Intimacy can be challenging if we don’t have some degree of emotional sobriety and balance. If we have no emotional language for talking over the kinds of deep feelings that intimacy inevitably brings up, we spend our time and energy avoiding the kinds of intimate moments that we’re afraid might expose our soft, emotional underbellies; our vulnerability. When we operate with emotional sobriety, we can experience a kind of closeness and openness with other people that we can’t necessarily manage comfortably when we’re not in relative balance. We have a certain comfort in our own skin; we can tolerate feeling in each other’s presence without wanting to hide ourselves and our vulnerabilities. We grow in our capacity to actually feel strong emotions without exploding or imploding, we expand our inner container, so to speak, how much feeling we can hold without short-circuiting. Once we can tolerate actually feeling our feelings, we can then search for the words to describe them. And if we can learn to articulate what’s going on inside of ourselves with reasonable accuracy and listen to someone else do the same without wanting to go through the ceiling if they’re saying something we don’t agree with or especially like hearing, we can grow in our capacity to be intimate. We can tell another person in words how they’re affecting us, rather than feeling a need to jump up and leave the room, yell at them or call them names. Then each successful communication becomes a small step up in intimacy-building, rather than the opposite.
Foreclosing on Our Inner World
Many of our psychological and emotional problems, if we think of it, come from running from what we don’t want to feel, rather than simply learning to sit with it. We fear feeling more than we can handle. We have an idea that we will not be able to bear feeling certain emotions, that we’ll fall apart. So we shut them down. We rationalize what we’re feeling to make it more palatable, or we flat-out deny what’s going inside or outside of us, rewriting reality to suit our capacity to live with it. Painful emotions can make us feel vulnerable and insecure; that our lives aren’t working the way they’re supposed to. But when we run from what we feel, it makes what we feel bigger, not smaller. Denied feelings don’t go away, they grow, like yeast in a dark corner.
Am I the Only One Who Feels Like I Can’t Survive My Own Emotions?
Nature wired us to depend upon parents and the clan for our very survival. Banishment from the clan meant death. So we do whatever we can to stay connected, including rationalizing our emotional responses to people we’re close to in order to allow us to remain in relationship with them. Or to reinterpret the past or create fantasies about the future that allow us to feel OK about ourselves. That feeling of possible rupture is threatening to us at our core because rupture feels against nature’s primary intent. We are, in other words, wired to want to live in connection. We really do feel we will die of a broken heart because love, like fear, is a necessary emotion for survival. Without it we wouldn’t pair-bond or attach to children or parents. Without fear, we wouldn’t avoid danger. We would not, in fact, survive.
But with practice, our thinking brain can help us to experience, process and understand our emotions rather than distance them. We can reflect upon and understand our feelings rather than diminish or disown them. We can use our thinking to understand ourselves, our worlds and our relationships. Developing emotional balance and sobriety requires that we learn to sit with the powerful emotions and physical urges that get triggered inside of us without blowing up, shutting down, acting out or self-medicating.
But What Happens When I Get Triggered?
When we’re scared, we send the same fear signals to our limbic brain, whether we’re walking in front of a car, staring into the jaws of a lion or listening to the parents we depend on scream at each other. Later as adults, scenes that are reminiscent to those that frightened us in the past — say fighting with our spouse or boss — can trigger us into a child state of fear and helplessness. Our limbic or emotional system goes into fight/flight/freeze and we’re cocked and ready to react. Or under-react: we freeze, become inarticulate and unable to think of anything to say, because our mind just isn’t working properly. In order to bring our emotions back into balance at those moments, we need to understand that our limbic brain/body is getting triggered, throwing our emotional state out of balance. And our cortex, where we order and make sense and meaning out of our emotions and sense impressions, is temporarily on tilt.
Counting to 10, taking a deep breath or a short break may give us the time we need to allow our limbic system to settle down enough to bring our thinking back on board. It’s when we’re feeling intensely that we’re most at risk for becoming unbalanced and losing it. Our feelings run ahead of us and our thinking can’t catch up. At these moments, talking doesn’t do us much good; our limbic reactions are just too big. But if we can become aware of this phenomenon and of what triggers us in particular, we can learn to ride out the limbic storm, so to speak, and make better choices and decisions once we’re in a calmer state and have had a chance to reflect a bit. Or we can teach ourselves not to get so riled up in the first place. We can slowly reeducate our limbic systems to have a calmer set point. Through regular activities and exercise, soothing hobbies, rest and learning to sit with powerful feelings and expand our ability to tolerate and translate them into words, we can take better charge of our psychological and emotional selves.
For more information on this subject, log onto tiandayton.com or read Emotional Sobriety: From Relationship Trauma to Resilience and Balance.