"Remember, emotions don't occur in a vacuum. They are interconnected with our thoughts and behaviors."

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Episode 11 -- May 22, 2020

Parents of Kids in Recovery: Checking in with Your Emotions

If you don't take out the trash on a regular basis, it begins to build up. It begins to smell. And when you finally do summon the courage to haul it outside to the garbage can, the task really stinks, and juices are leaking out of the bag.

Needless to say, this experience does not give you an incentive to take out the trash the next time. In fact, you're more likely to think, Thank God I'm done with that. Yuck! I'm never dealing with that again.

Some people are like this with feelings. They never want to deal with the negative ones. Their negative feelings pile up like trash. Every once in a while, they walk around their internal homes and smell something awful, but they never acknowledge the full extent of their garbage piles: anger, resentments, politically incorrect thoughts, and feelings of inadequacy. Ignoring the smells does not make the trash go away. Other people notice the smell as well, believe me. Eventually, their emotional garbage has piled up so much that it starts to flow out the windows and leak into other rooms. They are finally forced to "take the trash out" by dealing with their emotions, but the experience is overwhelming. They break down and cry, or scream in a rage. They are unnerved and frightened by their loss of control over their feelings. Once they have purged, they are discouraged from ever dealing with such feelings again, with their previous experience serving as a painful deterrent. So the trash pile starts to grow again.

A much more functional option is to deal with the trash on a regular basis, before it begins to fester and make you too uncomfortable. Take it outside. Give it some space. Give it some fresh air. It may not always be the most pleasant experience, but it's not as bad as dealing with a giant, decomposing pile. Then you can let it go and get on with your life. I coach kids and parents to take out their internal trash--unpleasant emotions--every day. When you do this on a regular basis, life is much easier. Resentments and fear don't build up. They might return, but you'll know what to do with them. Negative feelings are less likely to get the best of you. Emotional explosions are less likely to happen down the road. Taking out a piece of internal trash means three things:

  1. Give the emotion a name. The first step to taking out the garbage is admitting that it exists. That bag truly is there, taking up space in your house and emitting its noxious aroma. Dealing with emotions is similar. Giving the emotion a name allows you to admit that it exists, and that's an important step. Taking this step means developing a vocabulary for your emotions. Emotions are like colors. Initially, we know basic feelings, like anger or sadness, that might equate with basic colors like red and blue. As we get older, we learn about more subtle shades of colors in much the same way that we learn about feelings. Feelings come in infinite mixtures, with complicated nuances. It isn't just I'm angry my daughter relapsed. It's more like I feel upset about my daughter's relapse. A part of me feels like she's holding our family hostage, and another part of me feels like I've let her down even though I know I haven't. I feel numb and shocked and helpless and cynical and guilty all at once. There are many simple exercises that you can use to expand your emotional vocabulary. For one, just search the Internet for feeling words. You'll find lots of charts and long lists of words. Pick one and dig into it a little. See if it captures what you are experiencing. Expanding your feeling vocabulary can help you make finer distinctions between emotions and increase your self-awareness. Greater awareness makes for greater emotional objectivity.

  2. Give the emotion space. After taking the trash bag out of your house and tossing it in your garbage receptacle, you might benefit from just standing there, putting your hands on your hips, and staring at it for a few seconds. You've just gotten a firsthand experience of the power of taking out the trash. It's a lesson worth savoring. It can also be a time for reflection. You can use a similar process with emotions. After admitting that you're feeling an emotion and giving it a name, allow yourself to sink into it for a few moments. Let yourself fully experience it. Remember, emotions don't occur in a vacuum. They are interconnected with our thoughts and behaviors. It's therefore important to note what comes before, during, and after an emotional experience. One way to do this is to collect "data points" about the emotion. You notice how an emotion affects you, and you also notice how it is linked to other behaviors, thoughts, and subsequent emotions. For example, see if you can notice where an emotion registers in your body. Does it show up as tightness in your stomach? When feeling upset, do you hold your breath or take more shallow breaths? When you are anxious, do you feel fatigued or get a headache? Those are data points. You might notice that you act a certain way when you are avoiding a feeling, or that you behave and think in a predictable pattern when you feel something. Don't make judgments about yourself, and instead observe the feeling and its impact in much the same way that you might observe the ripples in the water after tossing a rock in a lake. When treated this way (and it takes practice), even the worst emotions start to lose their grip on us.

  3. Give the emotion an audience. Now give your emotions some "air time." Voice your emotions. Give them life. This is the most important step. Find people whom you trust¿your spouse, partner, or another trusted relative or friend. Choose someone who knows when to be quiet, how to listen without judgment, and how to keep things confidential. Tell this person what's going on inside you, and do it on a regular basis. This can give you a tremendous sense of relief. When young people share the depths of their addictive experiences at Hazelden, they are initially resistant. "Why do I have to share my story again? I already know." The same goes for parents when they come to our parent program: "Our kids know how much their use has affected us." Parents and kids are often surprised to find out how powerful the experience of voicing well-versed sentiment is when it is expressed honestly, vulnerably, and with conviction. Within such cathartic moments are the seeds of change.

Taking out the trash is one way to process our emotions. Processing is different from venting. Venting is just letting out a frustration. Venting in and of itself is not that therapeutic; sometimes it just gets parents more wound up or feeling self-righteous in their stance. Processing is expressing the feeling, taking ownership of it, and learning how to put it in its place.

When you're willing to do these three things, then you can process even the most unpleasant emotions without leaving a harmful residue. Then you can choose your behaviors with a more spacious perspective and a clearer head.

About the Author:
Dr. Lee's experience with families from across the country and abroad provide him with an unparalleled perspective on emerging drug trends, co-occurring mental health conditions, and the ever-changing culture of addiction. Given his unique degree of specialization and powerful messaging, Dr. Lee has been featured in numerous media venues and national academic conferences alike. He is the author of Recovering My Kid: Parenting Young Adults in Treatment and Beyond, which provides an honest guide for parental leadership in times of crisis.

© 2012 by Joseph Lee, M.D.