Hello heart – part one

How do you feel?

If I had a problem with my physical health I would see what a doctor has to offer, so I figured if I have an issue with my psychological health I would see what this counsellor has to offer. I’ve been seeing her for about a month and am still not completely sure what she’s getting at with the discussions about my family tree and patterns of relationships during my childhood. But I do appreciate being listened to and her helping me to see my blind spots better.

“How did you feel those holidays?”
“I think sad. I don’t know, it was ages ago in first year.”
“Mmhmm, anything else besides sad?”
“Sad?”
“Any other words to describe sad?”
“Uh…” long pause. “Sad? I had trouble sleeping every night and wasn’t interested in things. I don’t think it’s normal, well I thought it was okay at the time but thinking back I don’t think it’s normal to be like that. Anyway, it’s hard to answer this question because all I’m doing is going down the DSM checklist instead of actually answering you. Like, even when we talk I’m trying hard not to think about the framework that you’re using to direct the conversation.”

Answering her questions was easy, so I thought. Until she started asking how I felt about different periods of my life. I think that I’m reasonably expressive. But actually when probed further my answers were brief – mostly “sad” or “don’t know” (or some other expression of apathy). Similar sort of thing when she asked me how I felt about my relationships with the people around me.

I’m much better at describing negative feelings than positive ones. If feelings were colours I would be able to name many vivid and varied shades of blue, but am less good at differentiating between other colours. I’m sure the whole spectrum of hues are out there but the saturation of those other colours pales in comparison.

“You know, you have a lot going on above here,” she gestures to my head and neck. “But this is less developed,” pointing to my heart. “There’s an imbalance. We are mind, heart, body and spirit – it should all be connected.”

Initially I was offended at her suggestion that my EQ was less developed. I recognise and feel plenty around patients, I protested. But apparently that’s empathy, and is a little different. Anyway, as doctors we automatically associate EQ with empathising in the clinical setting (which conveniently for me, is mostly negative emotions) but that’s only one aspect of EQ.

The bigger barrier to me being able to properly answer, “how do you feel?” – I found that I often flew by the emotions and moved onto some sort of analysis. But “I’m crazy”, “it’s because”, “I feel I should” or “I think it’s interesting” are obviously more mind than heart. I knew they weren’t actual feelings as soon as I said them, but couldn’t come up with anything better. When it came to feelings about other people I also automatically filtered out ones that I thought I shouldn’t feel – ones that I deemed to be not nice, irrational, or unjustified.

“Stop and feel. No judgment on yourself, okay? Then work out how to respond.”

Positive emotions are more apparent if you stop to name them, and there is indeed more than one word for negative emotions. Grief, hurt and pain, are variations of sadness. But other ones such as disappointment, weariness, inadequacy, regret and fear, are quite separate entities. Sometimes I get stuck in a rut attempting to sort out my emotions without properly acknowledging the actual emotion in the first place. Or stuck thinking that if I just think the right things, the feelings will fall into place in a logical way.

Filters, analysis and such are good and helpful, but seem to also be one of the many ways we try to avoid feeling unpleasant feelings (and hence avoid truly dealing with them). Staying very busy is another, but that’s one for another time.

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