Four survivors when asked about feelings:
“Feelings? What feelings? Are they in this room with us?”
“What did you say? Huh? I didn’t quite hear you right.”
“Mostly I have feelings with my head.”
“I think one feeling a day is all I can handle.”
We have feelings all the time, whether we’re aware of them or not. Feelings arise in response to whatever is happening in our lives. A threat makes us fearful. When someone injures us, we feel hurt and angry. When we are safe and our needs are met, we feel content. These are natural responses. We may not always have the ability to recognize and understand our feelings, but they are there.
For a long time, I thought I didn’t feel. I had ignored my own internal cues for so long that I was sure I didn’t have any feelings to be in touch with. I thought of feelings as some mystical thing I had to concoct, rather than as an already functioning part of me I had to uncover. Any feelings I did have were something separate from me that I had to hurry up and get over, so I could shift back into the safety of neutral – being numb and in control.
When you were a child, your feelings of love and trust were betrayed. Your pain, rage and fear were too great for you to experience them fully and continue to function, so you suppressed your feelings in order to survive.
“Certain feelings just went under. I stopped having them at a really young age. I stopped having physical sensations. You could beat me and it literally didn’t hurt. By the time I was thirteen, I no longer felt angry. And once I stopped feeling anger, I never felt love either. What I lived with most was boredom, which is really not a feeling but a lack of feeling. All the highs and lows were taken out.”
But we all need feelings. They are useful messages from which we gain insight and the ability to make wise choices. Feelings, even painful ones, are allies, telling us what’s going on inside and, often, how to respond to the situations in our lives.
FEELINGS ARE A PACKAGE DEAL
When you open up to your feelings, you don’t get to pick and choose. They’re a package deal. One of Ellen’s clients was abused by her father over the course of many years. When she and Ellen began working together, she said she felt numb; she wanted to have feelings. After a few months she was crying through every session, crying at home, crying when she went out with friends. One day she came in, stated crying and then laughed, “Well, I sure got what I asked for.”
Yes. She was feeling. And the way feelings work is that you can’t feel selectively. When you decide to feel, you feel what there is to feel. For this woman, there was a great deal of pain and sadness. And after that, a lot of anger. And some fear. But slipped in among these difficult feelings were pride, hope, pleasure, self-respect, and a growing contentment.
To feel, you have to be open to the full spectrum of feelings.
“When I first started to grapple with the concept of feeling – and in the beginning it was only a concept – I ranked all the possible emotions in two lists: good feelings and bad feelings. Every time I had a feeling, I’d think “Is this a bad feeling or a good feeling? Is this a feeling I can allow myself to have?” Then I’d either feel it or suppress it. It’s been hard for me to accept that there is no right or wrong to feeling.”
The more you can accept your feelings without judgment, the easier it will be for you to experience them, work with them, and learn from them.
GETTING IN TOUCH WITH FEELINGS
YOU FEEL IN YOUR BODY
Getting in touch with feelings requires that you live inside your body and pay attention to the sensations that are there. Feelings are just that – things that you feel in your body: tightening in your throat, trembling, clutching in your stomach, shortness of breath, moistness behind your eyes, moistness between your legs, warmth in your chest, tingling in your hands, fullness in your heart.
If you have ignored your body for a long time, tuning in to these sensations may seem strange and unfamiliar. Or you may be able to objectively report the sensations you feel in your body but not know what they mean.
When children are very small they don’t have the conceptual ability to say “I feel scared.” They say, “I feel yucky in my stomach.” When adults give that sensation a name, the child learns to connect the feeling with the emotion.
If no one paid attention to what you felt and you never learned to name your feelings, you will be starting at the beginning, teaching yourself to read the messages your body gives you. (For powerful example, see Krishnabai’s story, on page 440.)
All of us feel in different ways, with different levels of intensity. Getting to know your feelings is part of getting to know yourself as a unique person.
Many survivors have spent their lives racing to stay just one step ahead of their feelings. Slow down enough to ask yourself, “How do I feel?” Whenever you notice yourself gliding on automatic pilot, stop and check in with your body. Are you in your body? What sensations are going on? What might those sensations be telling you?
