Low Bandwidth Version
Learning to Process Emotions
by Gary Reiss, LCSW
One of the biggest problems that people bring to therapy is not
knowing what to do with a wide range of feelings, including sadness, anger,
ecstasy, fear, and depression. Many visits to medical doctors are attempts to
deal with feelings unable to be expressed or released. For example, imagine a
woman getting a divorce. She is in favor of the divorce, but can't stop crying
for days. Many men have similar problems after their relationships break up.
Such feeling problems are quite common. Learning how to work with our feelings
is a basic area of growth. What does one do with sadness to help it complete
Some somatic problems are actually feeling problems. I once was
going through a time of rapid change in my life where I wasn't interested in
feeling much in my body, particularly any pain. I just wanted to keep going and
not deal with all that was happening. At that time I went to get some dental
work. The dentist made me a crown that was a bit high, and my jaw muscles went
into terrible spasms. Suddenly, I was in incredible pain, feeling all of the
different parts of my life that were painful, not just my jaw.
One night when the pain was the worst, I was supposed to meet
some people with whom I had painful relationship issues. They showed up at our
house and I had so much pain in my jaw I literally couldn't open my eyes for
several minutes. When we finally talked, all I could focus on was my pain. I
began to tell them about my pain -- my jaw pain, then all my pain in our
relationship. At that point, the jaw pain left and didn't return for months. A
few months later I was avoiding a painful relationship process, and my jaw hurt
so much that I had to let out my feelings in the relationship and feel them
completely. Again the pain got better. These were body sensations and emotions
needing to be felt and released.
There are many ways to help people express their feelings. The
simplest thing to say and the most difficult to do is just have them and
believe in them. There is definitely a moment of choice when you notice you
are having a feeling and then can do something with it. Imagine that you are
feeling sad. What if, instead of turning on the television, you really go into
that sadness and feel it in your body. Focus on the physical sensation of
sadness. Often this is enough to let the tears flow. Or let's say that you are
feeling scared. You can take a drink, call a friend to avoid these feelings, or
really have them and learn about them. How do you experience the fear? Do you
feel hot, cold, do you shake? Can you let yourself shake a little bit? These are
simple ways to begin to notice and experience our feelings.
Dealing With Anger
Anger is often the hardest feeling for people. Sometimes doing
something physical helps with anger. I have helped teenagers stay in school and
out of juvenile hall by finding a way to deal with anger. Popular ways include
splitting wood, pounding on a pillow or boxing bag, getting involved in contact
sports, throwing rocks or wood in the forest, and practicing verbal skills to
express anger. I remember one boy who progressed from hitting teachers to
pounding lockers. Later he was able to walk away from conflict and finally he
could stay and process verbally. Many of these skills can be practiced at home.
Like any art, dealing with anger requires practice to be perfected. Many people
use their cars as private places to let out their feelings. Screaming in your
car when going down the highway offers some privacy if you can drive and scream
at the same time. Individuals process their feelings in the style that best
suits their personality. Some people do best by hiding in their room and quietly
suffering. Other people need to write or draw. I have a friend who can always
release blocked feelings by writing songs. My closest friend in junior high
school worked out his frustration on his drum set.
Let the River Flow
When feelings are present, why not let them flow? One of the
problems with therapy is that many people only get to certain feelings with the
support of a therapist. This doesn't work if feelings are ready to be released
on a day and time different from one's appointment. I say, let the river flow. I
myself am against pushing feelings out. Certain therapies access strong feelings
through breathing exercises, pounding, or standing in certain physical postures.
This could be helpful if a person needs to access feelings and can't reach the
feelings on their own. For example, someone might be unable to cry and mourn a
death. In such a case, any approach that helps the person release these feelings
will be a relief.
For a more regular self-maintenance program, it can be helpful
to express feelings as they arise naturally. Have a bad day at work? Find a way
to consciously release those feelings, rather than taking them out on yourself,
at the local bar, or on your spouse or child or dog. Give yourself a therapy
session at home -- go to your private space and let loose with whatever wants to
come out. This is also a useful tactic during a fight. Let's say you are really
in a terribly upset mood with your partner and just about to explode. Why not
assess for a minute if this is really what you want to do. Are the feelings with
your partner, or are they perhaps with someone else, or with yourself? Are they
leftover feelings from last night's dream? If so, why not release them yourself?
At home we are lucky to have a separate space where I see
clients. I have saved myself a lot of relationship grief by giving myself a
session in that room. It is also soundproof enough that the only ones who hear
me are the horses, so I can really let go. If the feelings are really with our
spouse, or with a child or a friend, it is useful to deal with them directly,
but it is a relief not to have to work something out with a person if the river
isn't flowing that way.
Myths About Anger
Co-Dependent No More, Melody Beattie lists several assumptions that
keep people from expressing their anger. They include:
• It's not okay to feel angry.
