In this groundbreaking book, Janice Berger takes us on a fascinating voyage into the very centre of our emotional selves. She reveals how we can engage and cooperate with the natural emotional healing power we all possess in order to lead more fulfilling lives and enjoy more satisfying, vibrant relationships.
Honest, illuminating and free from jargon, Emotional Fitness demystifies emotional health and demonstrates clearly how we can live our lives with personal clarity and inner freedom.
About the author
Janice Berger, M.Ed., is a pioneer in Deep Emotional Processing Therapy®. She has been a psychotherapist for over 30 years, helping individuals reclaim themselves and become more conscious, clear and whole. She has lectured on emotional health issues, hosted two television series on the topic and given many radio, television and print media interviews. Her practice is at Janice Berger & Associates in Newmarket, Ontario, Canada.
Excerpt: Emotional Fitness: Discovering Our Natural Healing Power (by (author) Janice Berger)
our natural emotional healing power revealed
Imagine feeling good about yourself and feeling in charge of your life, saving energy by being open, direct and honest in your communication and seeking others who are able to be this way too, feeling free inside and exercising choice in making decisions, facing conflict openly and standing up for yourself. Imagine allowing and accepting all of your feelings and coming to know and like who you are.
What is our natural emotional healing power?
Our natural emotional healing power is our capacity to feel through whatever is happening to us. We all possess this capacity. It is available to us at any age. Many of us do not know how to use it because it was interfered with or unsupported when we were infants and young children. If we did not know how to use it then, we have difficulty allowing our children to use it to have their feelings now.
Think of a baby with its whole body involved in a raging cry. This baby is engaged with its innate healing power and is healing. I believe an infant will recover from any hurts, emotional or physical, by spontaneously and totally discharging its emotions if it is supported and not stopped. In her book The Aware Baby Aletha Solter notes that “Babies learn to suppress their crying very easily if they are not given the necessary undivided attention when they cry.”
We would not suffer so greatly as adults if, as children, we had been allowed to have our feelings and to experience them fully with support. If we had been allowed to fully discharge our feelings at the time of traumatic incidents (whether major or minor) we would not carry the residue of these feelings into our adult life. Our natural emotional healing power would have worked.
Without this complete discharge, the accumulation begins and our natural healing power keeps attempting to help us finish the feelings. This is why a three-year-old may be inconsolable because someone gives her the blue cup instead of the yellow. She is crying about all the accumulated disappointments of her young life and her reaction seems out of proportion to this minor incident. But if she is allowed to cry all that she needs to now, with a parent’s loving presence, then her next upset will more likely be just about that upset. She will have cleared out the accumulated pain.
Fully experiencing our emotions brings relief, completion and insight and allows us to move on in our lives. Many of us do not know that suppressing and repressing our feelings causes our suffering. We suppress our feelings when we deliberately hold them back; we repress them when we unconsciously hold them. Knowing that we cannot get over our pain until we get into it is an essential key to emotional health. It is not the pain itself that causes our suffering; it is blocking the pain that hurts so much. This kind of suffering can be compared to a boil that needs to be lanced: when the boil is pierced, there is immediate relief. So too is there relief when we get into our pain. It will be “yucky”; there will be work to be done to clean it all up, and there no doubt will be a scar left, but scars do not hurt.
Completing feelings means feeling them when they arise until we are free of them. This means taking the time to feel as soon as possible after the feelings present themselves. It is obvious that we cannot follow all our feelings in public places, but we do need a safe place in our home that we can retreat to. Needless to say, the older we are when we start to cooperate with our natural healing power, the more accumulated pain we have to clear. Still, it is better late than never. Even people in their sixties and seventies who have had a lot to grieve about their lost potential would not want to return to the confusion and suffering of their lives before they learned to feel more fully.
Our natural emotional healing power is potent and ever-present. It continually affords us the opportunity to deal with our incomplete feelings and is constantly trying to function to heal us. Again and again we find ourselves triggered by similar people and situations. The same feelings recur. However, we have not always known that their recurrence is our opportunity to finish with them. Unless we know how to use our natural healing power, it will cause us trouble. We will feel jerked around by our feelings or depressed and not in charge of our lives.
There is more and more scientific evidence to support the existence of this power. For example, researchers have found a chemical difference between emotion-induced tears and irritant-induced tears from wind or onions. William Frey, a biochemist, has concluded that tears help to relieve stress by eliminating certain stress-related chemicals from our body. Arthur Janov and Willliam Frey found the stress hormone ACTH as well as endorphins in tears, which “help remove the biochemical aspects of stress and are therefore a biological necessity.” The point is that emotionally induced tears heal.