Pay attention to your behaviour also. If you are acting inappropriately, slamming around the kitchen or crying at something small, you may be having a feeling you haven’t yet acknowledged. Laura remembers:
“When I first started to pay attention to my feelings, the thing I felt most often was the sensation that I was lost in a dense fog. Or I’d be overwhelmed by things like boredom, confusion, desperation, hopelessness, or anxiety. What I gradually learned was that these were not actually emotions, but lids I kept on my emotions. As soon as I’d have a glimmer of the raw feeling, I’d throw a big thick blanket over it to cover it up. If I scratched beneath the boredom, there was usually anger. Anxiety covered up terror. Hopelessness and depression were rage turned inward. And so on.”
If you have habitually covered your feelings, this may take place so quickly and automatically that you don’t even have a chance to feel the initial emotion. When you begin to feel happy, you slide into anxiety. When you’re angry, you immediately hate yourself. These patterns are different for everyone, but if you are overwhelmed by states such as depression, confusion, or guilt, there’s probably a specific emotion, triggered by a specific event, underneath.
Sometimes it’s a thought pattern that intercedes when you start to feel something. If you catch yourself in an old line of thinking that makes you feel bad about yourself, it probably has a feeling underneath. Thoughts like “I’ll never change” or “People don’t like me” usually indicate buried feelings. As a child you couldn’t afford to say “I hate my father; I want to kill him”, so you hated yourself instead, finding a hundred reasons why you were bad, why the abuse was your fault.
EXERCICES FOR GETTING IN TOUCH WITH YOUR FEELINGS
All the creative arts can help you connect with your feelings. Put on music and move with your feelings. Sing the blues. Cut words and pictures out of magazines and make a collage. You do not have to be an accomplished artist, dancer, or musician to express your feelings in these ways. This isn’t about performance – it’s about expressing yourself.
DRAW YOUR FEELINGS
Amy Pine, a creative-arts therapist in Santa Cruz, California, suggests trying to draw a feeling you have. Use color, shape, texture, degree of pressure, use of space, as well as literal pictures to express this feeling. Stick figures are also fine. Then draw the way you want to feel. Share these drawings with someone. What do they represent? What do you notice when you look at them? Then draw a third picture that takes elements of the first through a transition that brings it to the second. What had to happen to connect them? How did you do it? Is there any correlation with what you might do in your life?
USE YOUR MIND
If you can’t readily identify a feeling, your intellect can sometimes help. Say to yourself: “My lover just left me and I don’t feel anything. What would someone else be feeling in this situation? What have I learned from books, movies, and friends about the feelings that might be common in this circumstance? Could it be relief? Anger? Grief? Could that be what this knot in my throat is about?”
The next two exercises, from Learning to Live Without Violence by Daniel Sonkin and Michael Durphy, can be helpful in beginning to identify feelings.
FEELING vs THINKING
People commonly confuse feelings with thinking or observation. For example:
“I feel it was unfair.”
“I feel you are going to leave me.”
These statements are “I feel – thinking” statements rather than “I feel – emotion” statements. A good test for whether a statement is an “I feel – thinking” statement is to replace “I feel” with “I think”. If it makes sense, then it is probably more of a thinking statement or observation than a feeling statement. If we change the above “I feel – thinking” statements to “I feel – emotion” statements, they might read:
“I feel hurt by what you did.”
“I feel afraid that you might leave me.”
WHAT ARE FEELINGS?
The following is a list of feeling words. Say them out loud. Try out different tones of voice for each word, or say it louder or softer. Pay attention to your feelings as you say each word. What sensations does it stir up? How does your body feel? Do some words fit you, but not others? Write in any other words that especially describe you. When you are finished, underline the three words that you respond to most strongly.
excited frustrated hurt
tender frightened jealous
sad contented loving
lonely depressed elated
edgy timid happy
By this time it’s like a rut in an unpaved road. Hundreds of cars drive on a dirt road. Each car travels the same path, until it becomes automatic for the tires to follow the tracks. The same is true for thoughts. If you’ve had a lifetime of practice diverting the first glimmer of anger into “I’m bad”, you need to explore the feelings underneath that habit, consciously changing the track. (For more on changing negative thought patterns, see “internalized Messages” on page 189.)
