Audio: Is This Feeling About Now?
Transcript: Is This Feeling About Now?
Let’s recap up to here. While everyone wants to feel good, happier with less distress, most people stay at about the same level of happiness throughout their lives. A big part of the problem is that what we usually do to become happier, and less distressed, inevitably backfires. Being overly focused on changing our circumstances leaves us less happy, and the things we do to avoid distressing feelings leave us more distressed. As it turns out, our distress and unhappiness are largely due to intrusive feelings which have their roots in early trauma. Current situations that are somehow similar to early traumatic situations end up triggering our feelings related to the early trauma. Tragically, our brains aren’t built to distinguish between intrusive feelings from early trauma and feelings that are actually about now. So, we tend to believe that our distress is about our current situation when it isn’t. And, even when we do realize that our feelings are out of proportion to the situation, it doesn’t make the feeling stop.
Consider George who, as a boy, was repeatedly taken into a room where he was strapped down and given painful electric shocks. As a man he is going back to see the room where he was tortured. He is going with a journalist and knows that the man who tortured him is dead, and that the equipment was removed from the room many years ago. How is George feeling as he approaches that room? Everyone I ask this question to says the same thing, that George will feel afraid. We all understand that the room will trigger George’s fear, and that knowing he is safe will not stop that. No one would say that George shouldn’t feel scared. So intrusive feelings will be triggered even if we know they are not about our current situation. But the usual case is that we don’t realize the feelings are intrusive. Let’s revisit George. How would George feel if he was being taken back to the room where he had been tortured but believed his fear was about now. Of course his fear would be dramatically worse, he’d feel terrified. This is critically important: intrusive feelings will be triggered by situations that are somehow similar to early trauma, but if we believe they are about our current lives, they’ll be dramatically stronger. In contrast, knowing that the intrusive feelings are not about now, will greatly relieve our distress.
As you are now figuring out, being able to determine whether the distress you are feeling is intrusive or is actually about your current situation is a powerful way to reduce needless suffering. Developing this skill is a crucial aspect of making happiness, of coming to feel good. But first, we need to understand how we usually mistreat ourselves over intrusive feelings.