Audio: Intrusive Feelings
Transcript: Intrusive Feelings
No one has ever come into my office and said, “Doctor, Doctor! I was chased by a bear yesterday and I felt utterly terrified!” Similarly, no one has ever come into my office and said that their daughter died last week and they can’t seem to stop crying.” People fully expect to be afraid when being chased by a bear and deeply sad at the death of a daughter, and indeed, we wouldn’t want to feel otherwise.
In contrast, how about if I feel terrified of a spider on the other side of the room? Or, if someone cuts ahead of me in traffic and I chase him and get out of my car to yell at him and pound on his window. Or, If I forget to complete a minor task at work and I’m feeling deeply guilty and ashamed about it days later. Of, if my father died a year ago and I can’t return to work because I feel so painfully sad about it.
In each of these situations you’d likely say that the circumstances don’t seem to warrant the feelings that I’m having, or don’t seem to warrant how intense the feeling is or how long it’s lasting. My fear of the spider, my anger at the driver, my guilt at a minor error, my prolonged grief over a death, each seem out of proportion to the situation. So, if the feelings are not really about the situation I’m in, where are they coming from?
Welcome to the world of intrusive feelings. Intrusive means that these feelings intrude into our lives, colouring our experience of ourselves or our circumstances. They always involve something about our current situation that is somehow similar to a distressing situation from our past. We say that these feelings are triggered or evoked by something going on now, but are not actually about now. So intrusive feelings are like ghosts from the past that haunt our present lives… The big problem is that we are rarely aware that this is going on, and it just seems so compelling to us that our distressing feelings are about our current situation.
“Of course I should be panicked; I made a mistake and could lose my job!”
“I am a loser; I missed an easy pass and the other team won!”
“My friend didn’t invite me to her party; it’s only natural that I feel hurt and can’t stop thinking about it.”
It usually doesn’t take much reflection though to think of people we know who would feel differently in our situation. And, if we think of the happiest people we know of, they probably would not feel the same way we do if they were in our situation.
As you can see in these examples though, there is something that triggers the intrusive feelings. A mistake at work triggers panic, a minor rejection triggers persistent hurt, a missed shot triggers deep shame. Our problem is that we believe that the intrusive feeling is about the thing that triggered it, when the trigger was actually a relatively minor event. It’s like confusing a bullet with the trigger that fired it. The trigger may have started things, but it’s the bullet that’s going to do the damage.
So, a minor error at work isn’t accepted as just a minor error and instead triggers feelings of dread at the prospect of being fired. A missed pass in a game triggers feelings of inadequacy or worthlessness. Events that would reasonable evoke minor, momentary feelings instead trigger stronger, persistent distress.
To cut to the chase, most of the distress that we experience in our lives is due to intrusive feelings. It feels compelling to us that our distress is due to an event or our circumstances, but it isn’t. And of course our happiness is necessarily tainted when intrusive feelings colour our experience of our lives. Actually, intrusive feelings, and our misguided efforts to avoid them, are the only things standing between us and genuine happiness. They are also the only things standing between us and happy, fulfilling relationships, and the only things standing between us and happy children. Stick around and all of this will make sense.