When you first become aware of the simple, pure emotions that move through you, all you have to do is be aware: “I’m feeling a feeling”. If you’re sad, let yourself feel sad – without worrying, without panicking, without needing to take any action. It’s okay just to feel sad. Your feelings aren’t dangerous. And most people find that once they get started, feeling isn’t as bad as they feared it would be.
“The more I felt, the easier it got. Feeling became less and less scary. Even though I lost my capacity to just put things aside and I felt a lot of pain, my main feeling was one of relief. I found that the fear of feeling and the stress of suppressing my feelings were more painful than the feelings themselves.
Some of the feelings – especially the old ones I had to relive – were just as awful as I thought they’d be, but they didn’t last forever.”
Feelings exist in and of themselves, but when you’re not used to them, having an emotion you can’t tie to a concrete event can be frightening.
“Whenever I have a strong feeling, I think, “…there has to be a reason I’m feeling this way.” And when I do figure it out, I’m incredibly relieved. “Oh! So that’s what made me so angry.” It’s less scary for me to have feelings when I can understand them.”
It is reassuring to understand why you feel a certain way or where that feeling originates, but that’s not always possible. Even if you don’t figure it out, the feeling still counts.
Valuing and eventually you will stop seeing feelings as something separate from yourself.
I’ve integrated emotions into my life. I no longer have to take time out to feel. If I’m walking down the street and I feel sad, I can start crying. I don’t have to wait until I get home and plan the time to do it. My emotions are a part of who I am, they’re not split off from my body. I don’t have to make a date to feel my emotions anymore.
It’s the nature of feelings to ebb and flow, to change. You can be furious one hour, sad the next, full of love an hour later. Pain turns into rage, and rage into relief. If feelings are not jammed up, they shift with a natural rhythm that matches your experience in the world. Paradoxically, the best way to get rid of a feeling is to feel it fully. When you accept and express a feeling, it often transforms.
It’s like a fire hose. When it’s plugged up, the internal pressure is explosive; water bursts forth in a torrent. But when the water is flowing and the pressure is even, the water rushes steadily out through the hose and does its job.
When you’re working with long–denied feelings, the transitions won’t happen as quickly as they will with contemporary feelings, but all feelings, once released, eventually change.
GET SUPPORT FOR FEELING
If your feelings were denied or criticized in childhood, it may take a while before you feel safe enough to express your feelings. Many women first experience this safety with a counsellor.
“One day my therapist said to me, “I won’t leave you no matter what you do.” Before the session was over I got angry at her for the first time.”
Being with people who respect your feelings and who are in touch with their own can also speed the learning process. Through feedback, example, and tenderness, you can learn to connect with your own emotions.
“At first I didn’t know how to have feelings by myself. I’d be numb until I saw my lover, my therapist, or a really good friend. They would draw me out, help me figure out what I was feeling. When they held or talked to me, I would squeak out a few tears or have a quiet moment of anger. I needed comforting and permission from someone else to be able to feel.”
Although it’s good to have loving, supportive people around when you start to connect with your feelings, over time you’ll feel safe enough to open up by yourself. In your mind or loud you can tell yourself the comforting things others have told you: “It’s okay to cry.” “You have a right to your anger.” By calling on the part of yourself that is able to nurture you, to stand up for you, you provide a wise and kind mother for the frightened, hurt, or angry child within. You can stroke your own hair, rock yourself in a rocker, make yourself a cup of warm milk and honey, or set out pillows to punch. You become your own catalyst, midwife, permission-giver.
COMMUNICATING YOUR FEELINGS
Once you start to feel your feelings, you still have a hard time expressing them:
“My facial expressions didn’t match what I said. I was always grinning. I might be down in the dumps, three feet depressed, but I kept smiling no matter what, so the outside world wouldn’t know how much pain I was in, couldn’t guess my secret. That, they wouldn’t with me.”