The ability to experience feelings is a central part of what makes us human and this ability is now being linked scientifically not only to emotional health but to physical health as well. As neuroscientist Candace Pert writes in her recent book Molecules of Emotion, “Health and happiness are often mentioned in the same breath and maybe this is why: Physiology and emotions are inseparable.” She also notes that “sometimes the biggest impetus to healing can come from jump-starting the immune system with a burst of long-suppressed anger.”
Our culture has not encouraged us to trust ourselves and to cooperate with our natural healing power; rather it has taught us that we need to know external things in order to solve our problems. True knowledge and understanding come when we have felt through the held feelings that have unconsciously influenced our decisions and led us to sabotage ourselves in various ways. This does not mean that we do not use our brains to solve our problems; it just means that we are freer to use our brains well. Our natural healing power frees us in this way.
Each life is like a tapestry
In the tapestry of our lives each thread stretches back as far as we do. Along these threads of our experience there are knots of held feelings. These are feelings we were unable to complete; that is, feel completely because we did not feel safe enough to do so. They reside as unfinished business inside each of us, awaiting their opportunity to be unravelled and resolved. As we go about our daily lives we get triggered and catapulted unconsciously back to another time when we were unable to finish with the feelings. When we remain unaware that this is what is happening we do not understand ourselves—and we do not take advantage of our natural healing power at work. We are tied in knots. We are exhausted.
In the 1930s world-famous neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield first stimulated certain cells of the temporal lobe with an electrode and dramatically demonstrated that memories exist in their entirety. His patients would relive events and emotions from the past while conscious—they would see the images, hear the sounds, smell the smells, and laugh and weep. They ceased to be in the memory when the electrode was removed. We begin to make sense of our lives when we understand that everything that has ever happened to us is still with us today.
Trusting in our natural emotional healing power
It is difficult to trust in a power that has been so ignored, misunderstood and even ridiculed in our culture. Yet more and more evidence suggests that suppression and repression take effort and so take a toll on our bodies, leading to stress-related disorders. In her very helpful book Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom Christiane Northrup notes that “if we don’t work through our emotional distress, we set ourselves up for physical distress because of the biochemical effect that suppressed emotions have on our immune and endocrine systems.”
We learn to trust our intrinsic healing power the more we notice it working for us. Many of us have had some experience with the relief that comes when we finally say something we have needed to say. We have experienced feeling better after crying or expressing anger. When we have discharged our feelings and made connections that make sense of our lives, we have newfound energy. We come to understand that this feeling power keeps us clear about our lives, keeps us living in the moment and keeps us living without pretence or illusions. This does not mean we will always be happy, but it does mean that we can come to appreciate feeling our full range of emotions. It means we will be more authentic; we will know who we are and we will feel alive.
Feelings as signals
Since our culture has adulated logic and reason and denigrated emotions, few of us have learned to really listen to our feelings and to use them as guides for our lives. When there is a decision to be made it is more likely that we will stay up in our heads, listening to the “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts.” We may wonder what others will think of our decision or we may concoct elaborate rationalizations to support what we decide to do. A war goes on between our head and our gut.
We need to be aware of the lack of coherence between our minds and bodies and use it to pay attention to what is really going on. Sometimes this will alert us to guilt feelings that are appropriate for the present because we may be avoiding obligations that are real in our relationships. On the other hand, guilt may be present because we carry a load of it from our past, which weighs us down. Many of us have a very active voice within us that edits and censors our feeling response to the world. However, feelings are not right or wrong, they just are. It is imperative that we stop judging our feelings and instead treat them as important signals worth listening to and feeling to their fullest.
When we suppress the reality that our feelings are signalling to us we split off from them, and therefore from our true selves. We do not know who we are or why we really do what we do. We just keep going. Our natural healing power keeps presenting us with our feelings in our relationships, in our perplexing, obsessive thoughts and drives, in our anxieties, in our depressions and in our frightening dreams. We cannot get our lives the way we want them to be. This is when we need to take notice and then acknowledge that we have been blocking our innate ability.
Can I always trust my feelings?
Feelings are always accurate but they are not always appropriate to the current situation. If the strength of the feeling is too big, then we can become aware that the bigness of that feeling is coming from somewhere back in our experience. If a feeling of rage comes up when our child annoys us, for example, we must use our intelligence and our caring to take responsibility for the size of that feeling and to know that our child is not responsible for it. Our big feelings are something we need to own as ours and to explore further, away from our children. Trusting that our feelings mean something, even though they may not be appropriate in the current context, gives us access to our natural emotional healing power.