• Anger is a waste of time and energy.
• We shouldn't feel angry when we do.
• We'll lose control and go crazy if we get angry.
• People will go away if we get angry at them.
• Other people should never feel anger toward us.
• If others get angry at us, we must have done something
• If other people are angry at us, we made them feel that way
and we're responsible for their feelings.
• If we feel angry, someone else made us feel that way and
that person is responsible for fixing our feelings.
• If we feel angry at someone, the relationship is over and
that person has to go away.
• If we feel angry at someone, we should punish that person
for making us feel angry.
• If we feel angry at someone, that person has to change what
he or she is doing so we don't feel angry any more.
• If we feel angry, we have to hit someone or break
• If we feel angry, we have to shout and holler.
• If we feel angry at someone, it means we don't love that
person any more.
• If someone feels angry at us, it means that person doesn't
love us any more.
• Anger is a sinful emotion. It's okay to feel angry only
when we can justify our feelings.
Like all myths, on occasions some of these reasons may have
some truth, but most often they do not. However, many of us live as if these are
facts. There are similar assumptions about other feelings, such as: men who cry
are weak, men shouldn't be scared, women shouldn't be too aggressive, if you go
into your sadness you might not be able to function, and so forth.
Positive Effects of Expressing Feelings
I have created a summary of positive effects of expressing
feelings to balance some of our ideas about negative effects. Finding a healthy
way to express feelings is good for your health and can prevent psychosomatic
ailments. There is evidence linking emotional factors to a range of physical
problems including asthma, arthritis, cancer, ulcers, allergies, and other
One of the most dramatic improvements I have seen was with a
woman who came to one of my classes when I first started teaching dreamwork. She
had developed a problem in one of her legs when she was taking her daughter to
meet a plane. Suddenly, she couldn't walk on one leg. She was scheduled for
surgery the following week. We worked on her feelings about her daughter, and as
the anger and hurt came out, her leg suddenly got better.
Another time a man carried his wife, who was a client of mine,
into the office. She was having such terrible back pain she couldn't walk. After
releasing a lot of feelings and making some decisions about a job situation, she
walked out of the office. Another time I was working with a teenager who was
scheduled for surgery for an abdominal problem. We worked on this symptom. She
began pounding on a pillow and letting out incredible rage against her father.
That week when she went to the doctor for a pre-surgery exam, the condition was
gone and didn't return. This instant disappearance of a symptom is certainly not
the norm -- sometimes it takes a very long time for psychological work like this
to help move physical symptoms, in cooperation with physicians, chiropractors,
and other healing practitioners. Sometimes conditions don't get better at all,
but these few cases are powerful enough to point out the positive effects of
Expressing emotions can help make for rich and interesting
relationship experiences, and emotions are an important part of forming intimate
connections. In fact, for many people, being able to freely express their
feelings with someone is the turning point in having a deeper connection.
People who can express their emotions free up energy to do other
things in life. Being open with one's feelings is often an important ingredient
in accessing one's own creativity.
People who are able to express their emotions freely are less
likely to become addicted to alcohol or drugs. Many of the addicts I have worked
with needed their drugs or alcohol to help them deal or not deal with difficult
People who can process emotions deal more constructively with
grieving. Losing people close to you through someone dying or the death of a
relationship is difficult for everyone, but people who can feel and express
their feelings handle these situations much more effectively than those who
can't express them.
Those who process emotions regularly are less prone to emotions
coming out in uncontrolled ways, so these people tend to feel more in control of
themselves. This is in contrast with people who are without emotionality until
they explode in ways that are inappropriate and cause pain and damage in their
Whether it is emotional development, learning to work with
dreams, spiritual development, or developing the health of one's physical body,
I have found people make incredible progress just by learning to value and give
time and energy to the growing aspect of one's life. Once I was at a conference
on different methods of working with symptoms. I noticed all the teachers
deferring to the wisdom of one man, Sun Bear, a Native American teacher. This
experience led me to study with Sun Bear and other Native American teachers
whose traditions have a tremendous wealth of knowledge in the fields of healing
body, mind, and spirit. Sun Bear teaches people the importance of keeping
emotionally clear. He has a beautiful method that I recommend to everybody. He
tells people to go out, preferably into the forest for privacy, or wherever you
feel comfortable in nature, and dig yourself a hole in the ground. Then you lay
flat on the ground with your head over the hole and scream your feelings and cry
and speak whatever needs to come out into that hole. The final step is to take a
seed, place it in the hole, and cover it up with dirt, therefore symbolically
composting your negative feelings and helping plant something that can grow. I
have tried this method and at times have found it very effective.
One time my wife and I were visiting another medicine man who
told us that, in his tradition, people go up on in the mountains and scream out
all of their pain. These healing traditions have helped people for centuries.