Or as Laura recalls:
“All my life I’ve had this problem. I’d be overwhelmed with feeling and no one would believe me because it didn’t show. A big expression of heartfelt grief for me would be several tears rolling down my cheeks. I’d be suicidal, sure I was going crazy, and my friends would maybe think I had a little something bothering me – a flea bite maybe? For a long time I thought something was wrong with me, that I had to become dramatic in the way I expressed my feelings before they counted. I wasn’t really angry unless I tore up phone books with my bare hands. Being happy without ecstatic leaps in the air didn’t count.”
There’s no single way to show emotion. Everyone has her own individual style. But it’s important to be able to express what you feel in a way that’s satisfying and that communicates.
Certain ways of communicating feelings increase the likelihood that you will be heard. If you say, “I’m upset. When you are late and you haven’t called, I worry. Please call me next time”, you’ll probably get a better response than if you say “You’re the most thoughtless person I’ve ever met. You never care about my feelings.”
Timing is important too. If you have something to say that’s important or vulnerable, don’t undermine yourself by picking a time that is not conducive to real listening. Give yourself – and your friend – the benefit of a fair start.
In an ideal world, you could express your real feelings anywhere, any time. Since we don’t live in such a world, you need to make a balanced decision each time you consider whether to express your feelings. Balanced decision takes into account feelings, intellect, and judgment.
Getting angry at a police officer who pulls you over for a ticket isn’t strategically sound. If you want to be intimate with someone, you have to express your feelings. But not all relationships are intimate.
EMOTIONAL RELEASE WORK
Recognizing and expressing contemporary feelings is often easier than getting in touch with buried feelings from childhood. Yet part of the healing process entails going back and feeling those feelings. (See “Grieving and Mourning”, page 129.)
One useful tool for clearing out old feelings is emotional release work. Because memories and feelings are stored in the body, working through feelings physically can provide a powerful adjunct to taking. With proper safeguards and a responsible helping person to support you, emotional release work is a powerful and active way to get rid of emotional baggage.
Some therapies such as bioenergetics, re-birthing, primal therapy, and psychodrama include cathartic emotional release. Because this kid of work is active and intense (and sometimes takes people back in time to the original abuse), it is important to have the supervision of an experienced support person who is comfortable with the expression of deep pain.
EMOTIONAL RELEASE EXERCICES
(Note: these exercises were contributed by Amy Pine.)
For anger: With support person present, take a tennis racket and whack it against a mattress or piled-up cushions. Use sound and words if you feel them. Let them out. You can start with your Full strength or start easy and work up to it. The support person can encourage you and cheer you on, as well as talk over your feelings with you afterward.
For grief: If you feel like crying but are stuck, allow your breath to help you connect your feelings with their expression. Exaggerate the breathing pattern – for example, long exhales, shaky inhales, adding sounds if you can. If tears do not come, it’s still okay. Notice the feeling, thoughts, and sensations you do have.
For tension: Use your body. Wrestle with a friend. Chop wood. Swim.
LEARNING TO LIVE WITHOUT VIOLENCE
An excellent book, Learning to Live Without Violence by Daniel Jay Sonkin and Michael Durphy, gives sound, practical guidelines for changing abusive patterns of expressing anger. Although it is directed toward men, it is useful for women as well. (See the “Battering” section on page 570 of the Resource Guide.)
RECOGNIZING YOUR OWN ANGER
There is a difference between anger and violence. Anger is an emotion and violence is one of the behaviours that can express that emotion. Many people do not know when they are angry until they reach the explosion point. Learning to identify your own anger cues will help you control your violence. (You can modify these questions to learn to identify other emotions as well, such as sadness or fear.)
- How does your body feel when you are angry? (Sad? Afraid? Happy?)
- Are the muscles tense in your neck, arms, legs, face?
- Do you sweat or get cold?
- Do you breathe deeper, faster, lighter, slower?
- Do you get a headache? A stomach-ache?
- Behavioural Signs
- How do you behave when you’re feeling angry? Do you:
- Get mean? Blame others?
- Act extra nice?
- Start laughing?
- Become sarcastic?
