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Feelings Are in the File Cabinet

When you woke up this morning and prepared for your day, do you remember everything you did? You may remember that you showered, dressed, had breakfast, and went to your car. Do you know how many seconds you washed your hair or if you washed your ears first or your elbows? Do you remember what contributed to the decision of which cereal to eat (or whatever)? My guess is probably not. Most day-to-day, trivial, or familiar thoughts, actions, and feelings fly under the radar in the “non-conscious” zone.

Just as we can be unaware of our routines, we can also let negative feelings or self-defeating thinking slip by unnoticed. You may occasionally notice them, but you will likely also have a list of reasons they belong there. Most of the time, you go back to your daily routine, feeling low, but at some point, you stop questioning these thoughts and feelings. Over time, your self-esteem erodes. You may even struggle with anxiety or depression, but it all feels true and right.

Let me encourage you to question such things. Ask yourself why you feel so bad.

To understand a common reason for our negative self-image, picture your brain is a file cabinet. These files are tagged either with words or emotions. In the frontal lobe of your brain, in the place right between (and behind) your eyes sits someone called the, “Executive Assistant” – the EA. The EA runs the office and works with millions of little couriers. Some of them go on their own and the EA has no control (such as the ones who run the heart). Others can be told what to do to a point (such as the ones who can make you hold your breath). Others are fairly easy to manage (the ones who want the same thing the EA wants). Finally, there are some couriers you have to pretty much kick into shape (the “but I don’t want to clean and organize my garage this weekend” couriers, for example).

You may have read about “Brain Babble” – the thing that happens when automatic, but inappropriate or inaccurate thoughts run the show. Did you know a similar phenomenon can happen with emotions? Emotions can also be filed incorrectly.

Imagine you observe a classroom of six-year-olds. Ten minutes before class is to end for the day, the teacher announces that everyone can spend the time coloring. At the end of the time, little Jay-jay comes to show the teacher his picture. Jay-jay is smiling ear-to-ear and the teacher beams as she congratulates him on his good work. How do you think Jay-jay feels in that moment? What do you think will happen the next time he is given time to color?

Now imagine the same scenario, except this time when Jay-jay proudly displays his masterpiece, the teacher replies with, “What is wrong with you? Don’t you know by now that frogs are green and not purple? Goodness! Go try again!”

How do you think the little guy would feel then? Pretty terrible. What do you suppose he will do next time he is faced with a pack of crayons and blank paper? Can you hear what his little brain would say to him? “Give it up, Jay-jay – you can’t color right!”

Is that true? Did Jay-jay do anything wrong? NO! Where was the problem? With the teacher who put down his work. But, what did Jay-jay end up feeling? Deflated and inept.

Emotions experienced in such situations are intense and are tagged into the brain with “danger signs” attached to them. They feel real and unless you are aware and can access your wise mind, the temptation to believe these types of false messages may seem too great.

If you find yourself struggling with overwhelming emotions, a poor self-image, or even numbed-out feelings, or if you fear that you may be believing lies about yourself, extend compassion to yourself the same way you would to someone else who believed untrue things about themselves and go on a quest to find the truth. If you cannot seem to do this on your own, then consider taking time away in the supportive environment of The Center • A Place of HOPE. The staff knows how the file cabinet works and have helped many people in their pursuit of truth as they take the journey to build a healthier life.

Written by Hannah Smith, MA LMHC CGP, Group Therapy Program Coordinator, she is a Neuroscience-informed, Licensed Therapist and International Board-certified Group Psychotherapist. Hannah’s passion is to see people reach their potential and find lasting, positive change. The Center • A Place of HOPE, located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety, and more.

How Pervasive is Your Negativity?

If there’s one thing about the constant background noise of negativism, it’s how pervasive it can be in a person’s life without them really realizing it’s there.  Because it’s on all the time, it becomes part of the backdrop of their emotional life.  The person fails to realize its presence and power over how they interpret their circumstances.  Because they hear it all the time, they stop paying attention to what it’s really saying.  Because they hear it all the time, they stop hearing it.

I read a newspaper article about the tragic death of a teenager who failed to hear the train that killed her.  This young seventeen-year-old wasn’t deaf; in fact, she was talking on her cell phone when she died, run over by the train.  She was walking to have her nails done, crossing over the train tracks near her home.  According to the story in the Seattle Times, police said it appeared she “was engrossed in her phone conversation and failed to hear the approaching train or its whistle.  She lives near the tracks, and police suspect she may have become used to the house.” [1]  The noise of the oncoming train, the shrill warning of the whistle, even the honking of a nearby motorist didn’t break through to this young woman.  Familiarity with her surroundings obscured the danger.  The article went on to say that people who live around train tracks can simply become so used to the noise that they fail to notice it.  Said a police spokesperson, “After a while, that noise just doesn’t exist.” [2]

This teenager didn’t recognize the danger bearing down on her because of its utter familiarity.  It’s the same with the background noise of negativity that so many people have running inside their minds.  After a while, it becomes so familiar that they stop “hearing” it and fail to recognize the danger it presents to their lives and happiness.

So, how do you hear something you’re so used to that you’ve tuned it out?  The answer, I’ve found, is to turn up the volume.  Now, that may seem counterintuitive.  It seems like you should just turn it down so you really can’t hear it or turn it off completely.  The problem with this station, however, is no matter how low you think you have it, it’s still loud enough to cause problems, and unless you deal with the messages, you can’t turn it off.  The answer isn’t to minimize it or ignore it.  You have to turn up the volume so you can recognize what’s really being communicated.