On Emotional Processing

(Epistemic status: This is probably one of the most powerful tools I’ve discovered for regulating my reactions to the world around me and quite frankly, making me a better person.)

How often are things just not right in your life? How often does something impossibly frustrating, or impossibly depressing, or anything in that space of emotional pain, happen to you? And how often is your first response to vent about it or otherwise unload about it with your friends? How often do you want your story heard, your emotions validated, and to know that you are safe within the tribe, no matter how bad it seems? For me, personally, this happens a lot. I’ve been under more stress than I imagined I ever would be over the past few months, and this has worn on me.

Unfortunately, it has also on others that care about me – I think that it is a natural drive to have help with emotional processing, to get it out of your head. I don’t think the drive itself is even wrong, or bad. I don’t think one should feel guilty for externalizing their emotional world, especially if their friends are prepared for it. What I suggest instead, is that this process can be optimized.

A lot of the problem I have when I am in emotional pain is that I lack clarity on what the nature of the problem is. I hide a lot of information from myself, especially when I am in a social situation where, to some extent, I feel obligated to make my pain “pretty”. There are additional incentive structures inhibiting my expression – I want to stay in the painful state to continue getting attention. I want to make whoever is helping me prove themselves worthy. I want the costs of the emotional labor to have been “worth it”. This leads to things where the goalposts of what I want keep moving around, and reassurances get invalidated in increasingly absurd ways. Eventually, I find myself getting frustrated and shutting down (or worse, lashing out). The process is not one that often helps, though occasionally I learn things after I reach the point of regretting my actions. However, this isn’t sustainable, nor is it fair to those around me – so I decided to find a better way to do things.

The key things that help actually make progress on emotional problems are specificity, proper scoping, and actionability. Specificity means – you know specifically what is hurting. Being able to define the bounds of why something hurts makes it much easier to interact with the pain where it is and possibly have the need met. Rather than “Everything hurts and I don’t want to exist,” or similarly broad statements, you can bring it down to “I feel like I’m forcing myself to do things I don’t believe in, and chastising myself whenever I lose motivation.” Proper scoping means that you aren’t letting the pain color everything you are thinking about or talking about – a thing that happens with me is that the emotion acts as a contagion – I might have initially been upset about failing at a specific task (say, writing some code), I ask for reassurance about my code and get it, but because I’m still in this self chastising emotional state, I start questioning the reassurance and coming up with reasons it’s not true. When pain is scoped, it means you can step out of it, knowing that the problem isn’t with all of you. Lastly, actionability means that, when all is said and done, you have an idea of what you could do differently to interact with the pain in a way that is better for you. It doesn’t strictly mean avoiding the pain, or salving it, or solving the problem stemming from it – it really varies based on the stimuli, and sometimes it’s hard. It’s much better to say “Well, I wrote that code poorly, so I’ll practice writing more code of this type until I get it” than to say “Well, I wrote that code poorly so I guess I’ll get better at coding somehow”. The reason I bring up these keys is that you don’t actually need other people to find these qualities of a given problem. Given that you are the one living your life, you have access to a lot of information other people don’t – but a lot of it is hidden when you are in pain. My solution to this has been to write everything down when I’m in these states.

Now, writing a “processing journal” requires a certain amount of introspective ability, and your mileage may vary. It might be helpful to do this in a more auditory way on your own, or perhaps through art. Writing works best for me – the process I follow is just every I feel statement that seems true at the moment, regardless of the scope or specificity. I usually end up with a lot of broad statements about how bad I think life is – but as I go, I notice some things seem truer than others, and I start honing on those. I try to think about what triggered the shift in my mood, and how it relates to the I feel statements I’ve put down, and I start writing more about what I want and what those feelings are telling me. As I go, I start feeling a little less bad and more curious – I want to explore what parts of me are generating what feelings and why. I want to hear their concerns and figure out what about my life is arranged in a way that’s misaligned. What hurts starts to become more coherent and specific, and I start being able to think about what the problem is, and ways I’d want to approach solving it. Sometimes I end up with a list of things that aren’t easy, but seem much better than just despairing. Other times, I end up with super specific actions I can just take, and find that my life improves pretty quickly. The best part though, is that usually when I’ve finished a processing session like this, I still need some input from my friends…and it becomes so much easier for them to give it. I have specific questions, a list of the things that I’ve already thought about, and much more ability to communicate and stay in the problem solving zone. Instead of somewhat antisocial venting, I find myself in a situation where I can provide actual opportunities for those that care about me to help me, and get help that I am searching for. The problems start to evolve, rather than staying stuck in a loop. I’m still quite new to making this sort of thing work, but it already has given me traction on problems that have long seemed impossible.

Overall, emotional processing doesn’t have to be a group activity – the dividends from starting with yourself as a resource and putting some work in are huge. When it does become a group activity, it becomes much much easier for others to help you, to the point that sometimes rather than incurring social debt, you end up generating social capital. Additionally, by generating clearer models of your problems rather than giving yourself the runaround, it becomes that much easier to help others with their problems. Finally, I suspect that having a record of your past internal conflicts makes it easier to see patterns and deal with the abstractions rather than just the situation, from a healthier headspace.

Discussion questions: How do you regulate your emotions? What helps processing for you – words, art, or something else entirely? What is your relationship with emotional processing and sharing pain with those around you? If you have tried something like a processing journal before, what were the benefits and drawbacks of it?

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