- Break commitments? Arrive late or leave early?
- Have difficulty eating or sleeping? Eat or sleep more?
Time-outs are a basic tool for controlling violence. They provide a structure that allows you to break abusive patterns. Time-outs not only stop the violence, they also help to rebuild trust. The rules are simple:
When you feel yourself beginning to get angry, say “I’m beginning to feel angry. I need to take time out.” In this way, you communicate directly. You take responsibility for your own feelings and assure the other person you’re committed to avoiding violence.
Leave for an hour.
Don’t drink, take drugs, or drive.
Do something physical. Take a walk, go for a run, or ride a bike. Exercise will help discharge some of the tension in your body.
Come back in an hour (no more, no less). If you live up to your agreement, it will build trust.
Check in and ask the person you were angry with if they want to discuss the situation. If you both agree, talk about what made you angry and why you needed the time out. If it’s still hard to discuss, come back to it later.
ALCOHOL AND DRUGS
Alcohol and drugs do not cause violence. However, if you already have a problem with violence, they can make it worse. Alcohol and many drugs suppress feelings. You may be less aware that you are getting angry, and thus less able to take a time-out or direct your anger appropriately. Your ability to control violent impulses may also be lessened If alcohol and drugs are a problem in your life, it is essential that your deal with your addiction if you want to stop your violent behaviour.
FEAR OF FEELING
Many survivors fear that if they open up their feelings, they’ll suddenly go out of control.
“I was terrified of my anger. I knew that if I didn’t laugh about what had happened to me, I’d go stark raving mad and kill everybody who was in my way.
Although you may indeed be very angry or very sad for a long time, those feelings don’t have to be overwhelming.
As I’ve allowed myself to feel a little at a time, I learned that the valve to feelings was neither totally open nor totally shut – totally overwhelming or totally suppressed. I could feel bad without wanting to kill myself. I could be scared without being terrified. There was a whole range of gradations. Once I stopped trying to rein my emotions in, I had more control than I thought.
When you’ve repressed feelings for a long time, it’s natural to be wary. But just because you have strong feelings doesn’t mean you’ll be unable to control yourself. Pounding pillows furiously does not mean you’ve gone berserk. In fact, actively expressing intense feelings in a safe, structured way makes it less likely that you’ll explode. Very few murderers kill their victims after coming out of a pillow-pounding session with their counsellor or support group.
CONTROLLING ABUSIVE ANGER
If you find yourself slapping your children, yelling at your co-workers, furious at your partner for the small trespasses of daily life, you’re probably misdirecting your anger. Although it may be anger triggered in the present that is appropriate to the current situation, you may also be tapping into the wells of old rage from childhood. When the two blur, you tend to react in ways that are out of proportion to what’s going on now.
As soon as you become aware that your feelings do not fit the present, take a break. Excuse yourself from the situation and try to separate the old from the new. If this is difficult, it will help to do some emotional release work so you have the opportunity to express your old rage in an active and focused way. (This is true for other feelings as well, such as feeling rejected, abandoned, or hurt.)
Violence is a way to assert power over others. It’s effective in the short run but at too great a cost. You cannot heal from the effect of child sexual abuse while continuing to perpetrate abuse on others. If you’re in a situation where you are battering or being battered, or if you find yourself repeatedly fighting or in dangerous situations, you need to stop now and get help.
Panic is what you feel when you get scared by your own emotions and don’t have the skills to calm yourself down. Or when you’re trying like mad to suppress feelings or memories. Although panic sometimes seems to come out of the blue, there is always a trigger. Often it is a reminder of your abuse that you aren‘t consciously aware of,
Randi Taylor panicked whenever she stopped at a red light. The feeling of being boxed in and unable to move reminded her of the trapped feeling she had when she was being molested. (For more of Randi’s story, see page 416.)
In a panic attack you are usually not aware of these connections. You simply feel out of control. Your heart is racing, your body feels as if it’s going to explode, you want to run. When your vision may change. You fear you’re going crazy. And not understanding what is going on only makes things worse.
Laura had her first anxiety attack when she was twenty years old.
