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Checking Out: when does it make sense to put away negative thoughts and feelings?

If you have ever been in therapy, you should be well aware of the phrase ‘feel your feelings!’. A lot of us can grow up in home environments that discourage the sharing of, or even understanding of, emotions. That means that a lot of the introduction to what therapy can be includes coaxing authenticity out of you. We want our clients to feel safe and secure, and unless they already know how to express themselves, their needs and their wants, teaching you to unlearn the patterns of behavior your family system may have instilled in them. This could be that certain emotions—anger, sadness, anxiety, etc., are not acceptable. You may have been discouraged from talking about things that bothered you, or were told not to bring down the mood. This may be something you have carried into adolescence and adulthood, and–perhaps until you go to therapy–you may not have known that this was harmful to you. So, in the process of therapy, confronting painful feelings and learning to advocate for oneself in response to those painful feelings is of vital importance. What I’ve noticed from my clients, as I’ve begun to work with more complex trauma, is that there are situations in which feeling your feelings isn’t the healthiest response. This feels like heresy when said without context, but when you think about your emotional capacity as a vessel, it becomes more clear. I picture a jug–clear, and glass. I picture water dyed blue as “day-to-day stress”, and the way you feel about that. I picture water dyed green as the emotions you carry with you from the deepest parts of your life. Romantic partners, family relationships, childhood dreams and memories. If day-to-day stress already is taking up ¾ of the jug, there is only so much room left for other emotions. The same goes in the reverse direction–you have a lower capacity for day-to-day stress when you are overwhelmed with emotions related to the bigger picture, which is where trauma therapy like EMDR can come in handy. But even if you have already taken the step to begin to learn to manage those bigger emotions, day-to-day stress will always be there, and it will always fluctuate. When you have a date coming up, a lot of overtime at work, and need to be there for your kids or your partner or a friend who may have just experienced something life-changing, it can overfill your jug to feel your feelings all the time. The jug spills, and all of the stress gets out of control and there is no way to separate it. What can be helpful in this case is grounding. In EMDR, we use a tool called resourcing to begin to give our clients the power to control their feelings, and how flooded they may get while processing. But some of these tools can be used in day-to-day life, a way to ‘escape’ from feeling their feelings in a way that feels healthy, safe, and like a part of the process of healing. Here are two tools that I have found most helpful:

The Container Exercise:
  1. Start by closing your eyes. What are you feeling? Can you name it? Can you see the space it takes up?

  2. Now imagine a container. It can be any container, as long as it has a lid or a way to separate the inside of it from you. I use a music box, but it can be as small or large as you wish.

  3. Once you have the container, imagine yourself putting those feelings into the container. It may present like sand, and so you have to use a shovel–or those feelings are like water, and you need a cup. Maybe you can push it into the container with your hands. Whatever it is, don’t stop until you feel like all of it is in there. Only at that point do you picture yourself placing the container somewhere out of sight, but not impossible to get to. I like picturing the basement I had in my childhood–the storage space that it offered just off to the left.

  4. Open your eyes. You can and will come back to this later–a time when you are ready, and not already feeling overfilled. Now it’s no longer within you, but instead packed away in a place you know, not gone but able to be forgotten for a little while.

Calm, Safe Place:
  1. Close your eyes and pay attention to your breath. Notice if it’s fast, or if you are holding your breath. Set your feet on the ground and place your hands and arms somewhere comfortable.

  2. Picture yourself in a place where you feel safe. A place that has always been safe, and it calms you when you are there. Give a name to this place. It could be anything– Yellow, love, Grandma’s. Whatever would make you think of that same place in the future. It doesn’t have to be a real place, but it can be. Just make sure it feels unattached to pain.

  3. What do you see? What is the temperature there? What can you smell? Is there anyone else there? Any animals? Birds? What is within arm’s reach? Can you feel the sun, or the fan moving or hear the sound of the air conditioning?

  4. Engage all your senses. Utilize your senses to remember this place. Come out of it only when you feel comfortable.

  5. When you are feeling overwhelmed, or need a moment to reset your emotions when you are feeling flooded, go back to this place. Say the keyword to get yourself there. It doesn’t have to be more than a few minutes–any moments that you have, use that time to go back to that place.

Be aware of the importance of checking out. I want to normalize that phrase, “checking out”, because it’s what it will feel like when you take time to contain your stress or walk away from it when needed. There should be no shame involved in what is actually a very valuable coping skill. You aren’t escaping from the problems, rather, you are controlling your reaction to them. Let this be something you give yourself permission to do. And, as always, let us unpack in therapy.

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