Our natural emotional healing power is revealed in our over and underreactions
Overreactions are feelings that are bigger than the current situation calls for. There is a pinball effect wherein the current situation ignites old pain, reminding us of incomplete feelings, unfinished business that needs our attention. When these old unfinished feelings bounce off each other and resonate with the present feeling we often feel bewildered by our own responses.
Sarah offers to drive her aunt to a funeral and to stay with her for support during the service, although the deceased is a complete stranger. At the graveside Sarah finds herself sobbing. She is hugely embarrassed and has no idea why she is so overwhelmed with sadness.
Like Sarah, we may feel confounded by our feelings when they are big and inexplicable. We find ourselves yelling at the kids when we know they do not deserve it, we cry at work and do not know why, or we rage without reason. We may feel swamped with yearning, seduced by adulation or overwhelmed with anxiety. These overreactions push us to heal old wounds through our natural healing power and can be welcomed. When we notice these overreactions, feel them as fully as we can and connect them to their source, they begin to lose their intensity. Parents who continue to shout at their children need to take responsibility for the size of their anger. Sarah needs to trust that her tears do mean something; our natural healing power requires that Sarah allow the sad feelings to be felt, for only then can she begin to make a connection with what her feelings are really all about.
In their book Giving the Love That Heals Harville Hendrix and Helen Hunt state, “When a parent does experience intense, nonrational, mystifying reactions to certain encounters or experiences with his children, that’s a signal that he needs to ask himself some questions.” This is an opportunity for us to take responsibility for our feelings and engage our natural healing power. When we suspect or know that our feelings are too big for the current situation we can say to ourselves, “I wonder what this is all about for me?”
Underreactions, although much more difficult to recognize, also herald unfinished business. Underreactions involve an absence of emotions where one would expect to have feelings, a lack that results in passive behaviour. Underreacting is an enormous protection, saving us from the overwhelming feelings underneath. When we understand it as a protection we can notice it and feel its defensive strength. When we do this enough we loosen it and begin to be able to feel the underlying feelings. Our healing process begins when we start taking responsibility for our underreactions.
It is quite common for someone who generally underreacts to eventually blow and overreact. This happens when the feelings simply cannot be contained any longer. Breakouts and breakdowns are the price we pay for living a life of underreacting. Underreacting is a dangerous defense since our natural emotional healing power, contained, will find a crevice to explode the repressed feelings into our world. The uncontrolled nature of these feelings frightens us and those nearby. We most often do not use it as an opportunity to cooperate with our healing capacity because we have internalized the need to clamp down on it. When we do cooperate with it, however, we reverse this unhealthy, cyclical process and begin to heal.
We may not know when we are underreacting, and friends and family who care about us might tell us when we are tolerating something that is definitely not good for us. If we find ourselves defensive when they do this it is another signal that there is something here needing our attention. Our defensiveness is a protection against feeling something we do not want to feel. When we admit this to ourselves we can notice our defensiveness and our underreaction, and realize that there are feelings being held back.
We underreact and tolerate something unhealthy because it is familiar to us; we learned to tolerate a long time ago because we had no control as children. One of my clients was completely permissive with her children and had a chaotic and unhappy household as a result. When she connected with how her needs and wants had never been attended to in her young life and how it made her feel that they were unimportant, she realized that she was tolerating and that this was harmful not only to her children but to herself. She gradually felt more entitled and became more responsible for setting boundaries for herself and her children. With the help of her husband and her children she was able to work out a more fair approach to sharing responsibilities, a way in which everyone’s needs could be addressed.
Indifference, the inability to enjoy and passive behaviour patterns all point to underreacting. Yet responding appropriately to a situation is made more difficult in our culture by the fact that underreacting is often seen as a virtue. For example, when someone does not cry at a funeral of a loved one it may be said that she behaved well; Jackie Kennedy was described as “magnificent” at her husband’s funeral. Crying is perceived as weak and the one who does not cry is considered the “strong one.” This confusion about strength and weakness in our culture keeps us valuing underreacting. We are often uncomfortable with displays of feeling because witnessing such displays unconsciously takes us closer to our own pain, which we are wanting to keep out of our awareness.