“I was scare. I was scared about being scared, and the whole thing kept snowballing out of control. I was getting more and more terrified by the minute and I didn’t know how to find the release valve. Somehow I had the sense to call my best friend. I remember telling her on the phone, “I feel like either I’ll realize God, go insane, or kill myself” She gave me a priceless and simple piece of advice. It got me through that attack of panic and many other tight situations in the years that followed. “Breathe, Laura,” she said. “Just breathe.”
If you start to feel panicky, breathe. Sit with the feeling. Often women think they have to do something quickly to get away from the scared feeling, but this frenzy to escape can escalate your fear rather than relieve it. Don’t rush into action. Instead, reassure yourself that this is just a feeling, powerful though it may be.
Acting out of panic makes for poor choices. Putting your hand through a glass window, driving too fast, screaming at your boss, can have long-term negative consequences.
You need to call on your judgment (what you know to be true when you’re not scared) to guide you. Expressing feelings when you’re extremely frightened can free you from that fear, but only if you’re in a setting that’s safe. A therapy group is a good place to get in touch with deeply buried feelings. Driving home isn’t. You could probably drive safely while feeling some sadness or even yelling into the night, but not if you’re reliving the terror of being raped. If you decide it isn’t a good time to express or act on your feelings, take steps to calm yourself down.
The most effective way to deal with panic is to catch it early. Once the panic spirals out of control, it’s more difficult to stop, but at least you can keep yourself focused in a positive direction so you don’t hurt yourself or others.
The important thing in calming down is to do whatever works for you, even if it seems silly or embarrassing. Through trial and error, you can develop a list of things that help. Try including comfort for as many of the senses as possible (feeling, hearing, sight, taste, smell). Actually write a list and keep it handy. You don’t think as clearly or creatively when you’re in a panic. If it’s all written out, you only have to pick up your list, start at the top, and work your way down.
At sample list could look like this:
THINGS TO DO WHEN I’M DESPERATE
- Get my teddy bear
- Put on a relaxation tape
- Get in my rocking chair
- Call Natalie (write Natalie’s phone number)
- Call Vicki if Natalie’s not home. Keep calling down my list of support people. (Put their names and numbers here.)
- Stroke the cat
- Take a hot bath
- Write a hundred times: “I’m safe. I love myself. Others love me.” or “It’s safe for me to relax now.”
- Run around the block three times
- Listen to soothing music
- Yell into my pillow
- Watch an old movie on TV or read a mystery novel
- Eat Kraft macaroni and cheese
- Start again at the top
Your list will be different, but try to include reaching out to others. And you can change your list over time. As long as everything on it is safe, it will help you calm down. If you get all the way to the bottom and still don’t feel better, you can start again at the top.
When all else fails, it may help to remember something that Laura’s father always told her when things were hard: “This too shall pass.”
DON’T KILL YOURSELF
“ I’ve been very suicidal in the process of remembering, to the point where I’ve had to say to myself, « You will not go to certain places because you couldn’t resist the urge. » I felt like the lat things in my live that were important and gave me strength had been devastated. So there wasn’t anything to look forward to. It’s only been in the last few months that I’ve started to make plans again. Which means I’ve decided I want to live.”
Sometimes you feel so bad, you want to die. The pain is so great, your feelings of self-loathing so strong, the fear so intense, that you really don’t want to live. These are your authentic feelings and it is important not to deny them. It is also essential not to act on them. It’s okay to feel as devastated as you feel. It’s just not okay to hurt yourself.*
We have lost far too many women already. Far too many victims – both adults and children – have lacked adequate support and, out of despair, have killed themselves. We can’t afford to lose more. We can’t afford to lose you. You deserve to live.
Reread the chapter on anger. You have been taught to turn that anger inward. When you feel so bad that you want to die, there’s anger inside that you need to refocus toward the person or people who hurt you so badly as a child. As you get in touch with that anger, your self-hatred will dissipate. You will want to sustain your life, not destroy it.
*Many of the women whose stories appear in “Courageous Women” have felt suicidal at some point in their healing. Their words can reassure you that it’s worth staying alive.
