As submitted for publication in Recorder Community Newspapers, September 13, 2007To move beyond a problem, try to understand how experiences affect our perceptions

We have come to rely on technology to provide us with instant answers to everything from driving directions and finding old friends to keeping track of our appointments. Like the families we live with and the suburban towns we live in, technology is an integral part of our lives. And just as our parents’ influence is evident in how we conduct our lives (often in spite of our efforts), technology undeniably shapes how we see and respond to the world.

We have problems, technology has solutions. Simply input the proper data, and voila, out comes the needed information. True, when technology doesn’t function as we expect it to, we often must work tirelessly to find an offering that will make the technology gods happy enough to give us what we seek.

Most of us carry this kind of thinking into our personal experiences, relating to our own brains as though they were computers, and, it’s frequently quite effective. In fact, I often encourage patients to use it. It can help you succeed at school or work, in financial matters, and in the social arena.

Sometimes, however, in spite of our efforts, we continue emotionally overeating; we fail to assert ourselves with a coworker; or we cannot figure out how to proceed in a relationship. Just as we do with the gods of technology, we continue to look around for more facts to feed our brains so that we can solve the problem. Unfortunately, we sometimes just get more confused and seemingly further from a solution.

A common example of this occurs when people hold back emotionally in relationships. I have treated a number of women who have either stayed single or have remained lonely even after they were married. Stacy*, for example, grew up with an emotionally distant father who eventually abandoned her stay-at-home mother, leaving her to raise their children. Stacy silently vowed never to let this fate befall her. As a result, she never allowed herself to trust in any relationship, even after she was married. As she resolved some marital issues in therapy, she inevitably found others that kept her wary of trusting her husband.

Like Stacy, when we focus “objectively” on a personal problem, we sometimes fail to fully appreciate our own biases. We believe that our problem is the result of hard facts that we can identify and address logically. When we find that we cannot improve a situation, we think that we are being held prisoner by the facts, like Stacy, who was sure she could not trust her husband. To move past our dilemma, we must understand how our experiences affect our perceptions, also like Stacy. She improved her marriage only after realizing that she had been unconsciously looking for evidence to support her belief that she would be abandoned.

Use Your Inner Voice

So, when you are ensnared in a situation, stop. Stop reworking the problem. Stop trying to fix. Stop thinking. Instead, use your emotions and inner voice (that is, the thoughts you haven’t been listening to) as a guide out of your situation. Just as we are wired to use reasoning, we are also wired to use our emotional experiences to help us.

There are some situations in which we intuitively know this. For example, if your mother dies, you accept you sadness as natural and permissible. Your sadness is not an intellectual problem to be solved.

However, emotions are often much more difficult to understand. For example, I have seen people in my office struggle with recurring sadness that they did not understand. Only after some introspection did they realize that this sadness was rooted in the death of a loved one from many years ago. Since that time, they have been vacillating between trying to ignore the sadness and effectively distracting from it. Once they came to this realization, they could allow themselves to experience the grief and begin to move through it.

As you can well imagine (or perhaps, have experienced), you cannot think your way out of grief. This is true for any emotion…whether you are in love, gripped by anger; or struggling with shame. Instead, you must work with your emotions.

Acknowledge and accept your emotions as a part of your experience. By allowing yourself to experience your emotions, your energy no longer remains tied up by your efforts to avoid them. And, that can take a lot of effort.

Hokey as it might sound, be like a Star Wars Jedi knight, that is, close your eyes to everything around you and feel the force, the inner one. Pay attention to how your body feels. Pay attention to your emotions. Pay attention to the thoughts that emerge, redirecting your solving-the-problem thoughts back to your own experience.

Do this in a quiet environment. Some people find that writing helps this process. You might journal at a prescribed time or when the spirit moves you. What are you feeling? Do these feelings remind you of another time in your life? If so, allow yourself to have that experience. If doing this feels too overwhelming, allow for that experience too.

Give yourself time. This process might need to unfold slowly, over many sessions. If you get frustrated with yourself, remember that you would not even be doing this if your emotions were easy to face. If you get stuck, really stuck, even if that doesn’t make sense (or, perhaps especially if it doesn’t make sense) consider finding a therapist to help you.

You might be wondering why you should bother becoming so aware of you emotions. “What’s the point? Feeling them won’t solve my problem.” And you’d be right. Just feeling the hurt does not, by itself, make the pain go away. However, you’ve already established that a logical, computer-like approach isn’t working either. Instead, by refocusing internally, you at least know what your problem is and you are facing it. Then you can respond to the internal problem, to the obstacle, and that’s the first step toward moving beyond it.

*Stacy is a composite of many people with whom I have worked and does not represent any one particular person.

The Recorder Newspapers has over 250,000 readers and publishes weekly editions in 19 newspapers, which cover Morris, Somerset, Essex and Hunterdon counties of New Jersey.

Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Basking Ridge, NJ