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Water and Ice— Two Symbols of Emotional Wisdom

By Ken Wells - 06/27/2020

 

Many twelve step groups allow for a feelings check, frequently at the beginning of a meeting. Many people struggle to identify and embrace feelings. Sometimes, a group member will struggle and share a thought while attempting to express a feeling. An example might be “I feel like I am in a pretty good place today”. We use phrases “I feel like” or “I feel that” to express our emotions that keep us stuck in our heads. It is easy to gloss over a feelings check and to move toward listening to others share or prepare your mind for what you want to say.

However, the feelings check is a crucial exercise in support groups. It creates an opportunity to settle in on what you are really feeling. It challenges you to sit and listen to what the feeling has to say to you. The spirituality of Step 2 asks that you humbly listen to the voice of God as you understand God. The concept of God is wide and varied within the framework of 12 step community. It includes God as a personal entity to those who do not believe in a God and seek to access their higher self and those who understand God to be an unknown creativity energy manifested in the universe.

I have found help in accessing the phrase the “voice of God” as a metaphor toward connecting with higher power. Some people testify they have literally heard a voice from God. Some people feel moved with impressions when they read sacred literature. Others sense the direction of a kind of higher power in the collective wisdom that is accumulated in a support group. There are many sources of wisdom that people have experienced.

One of the repeatedly overlooked sources of wisdom are revelations that come through the experience of feelings. Many world religions emphasize the value of feelings toward cultivating intimacy and gaining wisdom. It has been my experience that every emotion is leavened with insight, understanding and enlightenment. The challenge is to slow down and lean into the message that each feeling brings. For example, I have experienced lifelong depression, usually low grade and chronic but at times it has spiked to a major illness in my life. Rather than to simply treat with an antidepressant which at times was needed, I have learned to listen to the wisdom from the “voice of God” (a metaphor) in the experience of feeling depressed in order to gain insight regarding what has been out of balance in my life, where to self-parent or reach out for help. Many times medication is needed to treat depression but often sitting with depression to gain its acumen is overlooked.

Most addicts can be triggered to act out when disconnected from their feelings. This familiar practice becomes the breeding ground for incongruence and double life living. Unwilling to sit with emotional discomfort, an addict can choose to say one thing and then do another. As a recovering addict, you have to teach yourself to stay with unwanted and uncomfortable feelings in order to meet the legitimate needs that exists underneath the craving for addiction act out. In this way, an addict can learn to transform what seems to be a curse (the craving) into a blessing (awareness of legitimate need). It becomes an invite to personal emotional intimacy in your life.  The challenge is to stay with the feeling to gain crucial insight and understanding. The only way to open your heart when it is closed is to sit with the discomfort of an unwanted feeling.

Pema Chodron describes this concept with the metaphor of water and ice. The metaphor of free flowing water can be an analogy of open heart and open mind. On the other hand, ice is a metaphor of getting stuck with a closed heart and unwanted feelings. When stuck you can become over reactive, out of control, even into a rage or rant and overwhelmed by other powerful feelings like shame and fear. The way through to wisdom is to become very intimate with the ice. It is important to sit with it and to know it well so that you can gain insight and know what to do to care for yourself. It wouldn’t be helpful to throw the ice cube away. When you bring the warmth of open-mindedness, the ice begins to melt. To illustrate, take an ice cube and place it in the palm of one hand while covering it with the other. The human warmth of your body will melt the ice into flowing water until the ice is completely melted. This has been my experience with sitting with unwanted emotions. Sending kindness and warmth to myself has always been what I needed when facing emotional discomfort. It overcomes addictive craving. You will recognize that to do this you will need the help of your support community.

Here are four suggestions to make open-hearted kindness (flowing water) from unwanted feelings and difficult circumstances (ice):

Practice sitting with the discomfort of unwanted feelings.

The only way to learn that you can get through a difficult experience is to stay the course and work through it. You may need to reach out to your support. In your recovery, it can be like teaching your dog to “stay” when it so much wants to chase the cat. You simply work to condition yourself to stay with the emotional discomfort. Gradually, you will increase your staying power and in time the wisdom of self-care will dawn in the horizon.

Be your own best friend when you lean into unwanted feelings.

In the midst of discomfort be kind, even gentle with yourself. Befriend not just the good parts of who you are but you’re whole self, warts, addiction and all. Treat yourself like your own child that you have always loved, even though at times their behavior is a struggle.

Integrate/Don’t segregate:

Close-minded living segregates and isolates. It promotes intolerance, disrespect and antagonism within self and toward others. Segregation advocates the desire to ditch your addict”, even to hate that part of yourself. It expresses itself with self-criticism and judgmentalism toward others. Integration promotes acceptance of self, patience, forbearance, humility and generosity. We learn to become unconditionally friendly toward ourselves. In the framework of that generosity, we learn to listen to our unwanted feelings and cravings. We learn to respond with healing self-care.

Learning to cultivate wisdom from your feelings requires that you fuel perspective and vision for self and others.

Cultivating skills to sleuth wisdom from unwanted feelings is a lifelong pursuit. It challenges the systemic fantasy of “embracing the improbable and ignoring the obvious” that has been so ingrained in many of us from families of dysfunction. For most, the progression happens slowly and subtly. Yet, this valued skillset is not only for you but a legacy for the generations that come after you. At times, this journey may seem lost. Nonetheless, those who stay the course will transform intimacy disability to deep connection with self and others. Each time an addict listens to the wisdom imbued in an unwanted feeling, it opens the door to lessen the grip of addiction not only within but toward future progeny in the generations to come. 

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