All this takes time. In the meantime, don’t kill yourself. Get help. If the first help isn’t helpful, get other help. Don’t give up. When you feel bad enough to want to die, it’s hard to imagine that you could ever feel any other way. But you can. And will. As one survivor wrote in her journal:
“I HATE LIFE! I hate myself! I hate what I do to myself. I want to crawl into the dark earth and cover myself up. I hate that I need to remember! That I need to go through the abuse over and over again in order to let it go and find life. Why should I want to live again? How do I know it won’t just be more pain? How can anyone expect me to continue working toward something so unknown and intangible?
And yet I do. There is something inside me that must have incredible strength, because it has survived three major suicide attempts and lots of disillusioned and desparate times. And it’s still there, keeping me going, making we work, urging me to remember and fight the guilt, to get angry, to cry, to feel, and share…and share…and share! Pushing me on toward that unknown with they call life.”
If you start feeling suicidal or compelled to hurt yourself, get help right away. Make an agreement to call a counsellor or a friend if you feel you can’t control your actions. Call your local suicide prevention hotline. (Find the number before you need it).
The feelings will pass. You may think the feelings will consume you, will be absolutely unbearable. But you can learn to wait them out. It’s like a difficult childbirth. The labouring woman thinks she can’t handle another contraction, but she does. And then it passes.
Each time you are able to bear the pain of your feelings without hurling yourself, each time you are able to keep safe, to reach out for help, to befriend yourself through the anguish, you have built up a little more of the warrior spirit. You have fought the brainwashing of the abusers and won the battle. You have not let them destroy you.
CREATE A SAFE SPOT
It’s a good idea to create a safe spot in your house, a place you can go when you’re scared. Make an agreement with yourself that as long as you’re in that spot, you won’t hurt yourself or anyone else – you’ll be safe. And make an agreement that if you start to feel out of control and afraid of what you might do, you’ll go to that spot and stay there, breathing one breath at a time until the feeling passes.
Your safe spot might be a window seat on the stairway, your bed, or a favourite reading chair. Or it might be a hiding place where no one can find you. One woman spent the night sleeping in her closet on top of her shoes, something she’d done as a small child to comfort herself in a house where no place was safe.
Take your own nurturing seriously, no matter how odd it may look. When all else fails. Laura’s been known to head for bed with her teddy bear and a baby bottle full of warm milk.
CHANGE YOUR ENVIRONMENT
Consciously changing your environment can sometimes snap you out of panic. This can be as simple as leaving your bedroom and walking into the kitchen to made tea. Or you can leave your house and take a walk down the block. If you’re out in nature, looking up at the stars or trees can give you a sense of perspective.
Sometimes the things that upset you are sensory reminders of past abuse. The smell of a certain cologne, the tone of someone’s voice, the sound of corduroy rubbing together, can trigger real anxiety.
“One day I was in the kitchen, getting more and more depressed. I started trying to calm myself down, telling myself, “Okay, you’re doing fine. This’ll pass. It always does.” That didn’t help at all. I’m beginning to know how to take care of myself, so I just went back to the basics. I reminded myself to breathe, asked myself when I’d been, started cutting up vegetables for dinner – and felt worse. Finally I noticed that the light in the kitchen was really dim. I turned on an overhead light and felt better right away. That kind of dim light always makes me feel terrible. It reminds me of the house I grew up in.”
Sometimes it’s hardest to reach out when you need it the most, but give yourself a loving push to break out of your isolation. If you’re with a trustworthy person, you can ask for a hug or to be held. If you’re alone, call someone. It’s a good idea to arrange this beforehand. When you’re in that panicky place, you sometimes feel alienated, unsure why anyone would want to know you, let alone help you. If you’re in a support group member or in therapy, arrange to call a group member or your therapist. Make a contract with a friend that you’ll call each other when you’re in need. This may be the last thing you feel like doing, but remind yourself that you made the agreement for just this kind of circumstance, that it really is a good idea (even if you can’t remember why), and then pick up the phone and dial.
SOME THINGS TO AVOID
Almost anything that works is fair game in dealing with panic, but there are a few things you should avoid.