The catharsis that goes on in a modern therapist's office is no different than
screaming on a mountain. I find all of these approaches useful, and as
emotionally repressed as our culture is, any or all of these approaches offer
important ways to balance and compensate for too much importance placed on
intellectual development and material well-being.
When I first moved to my small town, I met with a doctor who was
known for his progressive views. He asked me how I could help some of his
patients who were depressed. Most of the people he was talking about worked in
the mills. When I talked with him about helping his patients explore and express
the feelings in their depression and then to make life changes based on this
work, he looked at me with distress and said "You can't do this with these
people." The doctor believed in the old myth that if people get in touch with
their emotional reality, they would not be able to continue in their present
lives. He believed that I might help them emotionally, but only at the cost of
their lives falling apart. After several years of working with people in
situations similar to the ones he described to me, I find that his concerns were
more myth than fact. When people are in touch with their feelings, they have
more choices. They can make wholesale changes in their lives, or incremental
changes, or no change at all. They know, though, what they are feeling, and this
helps them live their lives in ways that give them more satisfaction.
For example, I'm thinking of a man who told me he didn't like
his job. He even knew what kind of feeling the job tended to produce in him that
made him want to change jobs. He did not fall apart and stop functioning.
Instead he made some very intelligent decisions. He decided to keep working,
since he had to feed his family, but to remain aware of his unhappiness and
begin searching for new job possibilities. He began researching the outer job
market and searching in his heart for a career that was really right for him.
There are many stories like this one. People who process their
feelings are better employees, not worse ones. They take fewer sick days and
tend to stay with their jobs longer because they don't need to leave just
because they have some negative feelings towards the job or their supervisor.
Dealing With Body-Centered Feelings
Another part of dealing with feelings is to be aware of and find
the meaning locked in sensations and feelings in our physical bodies. In process
work we call this the proprioceptive channel.
There are several ways to deal with this when working on
yourself. One way I have learned is common both to Gestalt work and process
work. This is the simple method of feeling and amplifying the feeling. One way
to do this is to get comfortable and start feeling what is happening in your
body. When you find something interesting -- maybe a tight spot, or a place you
feel heat, or an itch, make this feeling happen even more. If you feel
tightness, tighten more. If something itches, focus on the itch. If you feel
heat, experiment with letting the heat spread throughout your body. In Gestalt,
one just lets whatever happens go along on its own. In process work, there are
some ideas about structure that can guide us. One can try switching channels. If
you have a feeling, try making a picture of this feeling, or let the feeling go
into movement, or maybe sound. Let the feeling move through all the different
The difficulty with switching channels is why people often get
stuck in one form of expression, such as always being angry, or always crying.
People are stuck in one channel -- they can hit but not say angry things, they
can cry but not talk about their sadness, they can have lots of pictures of
confronting someone but not do it.
Another useful concept in inner work is that of the edge. Let's
say you are feeling your body and suddenly you feel an itch. As you focus on the
itch, you start to feel a bit sexual, and then you get feel like going to make a
phone call rather than have that uncomfortable feeling. This was an edge.
Something became uncomfortable or unknown. Experiment with holding yourself at
that point, finding out what exactly the edge is, for you. If it is right for
you, try going over that edge, having those feelings, and finding out what they
I remember one of the most shocking pieces of work I ever did on
myself. I started working on myself by just noticing what I was feeling. Then I
started feeling scared, and suddenly I started feeling turned on sexually. It
felt really uncomfortable, and I was about to go read a book to avoid the
feeling, but somehow I held myself at this edge. Suddenly I began to feel the
most amazing love for all the people of the world, for every human being on this
planet. I was shocked by the intensity of the experience. When we work on
ourselves, holding down our edges is important. Uncomfortable feelings will come
up, and behind these feelings are rich experiences trying to come forth.
You can also work on your physical problems with this same
method of meditating on a problem, feeling it, and taking it into other
channels. Draw it, sculpt it in clay, or make visual images. Take the symptom
into movement, or sound. Sometimes just working in this way can help symptoms
improve. When material is accessed, understood, and integrated, whether the
original material is a dream, a body symptom, or a relationship problem, the
boat starts moving down the river again.
If you want to go even a step further in working with your
symptoms, imagine that you were not the victim but the creator of the symptom.
What kind of force are you who is creating the symptom? Are you a monster, a
witch, a disciplinarian? What is the meaning behind the symptom? How do you want
the part of yourself that is a victim of this symptom to change? Now you have
gone beyond processing the details of the problem; you are picking up the deeper
meaning behind your symptom.
article is excerpted from Changing Ourselves, Changing the World, ©2000,
by Gary Reiss. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, New Falcon
Info/Order this book.
About the Author
Gary Reiss, LCSW, is a licensed
clinical social worker and has his diploma in process-oriented psychology. One
of Gary's special interest in process work includes conflict work. He regularly
appears on radio shows to talk about working on issues of racism, diversity and
many other topics. Visit his website at
Printer Friendly Page