I hear it time and time again – “I’ve put those emotions behind me.” Or, “There is no purpose to be served by dredging up the past.” Or, “I’m not going think about the past because I don’t want those emotions to control me.”
I’ll usually ask if they have processed those emotions. The almost inevitable response is “processed, what’s that mean?” I often don’t need their response to know that the answer is no. There are two frequent ways that unprocessed past emotions show up.
One is an overly strong reaction to any questions about a topic area. There is often some heat in the response – “I’VE DEALT WITH THAT” or “I DON”T NEED TO TALK ABOUT THAT.” Clients will often spend a great deal of energy “tussling” with me about the need to discuss the topic.
Another common response is the opposite – an unusually emotionless or flat response to something that certainly must have held strong emotions at the time. A client will describe an event very objectively and in an almost dismissive way. Everyone else in the room is thinking “oh, that must have been terrible” but the client is saying, “eh, I just put it behind me and moved on…”
What does it mean to process emotions and why is it important? It is important because emotions have energy. Processing helps to dissipate that energy. Maybe you know the energy I’m talking about. When you get so angry, or so sad, or so happy that you yell or cry or laugh so hard. It may go on for some time. But then it winds down. The energy dissipates.
When we just stuff emotions away unprocessed the energy tries to escape. The problem with emotional energy escaping this way is that it is difficult if not impossible to control. It escapes in ways unrelated to the original issue. We get angry over seemingly inconsequential things. We become sad or depressed for seemingly no reason at all. There are many ways that the energy finds to escape. Without thoughtful management those ways are almost never in healthy, helpful ways.
Oh, we try hard to keep that energy in. We may eat..and eat…and eat in an effort to put some much weight on the emotions that they can’t leak out. Or we become obsessive about an activity or overly scheduled, trying to distract ourselves. We may even just avoid interactions all together to try to avoid opportunities for leakage. There are a myriad of defensive mechanisms but they rarely work.
Going back to process old emotions does serve a purpose. It helps us to let out that emotional energy that is trying to leak out in those bad ways. Often, that translates into other, healthier behaviors such as reducing our need to over-eat or be less angry for no apparent reason.
I like to use this analogy. When we don’t process emotions it is like stuffing them in a box. We put the lid on and desperately hope that the lid doesn’t come off. We may not admit it, but at least subconsciously we know there is danger in these feelings. Otherwise we wouldn’t need to box them up.
But, when you process an emotion it is different. The energy is gone, or at least greatly reduced. The danger is gone. Instead of hiding it away in fear we can no hold the emotion in any way we want. Sometimes we may want to hold the emotion front and center and experience it again. Other times we may want to set it off in the distance and look at it objectively. An often we may want to just sit it on the back shelve and let it go unnoticed until we need or want it again. In other words, we get control of the emotion instead of letting it control us.
In the best situations we process emotions in the moment. That helps us avoid the need to re-visit these locked up emotions. But for many reasons we haven’t or don’t process them in real time. The good news is that it isn’t too late.