- Don’t enter stressful or dangerous situations.
- Stay off the road.
- Don’t drink or abuse drugs.
- Avoid making important decisions.
- Don’t hurt yourself or anyone else.
AFTER YOU COME DOWN
When you’re on the other side of an attack of panic, self-hatred, or despair, relax and rest a bit. Such emotional intensity is exhausting and you need to replenish your energy. When you feel Balanced again, try to determine what triggered it.
- What was the last thing you remember before you felt overwhelmed?
- Where were you? Who were you with?
- Was there anything disturbing that happened to you in the least day or two? (An upset at work? With a friend? A lover? Did you get a disturbing phone call? Piece of mail?)
- Was there a glimmer of any other kind of feeling before you lost touch with yourself? Is this something you’ve felt before?
- Are you under any unusual stresses? Time pressures? Money pressures?
- Were there thoughts in your mind that you quickly pushed away because they were uncomfortable? Were they old, familiar ones?
- Do any of these things remind you of your abuse in any way?
Sometimes questions like these can help you find the roots. It may take a series of episodes with similar dynamics before you are able to pinpoint the source, but it’s worth the work. This kind of analysis can help you avoid getting swept up in the same cycle the next time. (For in-depth examples of how two survivors dealt with panic, read Evie Malcolm’s and Randi Taylor’s stories in the “Courageous Women” sections.)
POSITIVE FEELINGS CAN BE SCARY TOO
Over time, your positive feelings will increase. Happiness, excitement, satisfaction, love, security, and hope will appear more frequently. Although these are “good” feelings, you may not be comfortable with them at first.
For many survivors, positive feelings are scary. As a child, happiness often signalled a disaster about to occur. If you were playing with your friends when your uncle called you in and molested you, if you were sleeping peacefully when your father abused you, if you were having Sunday dinner at your grandparents when you were taken by surprise and humiliated, you learned that happiness was not to be happy when you were suffering inside, happiness may feel like a sham to you still.
Even the idea that you might, at some time, feel good can be threatening. One woman said she dared not hope. As a child she hoped day after day that her father might come home cheerful, might be nice to her, and might stop abusing her. And day after day, she was disappointed. Finally, out of self-preservation, she gave up hope.
Sometimes peacefulness and contentment are the most disconcerting feelings of all. Calm may be so totally unfamiliar that you don’t know how to relax and enjoy it. Unexpected good feelings can be hard to come to terms with.
“I’d been unhappy all my life. When I remembered the incest, I finally knew shy, but I was still unhappy. Healing was a terrifying and painful experience and my life was as full of struggle and heartache as it had always been. Several years after I started therapy, I began to feel happy. I was stunned. I hadn’t realized that the point of all this work on myself was to feel good. I thought it was just one more struggle in a long line of struggles. It took a while before I got used to the idea that my life had changed, that I felt happy, that I was actually content.”
Learning to tolerate feeling good is one of the nicest parts of healing. One you get started, you may find that you want to do it a lot. Take all the opportunities that come your way. A quiet moment drinking tea in the morning. Reading your child a bedtime story. A totally engrossing movie. A call from a friend just to say hello. An omelette that turned out perfect. Notice these things. Take the risk of admitting that you feel good – first for a moment, then for longer.
Being liked, loved, and appreciated has felt threatening for many survivors. Visibility is a kind of exposure. Appreciation can bring up feelings of shame. The contrast between someone’s high opinion of you and your own self-hatred can be wrenching. And feeling positive about yourself – feeling worthy, deserving, and proud – may seem fantastically out of reach. But again, these feelings are so pleasant that you’ll find it’s worth getting used to them.
When someone pays you a compliment, try saying “Thank you” instead of immediately rattling off a list of your faults. If you receive a present, say “This makes me feel really good” If you get a raise, say “I like being acknowledged for my word.”
Although you’ve experienced a lot of pain in your life, you have a multitude of opportunities for experiencing wonderful feelings as well. Take them. You deserve to feel good.
Source : Courage to heal
Ellen Bass and Louise Thornton