There’s a reason that when you’re asked, “How are you feeling?” that you don’t know the answer: Sometimes feeling your emotions sucks.
I don’t mean there’s something “wrong” with your feelings, I mean that there are a number of emotions that just don’t feel very good. A seemingly better option than feeling [enter negative emotion here] is to drink a lot, smoke a lot, watch porn, throw yourself into work, never leave the gym—I could go on and on.
When a guy enters therapy, he’s kind of saying that the balance of holding back the negative feelings has begun to feel less good than what he’s been using to mask it.
This leaves us in a difficult place because it means that we are going to look at what he’s been avoiding.
And there was a reason he was avoiding it.
Learning Our Defenses
A “Defense” is what we call the things we do to avoid feeling something. One example of this is if we’re yelled at by our boss in front of our team. We may feel some shame from this, but we hold it in, go home and kick the cat. Shame doesn’t feel good so it gets shifted into anger and since it may be unacceptable to you to express this anger to your boss it goes toward something that doesn’t deserve it (the cat). (If interested in knowing more, this is called displacement.)
Defenses come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are actually pretty positive ways of dealing with uncomfortable feelings and some of them, well, they’re horrible.
A positive way of channeling things is to take unacceptable anger and channel it into a sport or job that lets you express that anger in a controlled and helpful context. This can lead to some problems if you cross a line, and it won’t get to the root cause of why that anger is so prevalent, but maybe a regular stint at being someone’s sparring partner would be all you want right now.
Less damaging, but still harmful, ways of defending against expressing your anger is through sarcasm or biting humor. People, like successful stand-up comics, can make a lot of money and get a lot of credit for channeling their anger in this direction.
Much more damaging is the bully. Someone who feels horrible about himself and, instead of exploring how hurt and scared and vulnerable he is, he just takes all those feelings and hurts others. Another sad example would be someone who’s gay, but hates this about himself, and beats up other out guys.
There’s a lot more to be said about the different defenses, but here’s the takeaway: those defenses are usually defending us from something we’d prefer to avoid. We never made a choice to constantly take our anger out on someone else, but it’s become a habitualized way of managing an uncomfortable feeling.
Stripping Away Layers
It may seem strange, but counseling can often feel a bit worse before it gets better because we’re looking at what the client has spent a lot of time and effort holding back. Maybe it’ll be good for a while as there’s some welcomed relief after years of holding back a layer of feelings. But then we’re going to stay with that. We’re going to work with that other layer of feeling for a while and it’s going to want to hide. It’s going to remind you why it was using that defense in the first place. You may even regress to that old defense because, if nothing else, it’s familiar. But getting to the other side is worth it.
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