Terry's wife, Crystal, was more than willing to see if conversations dedicated to empathy might help him with his depression. In fact, when I told Terry about how those conversations might go, he said, "Wow, she already does that naturally."
One night the week before he had gone in to put their three year old son, Carter, to bed. She'd heard Carter saying, "I want to go to bed by myself!" Terry walked out of the room thinking, Fine! Makes bedtime easier for me. But he couldn't help feel a pang in his heart. He told himself Carter was just a little kid trying out his independence. Despite that reasoning, the emotional hit lingered. "Unfortunately, sometimes interactions like that throw me off for the rest of the night. A painful interaction with Carter is sometimes the beanbag that’s right on target, dropping Terry's into the dunk tank of his depression.
When he walked into the bedroom Crystal said, "Sounds like he's in fine form tonight. You okay? Want to talk about it?"
Terry had responded. "No, I just need a few minutes."
That's the way he usually dealt with hurt feelings: take a few minutes alone to re-gather himself, and then get on with life again.
"Kind of like an animal licking its wounds," I said. Terry nodded.
"But I go away from that kind of exchange with Crystal knowing that it could have been deeper, I just don't know what else I would have said. We've talked about the issue of me feeling a lack of acceptance from Carter, and how it pushes all my old rejection buttons. But we've talked about it enough now that I don't know that there's anything left to say about it. She understands where I'm coming from, and I know she cares, so why rehash it?"
"And yet it feels like she steps toward you and invites you to engage with her at a level of emotional intimacy that is deeper. And it seems like you're somehow unable to meet her there at that same level."
"Yeah. I don't know if she senses that. I've thought it was just a male/female difference. She talks that way with everyone: her mom, a couple of her friends, her sister, even her brothers. I've never really had that depth with anyone in my life. My interactions with her come the closest."
I encouraged Terry to think of his distressing emotions as an improvised explosive device. Just like an IED or any other bomb, it has a bunch of parts to it. Separating out its components can defuse it. Once dissected, an emotion, just like an EID, becomes more benign.
Terry and I practiced right then and there to prepare him for the next time he had the chance to talk about his feelings with Crystal. We sorted through his emotion in an attempt to identify these five facets: situation, thought, impulse, feeling, sensation. Here's what he came up with:
Situation: Abruptly dismissed by son I'm putting to bed
Thought: "I know he's a three year old, but ouch"
Impulse: Walk out and give the door a little bang shut.
Sensation: Sinking in my chest, deflated
The first initial from each of these words spells STIFS. I complimented Terry on successfully dissecting his feelings into STIFS and encouraged him to try out the same process over the next few weeks as he talked with Crystal about hard experiences for either of them.
A couple of months later he said he was feeling more connected with Crystal, and it seemed to be helping relieve his depression. “I'm becoming more poignantly aware of feelings of un-acceptance and just how painfully I experience those emotions. When I work through those feelings alone, it's less productive. When I share my feelings with people I care about, it's much more effective. Using the STIFS has helped me do that."
A few times each week I send out by text an example of STIFS to about 70 people, most of them clients. Quite a few have told me that it helps them become more aware of their emotions. Not only that, it also helps tame those emotions in a way I don't fully understand. I know that from experience. Somehow putting feelings into words must wake up the language cortex of the brain and other affiliated regions where our more mature mindsets reside. Perhaps those mental muscles then act as a sort of caring older sibling to our brain's limbic system, where our strong feelings do their work.
If you're interested in receiving STIFS examples from me a few times a week, text "add me to STIFS" to my cell phone: 801-564-7566. If you end up not wanting to receive them anymore, you can text “stop” at any time. (Recipients' only see my phone number, never those of other recipients.)
Whether or not you decide to receive examples from my by text, next time you find yourself in a state of distress, be it mild or intense, see if you can identify these five facets of your experience: the situation, your thoughts, your impulse (what you feel compelled to do), your feelings, and the sensations you are experiencing in your body. You might find it very interesting to do. Then, if you keep practicing the process again and again over a period of weeks, you may discover that it gets both easier and more helpful over time.