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Breaking the Chains of Emotional Habits

“Becoming fully conscious of our perceptions—simply feeling what we feel and knowing what we know—is the very definition of awakening. It creates a virtually indestructible foundation for lasting relationships, successful endeavors, and inner peace.”  Martha Beck

Our emotional habits can become our emotional prison without even knowing it. They are the blind spot that everyone who knows us sees first about us, but one where we can be forever clueless. Like all habits, what we do all the time, becomes second nature to us, before we even reflect, the habit is taking over, leading us. But emotional habits are even more pervasive and in some ways harder to perceive and change because these habits are highly charged, having developed over years as a protective device to regulate our lives. My father was an angry man, even now a couple years after his death, it is what we first remember about him. Small annoyances were the fodder for his fire. Even the things that brought him pleasure like watching his favorite sports teams turned into a ranting at the screen in short order. It was when his anger served to suppress his other emotions that it became frighteningly volatile. When he was hurt, his anger became dangerous. I don’t think he ever understood his anger response as a mechanism for suppressing the other emotions that he had no other means to deal with. More sadly still, I don’t think he ever truly comprehended how this lack of insight and inability to deal with his emotions alienated him from the people he most loved and prevented us from relating to the rich complexity of who he was.

Suppressing our emotions is common to all of us. For most of us, it is such a significant aspect of our habitual makeup that it becomes a personality attribute. Whether it is through some form of denial and detachment, self medicating or like my Dad, some emotional rut that consumes our ability to perceive what is happening in and around us. For me, I recall the decades that much of my emotional experience was consumed by my anxiety and fear over the threat of abandonment or exclusion. This emotional rut, that suppressed my capacity for most other emotional experience was my hot button from early childhood when I knew this threat intimately as a potential form of annihilation. As I grew I believed that I had mastered a response mechanism strong enough to defend myself against this threat of abandonment. Actually, my emotionally charged habitual defense mechanism perpetually created situations calling this threat to me. I was completely blind to the ways I kept manifesting what I most feared and resented the people who tried to show it to me.

The problem with any form of suppressing our emotions is that we don’t really ever get away with not feeling them. In fact, our experience of the unexpressed emotions are more acute and long lasting, which explains why people who suppress more tend to be more depressed and much less able to experience positive emotions.   Worse still, not expressing what we feel not only narrows our experience of the world, but also narrows the experience that the world has with us. My father’s anger made him a caricature of himself, preventing all of us to perceive the rich, complex and brilliant mind he had. Like wise my habitual defending against being left out so dominated my social experience that most people who knew me in my earlier life had no clue as to how poetic or funny I could be.  The emotional habits that we don’t acknowledge lock us into such a narrow bandwidth that we miss much of what we most longed for when the intention to regulate our emotional life was first set.

When I think back on how I got out of that emotional habitual rut and wonder why so many people never do , it seems to me that there are two equally important events that have to come together to release the chains of these emotional habits. The first always begins with intention. When I had woken up sufficiently to see my own plight, I wanted to have a different relationship to the people I cared about most (my kids) more than anything.   Kids have a funny way of mirroring our eccentricities and blind spots so that we are given a choice.  And yet my willingness alone could probably never have broken the chains of such a powerful habit, my self regulation needed a new form. It was about this time that I learned a new habit of re-thinking my emotional response. It was clumsy at first, I would notice myself reacting in my habitual way to my anxiety and then I would talk out loud to myself about what I was noticing. It was almost like re-parenting myself, slowing down my knee jerk reaction and reassuring myself that the situation might not be what I thought. By giving myself more time and support to process the emotional habit I was able to interrupt the cycle so I could see the situation from a larger and truer perspective.

Slowly and arduously this attention created more time and space in my emotional response and my defense mechanism shifted little by little to a new ability to reassess my emotions. As I learned to more clearly perceive myself and the relationships that made me anxious, some of them went away, which gave me a lot of opportunities to practice a new response. Amazingly only a couple of years later, I barely can recognize that emotional habit as my own. It has been completely reinvented with a more authentic and honest version of myself that has almost eliminated the threat of being excluded.  As I have been able to expand into feeling and perceiving the wide range of experiences that life is really made of, I have become more myself.  And a happier, more contented me.

What is keeping you from cutting the chains of your emotional habits?  It’s probably not worth it.