensations of past trauma.
But what does this mean for feeling good? If we can simulate anxiety and depression, we can also simulate peace and joy. In fact, this is what I do with clients using Brainspotting, somatic awareness, and EMDR’s safe calm place exercise.
How to do it:
1. Noticing when you are having a good moment- a rush of gratitude, enjoying a favorite song. Or purposely induce a good feeling by teein up a memory of your favorite holiday, go for a hike and smell the Ponderosa bark, rub your feet on the carpet.
2. Use your awareness to locate where the positive feeling at in your body. Positive feelings can be funny to locate because they can be expansive, like a lack of tension, all-over warmth, or a general release.
3. Allow the feeling to grow. I do this by saying yes to the body sensation over and over again. Every few seconds. Let it spread like syrup, baby. Track it with curiosity moment-to-moment. Let it soak into your cells. Even if for a few seconds. See if you can keep expanding how long you stay with the feeling.
4. Get ready to deal with the Voice of Vigilence!
That “Voice of Vigilence” serves it up. Hard.
We’re back to where we started. Trying to enjoy some good sensations in our bodies. But the vigilance comes back. What if that train comes? What if the dentist pulls out all your teeth? What if I feel pain?
I’m just going to make a suggestion here. That voice of vigilance gets a lot of attention. I mean, all day, every day. It’s not going to get hurt or anything if you give it a thirty second reprieve. I recommend imagining the voice has a form, and that you put it on a shelf. You can always come back to it. But for now, tell yourself you’re focusing on this good sensation.
Remember, it’s your birthright to feel good, and a sign your body is going into healthy repair modes. Nature designed you to feel this way. Keep saying yes to it.
It’s hard to explain what happens next…
Except that you’re going to start to learn things about your own thought patterns and emotional states.
Maybe you’ll see just how anxious your thoughts can be. Maybe you’ll learn it’s not necessary to feel that way. Maybe you’ll realize it is possible for you to feel calm, alert and efficient at the same time. After all, our brains do work a lot better when they are not in a threat response.
But, let’s be realistic for a second.
Trying to nail this skill when you are in higher activation states is like running a marathon off the couch. Start small, when you’re already feeling okay. Practice feeling the good stuff while thinking of minor annoyances. Practice while driving or grocery shopping. Eventually, bring the skill in while paying bills or going to a work meeting. Even if the goodness lasts a few seconds, you’re proving to yourself you have more choice in how you feel than you may have thought.
And this doesn’t mean you aren’t also working on processing challenging emotions at other times. But when we are doing our work in therapy, or trying to manage challenging feelings, it’s good to give the body and mind a place to land. Let your brain and nervous system remember what they are gunning for.
If you keep practicing saying yes to the good stuff, it will build on itself. You’ll start to make more room for the possibility of creating positive states with greater speed. You’ll surprise yourself in the best way.
Which, if you ask me, is way different from that new-age crap that just demands you bypass your feelings and pretend all is beautiful.