During the last several months my seventeen year old client, Randall, has been talking to his parents at night about the emotional ups and downs of his day. I love how he described the effect: "It's how I dry up the gasoline that's been poured on my woodpile all day." He has discovered that leaving his distressing emotions unexpressed is like leaving a flammable puddle around the firewood of his life. It makes him much more vulnerable to relapsing to pornography and masturbation once he gets on the computer to do homework or goes into his room at bedtime. Since he started talking out his ups and downs, he's only lapsed to porn and masturbation twice. Back before he started, he was slipping up two or three times a week.
Helen and Brad, a couple I'm working with, are also making a habit of checking in and sharing their emotional "highs and lows"--or, as my nephew Tyler calls them, "happies and crappies".
Last night it went like this:
Helen: "How was your day?"
Brad: "Pretty good. I had to get all of the outlines turned in for the classes I'll be teaching next semester. It was a relief to get that step all wrapped up. But I found out there are a ton of new departmental requirements for the Environmental Design class. I basically have to start from scratch on a lot of the materials for that course."
Helen: "Ouch. I bet that was hard to hear."
Brad: "Yeah, that won't be fun. How was your day?"
Helen: "We were short staffed so we got behind early and never caught up. All it takes is to be one person down and we're off track all day. You feel apologetic to people. Mostly they're understanding about it. Only one patient left in a huff. But I got good news this afternoon: Carly had extra tickets to the play this weekend so Rochelle and I can go with them. It's Mary Poppins."
Brad: "Nice. You two will love that."
This interaction may not seem all that profound, but conversations like these are building Brad and Helen's sense of emotional intimacy and friendship like never before. In their thirty-two years of marriage, they've never been in the habit of regularly sharing feelings.
Brad used to ask Helen, "Good day today?" in a chipper voice. To Helen it always seemed like he wasn't really interested in how her day was, but just wanted a cursory positive response like, "Fine Honey, how was yours?"
Brad knew that Helen might bring up something emotional on her own, but it felt like a minefield to him. In response to her strong feelings he might say something wrong, make suggestions when she just wanted a listening ear, or they might get mired in an emotionally heavy conversation that went on and on.
To help them improve their ability to share feelings, a couple of months ago I gave them the following homework. Like most couples, over time Helen and Brad have adhered less and less rigidly to this step-by-step structure, but in the beginning they found it useful to have these guidelines to keep them on track and make it a habit:
1) Make time to share feelings. When you have five or ten minutes to talk, ask each other, "What were your highs and lows today?"
2) Empathize. As your loved one talks about an event or interaction that stood out to them emotionally, try to get a feel for what it was like for them to go through it. Put yourself in their shoes. Consider how you would have felt, if you'd gone through that experience. But only use your imagined feelings as one reference point--remember the unique person they are with their singular personal history and distinct emotional response profile.
3) Tune in to your body and notice what you feel physically. Your gut and muscles and breathing may be responding right now a little bit like they would have then, if you'd been the one in that situation. If your loved one talks about feeling embarrassed, can you feel a little bit of a flush in your face as you imagine what it was like for them? If they were frustrated, can you feel a little clench in your jaw or tightening of the muscles in your arms and hands? If they felt discouraged, can you feel a little deflation of energy throughout your body and a collapse of your posture?
It's a challenge to really let ourselves feel what another person is feeling. It requires what M. Scott Peck calls the "bracketing" of our own feelings and experience--holding them aside for a time so that we can really let in someone else's in. Don't be surprised when your brain wants to jump from hearing about their day to telling them about your own. Accept that as a natural impulse, but catch yourself, remind yourself to slow down, really listen, and let yourself feel with them a little bit of what they were feeling earlier. Empathy is a skill. It may not come naturally at first, but with practice you'll get better and better at it over time.
4) Validate their feelings. If their feelings registered inside you, let them know it. You can word it however you want, but one simple phrase that works almost all the time with distressing emotions is, "Ouch, I get why that was hard for you." To validate a positive emotion, you may say something like, "Wow, I bet that felt so good (or encouraging or relieving)."
A simple phrase of validation can work magic: suddenly, you or your loved one are no longer alone in the emotions you were feeling that day. And, as Sue Johnson put it, "To suffer is inevitable, but to suffer alone is unbearable." When someone empathizes with us and validates our feelings, we are been spared the unbearable! All because they were willing to review a key event or two of our day with us and help us discharge the feelings that built up, feelings that were too much for us to fully cope with effectively on our own at the time.
Try out this sharing exercise with a loved one and see if you experience the same relief Brad and Helen do. See if it supports your recovery efforts the way it does for Randall. And of course, as usual, we'd love to hear how it goes when you try it out!