Emotions as Messengers
I have been leading art therapy groups in the field with clients for some time now--they’ve been drawing the things that hurt, the ways in which those struggles manifest in their bodies and asking their bodies and hearts about other ways to cope with their pain. I asked them recently to think about what the emotion is there to teach them. Many of them answered with the defenses that their pain had taught them. Things like, “it taught me not to trust people” or “it taught me that the world was not safe and that I’m not okay.” As I heard them speak about the coping mechanisms they’d developed for dealing with stress and trauma in their lives and at home, I realized that we aren’t often taught that emotions are there for us as communicators, as messengers.
I rephrased my question to something like “Those responses all make sense. And see if you can tap into what messages these emotions had for you--what were the emotions teaching you in a positive sense?” They were able to think about this and gave answers like: “That I need to keep myself safer,” “That I needed to learn to say 'no' more often to things that weren’t healthy for me,” “That I needed to hold better boundaries.” All of a sudden, each client went from being a victim of their circumstances to having agency over the course of their lives.
Emotions are there to teach and guide us to healthier ways of living. They are not there to make us suffer. Our nervous systems are the same way--we have pain responses when something happens to our bodies in order to alert us to something wrong happening to our bodily tissues and systems. If we didn’t have a pain response, we would be in serious danger of injury or death. We need pain and discomfort to help us navigate differently in our lives. The point is not to avoid the feelings of hurt or discomfort but to sit with them long enough to 1. Receive the information they have for us and act on that, and 2. Allow them to shift in our bodies. If we are being abused or mistreated, for example, and we feel badly, those feelings could be there to guide us toward leaving or finding more safety for ourselves.
This happens for parents and families as well. When a child is exhibiting signs and symptoms of the pain in the family and acting out or in on themselves, parents are often wanting to avoid the feelings of discomfort not only for their child but within themselves. If we cut ourselves off from difficult, painful emotions and internal experiences, we also numb out the positive, more pleasant feelings and sensations. We cannot just numb out specific elements of our experience. So as families and children walk this journey of wilderness therapy and the path toward healing, it is vital that they allow themselves the space to not only feel their feelings but to allow the feelings to teach them where they need to go. We can then create an internal compass and guidance system this way. If the feelings are based upon faulty thoughts or trauma, then we need to do the work to heal those things first. And from there, we can feel more at home in our bodies, minds, and hearts. We are no longer at war with ourselves when we can listen to ourselves in this way.