They Didn’t Teach Us This in High School standing header: Challenging feelings
Published 4:39 pm Tuesday, January 2, 2024
By Jo Weaver
As mentioned in the “feeling build up/act out” cycle piece, the three emotional experiences that seem to give people the most trouble are hurt, anger and fear.
When my father died during my sophomore year in high school, I was without a clue as to how to handle the barrage of feelings I would experience. The ensuing 57 years have been an attempt to identify the skills needed then and to be sure I have them at my disposal now. The “feeling triangle” was born out of many experiences.
One of the most notable involved my mother and her anger at my telling “a family secret.” As she was yelling at me, I found myself putting my arm around her shoulders and saying, “I know you’re scared.” All the fight went out of her, drained right into the floor, and I had a clear picture of how fear could fuel anger. As my biological makeup and environmental experiences would have it, I had a pretty good handle on the experience of hurt. I have often said, “I could do hurt til the cows came home.” I was without any relationship with my anger, and it was years before I was making friends with my fear.
The “Feeling Triangle” is conceptualized with anger as a second-level emotion, fueled by hurt and/or fear. If the hurt and fear fueling that anger remain unaddressed, there will be an ongoing supply. As it happens, having a facility with an emotional experience is different from having a working relationship with it. While I was very familiar with the experience of hurt, I was much less skilled in how to take care of myself when I felt it and how to avoid a repeated experience of it in certain situations and/or with certain people. I love the definition of insanity in chemical dependency circles, “Doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting it to turn out differently.” I needed to learn self-care skills and make some decisions about situations in which I allowed myself to be.
The next feeling experience to be explored was my anger. For years, I would have said I wasn’t angry. I might spill hot coffee in your lap, but I wasn’t angry. This became quite an exploration, involving many internal images of two groups of Cossacks thundering across the steppes, lances at the ready to engage in combat. Since I was so disconnected from my anger, I needed to identify something that might be a tip off that I was angry.
I discovered that when I began thinking “Bad Jo, bad Jo, did it wrong again,” I was angry. Additionally, there was a lag time between an incident and when I knew I was angry. If I wanted to work on the relationship I would have to go back sometimes, and be able to say, “You remember when… .” Eventually, the lag time got shorter, and I would sometimes know I was angry right away. I may still tamp down my anger and need to take a few minutes to figure out what is going on. For people for whom anger is a fallback position, fostering working relationships with that anger typically involves some addressment of the hurt and/or fear that is fueling it.
Last came fear, my least favorite feeling. When Hurricane Ian decimated whole communities in Florida, I was unwilling to imagine what it would be like to lose everything. That was a fear I was unwilling to explore at the time. I subsequently found myself in a situation that raised just that specter in my mind. I spent days trying to manage my fear as I took steps to make sure I was okay. When I thought of the woman in Florida who said, “I just want to sit in the corner,” I thought, “that is how I feel.”
In recent months, I have been keenly aware that people are frightened of losing their way of life. Fear appears to be rampant among us and it is sometimes difficult to determine if it is fear of something immediate or is something I am afraid of down the road. The reality of where the fear is on that spectrum can provide useful information as to how best to address it.
Each of us has a different biological makeup and a different environmental landscape growing up. Consequently, there would be different starting places and different pathways in the building of better working relationships with feelings. There will be similarities in the processes and the tools available along the way, and each journey is unique.
Jo Weaver of Zuni worked for 22 years in behavioral medicine and 18 years teaching psychology to college students. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org