Although many of my clients come to see me because they are overwhelmed by feelings they do not understand, others come because feeling flat and blue overwhelms them. Depression is a kind of underreacting; sitting on feelings that are too painful to experience. When we hold in painful feelings we deaden everything; we cannot feel our joy and love if we are depressing ourselves by holding anger or sorrow.
When Angela entered my office she had been depressed for about two years and was confused and discouraged about feeling this way. She was married to a successful man who provided her and her family with every material comfort. She felt ungrateful because she continued to feel bad despite her husband’s efforts to please her.
As Angela unravelled her feelings from the past she began to realize that by trying to make her mother’s life right she had never had the chance to be who she was. She had never allowed herself to know the rage she felt about her father’s compulsive gambling or her mother’s need to escape to her job and leave Angela to care for the other children. Angela bitterly resented her parents’ adulation of her husband and their lack of recognition of her. As she felt through the very difficult feelings from her past, her rage and her sorrow, she began to come alive to the possibilities of her own life. She began to take risks to be herself, to look after herself and enjoy her life.
It is common to feel depressed and not know why. We often feel ashamed because there seems to be no apparent reason for us to feel this way. Like Angela, we may have everything we have been led to believe will bring us happiness, yet we feel terrible. Little feelings have large roots; we will alleviate our depression when we connect with and fully feel the feelings that we are repressing.
I’m not good enough . . . I’m bad. . . I don’t deserve . . . It’s my fault . . . I’m unlovable. . . It must be me; there must be something wrong with me . . .
Raw emotional wounds are often hidden from our conscious awareness and we flinch as people in our lives may unwittingly flick salt in them. This reaction is actually our natural healing power being revealed—and we can engage with it. Unfortunately, when we do not understand this we often get stuck in blaming those who trigger the pain of these old wounds.
Jessie habitually sought appreciation from her husband and friends and when they did not respond with enough gratitude an old wound was aggravated. The more Jessie tried to get what she needed the more helpless her husband and friends felt ever to please her and the angrier she and they became. In therapy Jessie described a childhood filled with four noisy brothers and a sick, demanding mother. When she came to recognize that her husband and friends were triggering her into this long-ago time when her small childish efforts were unappreciated, she was able to take responsibility for her present feelings and to begin to grieve and rage about how her needs were not met as a child.
No one in the present can ever give us what we did not get in the past. Not knowing this really messes up a lot of relationships. For example, many of us have the romantic expectation that our life partner will make us feel good and meet all our needs. The problem occurs when we do not realize that many of these needs are not appropriate. They are our unmet needs from the past erupting into our current relationship.
Until recently we have not known how to help children feel through their traumas. As a result, I have never met anyone who was lucky enough not to have any internal raw wounds stemming from painful childhood experiences. If we are not helped as children to feel through traumas as they occur we will carry these wounds into our adult lives. And these wounds drive us. We may insist that we are okay, that “there’s nothing wrong with me”; nevertheless, we may be blindly acting in a destructive way toward others and ourselves. Consider the hockey parent who would risk his life to save his child from a burning building but who regularly humiliates his child with unrealistic expectations and scathing criticism. This parent who loves his child is out of control, driven unconsciously to fix his old sense of worthlessness with his present expectations.
The way out of the deadly trap of hurting the children we love is to begin to understand how our present pain is connected to our past and to take responsibility for our strong feelings or lack of feelings. We will no longer expect someone else to fix us and soothe our pain when we use our natural healing power to feel and integrate our old hurts. Without this healing we will not be free to be exactly who we are, we will not be clear to behave as loving parents and we will not be able to be more whole and in charge of our lives.
There are many signs that indicate to us that feelings are pressing to be resolved: when we are feeling compulsive or obsessive about anything, when we are responding inappropriately, when our feelings are too big or too little for the current situation, when the same feeling recurs again and again. Irritability, forgetfulness, confusion and the inability to concentrate may indicate something is pressing to be felt. Insomnia, headaches and many other body signs also inform us that time is needed to feel what is going on.
I learned that, for me, confusion often masked anger. I did not want to face my anger, since I had been conditioned to believe it was unacceptable. But once I understood this phenomenon I found I could go through the confusion very quickly to feel what, indeed, I was so mad about. Later I grieved how hurtful my conditioning had been and how it had kept me from knowing my feelings and therefore, myself. Now I no longer need to displace my anger and berate myself for being confused; I recognize that my confusion is a signal and I pay attention.
As we take advantage of our natural power for emotional healing we realize that everything we sense and feel is a possible door to go through. This does not mean that we need constantly to be aware of processing our feelings, but it does mean that we can be conscious of the doors and go through them when we can.