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Pay Attention to Unpleasant Feelings – Part 1

You Are Not Your Feelings

 When you experience unpleasant feelings, pay attention. They are telling you that something is wrong. They are telling you to move away from a situation, either mentally or physically. In the first part of this blog post about unpleasant feelings, I will explain the roots of those feelings, what causes them and how they affect you.

Thoughts and Unpleasant Feelings

Our mind – i.e. our thoughts and feelings – are controlled by past experiences. Ninety percent of our thoughts and feelings are unconscious. Having grown up in a family with substance abuse and absent parents, you are especially at risk of being dominated by thoughts and feelings from your upbringing/childhood. They will linger, even if you are now an adult and in many ways feel you have broken free of your past.

Perhaps you are no longer living with your family and their substance abuse. You may not have much contact with your parents, but three elements might still affect you greatly in your everyday life.

1. Your tolerance for feeling bad or miserable is very high
2. You did not learn how to regulate your own feelings
3. You identify with the feeling that life is a constant struggle

1. Your tolerance for feeling bad or miserable is very high

Many adult children of alcoholics experience periods of emptiness and meaninglessness. They feel depressed and alone. They consider these periods to be normal. Adults who grew up with secure attachments to their parents will typically react to these feelings. But many adult children will often “just accept” that they are now going through another period of pain and dark thoughts.

Adult children of alcoholics grew up with a high tolerance for feeling miserable. This has made them much less likely to react to unpleasant feelings. Adult children recognize this state of mind only too well. They know what it is like to have feelings of grief, depression, anxiety, loneliness, worry, shame, guilt, low self-esteem, jealousy, anger and a guilty conscience. These are feelings they have known all their lives.

Many of my clients tell me about years of sadness and feeling miserable. They talk about being treated harshly and spoken to with disrespect. Some of my clients talk about how hard they are on themselves, sometimes without being consciously aware of how they treat themselves. Others describe how their entire childhood was shaped by this kind of treatment.

Being left to your own devices when you are experiencing dark and complicated feelings such as grief and anxiety only makes matters worse. You grew up with parents who did not take responsibility for the mood at home. They could not teach you how to process difficult feelings when you were a child. Perhaps they did not know how to, perhaps they were too engulfed in their own addiction. You became used to suffering. You learned how to endure pain and discomfort. In turn, that made it very hard for you to believe that it is possible – and necessary – to act on unpleasant feelings when you experience them.

You have been taught to stay put, to endure the hardship and the pain – without looking for help in dealing with the feelings and the suffering, and looking for help that will allow you to feel better.

2. You did not learn how to regulate your own feelings

Perhaps your parents drank to suppress or regulate their own feelings. They did not pay attention to you or to signs that you were not thriving. They did not help you work your way through experiences of anxiety, grief or loss when you were a child.

Experiencing negative feelings for prolonged periods of time will leave you stressed and will shape your thoughts and behavior. Because your parents did not take responsibility and help you repair these feelings, you are likely to expect feeling disappointment and abandonment, setbacks and problems.

Children who grow up with parents, who are attentive, predictable and accessible, will learn how to regulate their feelings. They directly observe and experience how their parents react to feelings. Their parents are healthy role models. If a child knows that his or her feelings are accepted and understood, the child will automatically experience his or her feelings as being acceptable. The child will learn that his or her feelings are natural and understandable. He or she learns that it is okay to feel sad or angry. The child learns that it can count on support and comfort when he or she needs to be supported and comforted. As parents comfort their children, the children will gradually learn to say some of the same comforting things to themselves, thereby developing various ways of helping themselves feel happy and secure again.

3. You identify with the feeling that life is a constant struggle

If your feelings were repeatedly ignored and neglected as a child, the consequences may be significant. Our personalities and behavioral patterns are developed and established during childhood. Children who grow up in homes shaped by negative feelings and moods are likely to develop stories about themselves that involve negative feelings and moods. The child integrates these feelings and they become the child’s experience of him- or herself. Most adult children of substance abusers characterize themselves as being serious, anxious, worried etc.

If you think back, you may recall that the expression on your parents’ faces was often empty or negative. As a child, you used that expression as a mirror, and it left you with the impression that I am not worth spending time with. People react to me by being angry or irritable. I am unimportant.

Unpleasant Feelings Are Not Your Identity

Unpleasant thoughts and feelings are not your identity. Feelings are feelings. They are not part of your personality, even though many adult children tend to believe that because of their upbringing. Adult children typically have thoughts such as: I am not allowed to look forward to anything, because if I do, it will be ruined. I am different from everyone else. I don’t deserve better.
None of these interpretations are true. As long as you believe they are correct, you will continuously try to tolerate recurrent unpleasant feelings instead of tackling them head-on.

Unpleasant feelings are not your identity. They are not your unique destiny, enslaving you to a life in misery. A dark and evil spell has not been cast upon you, your future and your life. You are not especially unlucky.

Unpleasant feelings are a sign, a signal telling you to move away from a particular way of thinking or acting, which is causing you harm.

Read more about what you can do when you feel overwhelmed by unpleasant feelings in the second part of this blog.



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