Here’s a glimpse into a pretty common dialogue in my practice. This sort of conversation shows up in various ways in my work with clients who are navigating eating disorder recovery (usually alongside depression and anxiety). I’ll call this fictional client “Brit”.
Brit: “I was feeling really crappy yesterday.”
Me: “Yeah? What kind of stuff you were thinking or feeling?”
Brit: “I don’t know, really, it was just inner critic stuff and anxiety I guess.”
Me: “So if I could have plugged headphones into your brain at that moment, what are some of the thoughts I would have heard?”
Brit: “Hmm… maybe like that I have a lot of demands on me at work that I’m worried about, and that I was bad for not making it to the gym that day and eating a bigger lunch.”
Me: “Gotcha. And what about the feelings, like emotions or stuff in your body?
Brit: “Just anxiety like kind of a pressure in my chest. I can feel it some now just talking about it.”
Me: “Can you describe it more, what it feels like right now?”
Brit: “It’s kind of hot in my chest, and a little queasy in my stomach, and my shoulders are tense.”
Me: “Right now, does it feel okay for that feeling to be there?”
Brit: “I don’t really like it. But yeah, I guess so.”
Me: “Just see if you can breathe into those places, your stomach, your chest, and your shoulders, without needing to change or fix them. And are any of those thoughts showing up right now?”
Brit: “A little bit, but not as much. I think it helped just saying them a minute ago.”
Me: “Nice! Sometimes all it takes is just breaking it down a little bit to understand more about what’s going on with you instead of just having that vague sense of ‘yuck.’”
(I’d go further with her on this, but this part is enough to illustrate my point for now.)
I see those heads nodding in recognition (says my clairvoyant alter-ego). And believe me, this is very much still an ongoing practice for me, too. Whether it’s a specific event that triggers it, or a thought or feeling that shows up first, often I have to intentionally step back and break down piece-by-piece to get clear on what’s going on with me, as I walked through above.
The building block theory
Basically, you’re looking for the “building blocks” of your present-moment experience, which are:
- The thoughts (“I can’t do it”, “They think I’m stupid,” etc.)
- The emotions (fear, anxiety, loneliness, anger, etc. — and perhaps there’s even a deeper emotion underneath the first one you recognize)
- The physical sensations (heat in the face, clenching in the jaw, collapsing in the shoulders, nausea in the stomach, etc.)
Often, just recognizing and naming these building blocks is enough to unhook a little from whatever unhelpful (and often distorted/inaccurate) thoughts or feelings might have reeled me in. Then, you can decide if it’s just a wave you’re going to ride out until it passes, or if there’s an action I can and want to take to meet a need or support myself.
This certainly doesn’t have to mean doing something to make the feeling to go away as soon as possible —but since emotions are great information-givers, they might be telling you something important that you want to take action on.
For example, an anxious, tight feeling when a friend asks you for a favor may indicate that the best answer is, “I wish I could, but I’m not gonna be able to make that work. I hope you can find someone!”
We often hear that, “saying, “no” is a complete sentence”. Like it’s sooo empowering to just say “No.”
While I understand and appreciate the spirit of not apologizing for ourselves or feeling the need to give 13 disclaimers, I mean: “Can you pick me up at the airport on Saturday?” “No.” — Who talks like that? Let’s make it real, people.
So, the next time you’re feeling:
- crawl-out-of-your-skin antsy
- can’t-get-off-the-couch lethargic
- way-more-snappy-than-the-situation-calls-for angry
- I’m-so-gross disgust
- or any other unpleasant-but-vague feeling
Take a minute.
Break your experience down into its component parts. Know that you don’t have to fix it, and that there is power and freedom in merely becoming more aware of it.
Because at the end of the day, these words of the badass Buddhist nun and author Pema Chödrön are #truth:
You are the sky. Everything else is just the weather.