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My eldest goddaughter is three and an absolute joy. However, like all toddlers, there’s been many times when she goes into meltdown mode, screaming, kicking, and rejecting all attempts to reason with her. In these times her parents always remind her to “use your words.” Over time this has been something I, too, have learned. Expressing my emotions healthily allows me to voice my internal situation without using damaging behaviours.
When I am hit by an urge to hurt myself, go back to using eating disorder behaviors, or isolate myself, I say to myself “use your words.”
Why do I want to do this in this moment? What is it I actually feel? It came as a surprise to me to learn that wanting to punish myself wasn’t an emotion, but a response to emotions.
This understanding then naturally leads to a curiosity around what the roots of these thoughts are and helps in three main ways:
1. I can take a step back.
Somehow naming it makes the urge less all-consuming and the negative response less inevitable. If the urges and thoughts I’m experiencing result from an emotion and not just an overwhelming entity, then maybe there’s another way out. Maybe I’m not as trapped in those transient thoughts as I feel.
Identifying these emotions allows us to separate ourselves from them and gives us the opportunity to make more rational decisions about how to move forward in the moment.
2. I can identify the root.
Knowing the nature of an emotion enables us to deal with the actual cause of how we feel as opposed to just pushing away or even processing the resulting feelings. We can deal with the whys and look at the triggers for our urges.
Being a medical student, I often think of emotions as like symptoms: while your nighttime cough seems to be the issue, it’s actually just an indicator of your underlying asthma. Merely treating the symptoms is possible, but doesn’t improve your overall health like managing the underlying condition does.
After all, emotions are there to communicate something to us. We can learn what’s important to us when we feel something isn’t okay, when we need to make a different decision.
When we simply give into the urge without taking the time to dig underneath it, we miss out on huge opportunities to improve our situations and learn more about ourselves.
3. My feelings can be validated.
So often I’ll fly from situation to situation without stopping to consider my internal responses to the events or if I do, dismissing them for one reason or another. This leads to difficulty because, in most circumstances, pain cries out to be felt.
We cannot ignore or dismiss what we feel. There’s such relief even in quietly speaking out to myself or writing down emotions in my journal.
Whether or not we may like them, expressing these emotions gives us an opportunity to accept them.
They are what they are. Hating the fact we feel anxious or sad is never going to make us feel any less depressed or fearful.
Identifying and acknowledging my emotions is a huge part of what I’ve been working on with my therapist over the last couple of years. When we began I was completely unable to know what I felt as I so rapidly cut off the emotion to numb out. Slowly, over months of hard work, I’m beginning to be able to interpret my feelings and there’s incredible, surprising power in naming the emotions that underlie my urges.
Despite this, we need to be gentle with ourselves and realistic in recognizing sometimes we won’t be able to identify what it is we’re feeling.
Sometimes the emotion will stay a mystery. That’s okay too. We are learning and growing and this is really hard.
I remember after a particularly challenging discussion, my therapist told me “if you’re going to hurt yourself when you go home, at least do so mindfully.” This was a bit of an oxymoron for me because being present as opposed to numbing out guides me towards healthier decisions and so much more helpful than simply being told ‘don’t do this!’. It’s important to take it a step at a time, to know change doesn’t happen overnight.
Next time you want to use an unhealthy coping mechanism, I challenge you to gently, non-judgmentally think to yourself “how can I ‘use my words’ in this moment?” There is such power in speaking these emotions out loud.
Anna is a UK-based medical student who loves Jesus, strong tea, clear cold sunny weather, tiny humans (especially under 5s), football and singing harmonies at every opportunity. She has been recovering from anorexia, depression, anxiety and self-injury since 2011 and is passionate about the freedom that recovery can bring.
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