“Emotions have gotten a really bad rep. People see them as either whiny, weak or selfish. We try to ignore our feelings, but as long as you ignore what you really feel, those feelings will only grow louder over time. Disappointment turns to sadness and depression, bitterness turns to anger.” ~ Dr. Brenner
We’ve all experienced that creeping feeling in the pit of your stomach that told you something wasn’t right. Maybe you were in a long-term relationship with the wrong guy, or you just signed a contract with a company you weren’t really sure about, or maybe it was that quiet whisper that told you he was cheating on you all along. In most of these cases, we do the sensible thing, and proceed to ignore our feelings completely. After all, we’re taught that emotions are irrational, they can be easily manipulated, and that they have no real meaning anyway. It’s better to trust old logic, and logic dictates that you don’t have any real evidence to support any of your gut feelings. But then when the truth eventually bubbles to the surface, as truth tends to do, we berate ourselves for having ignored what we deep-down knew all along. Ignoring your emotions is a dangerous game. Do it enough time over the span of your life and you will soon find yourself losing touch with your own inner voice, you know, the one that tells you what you really want and need in order to be happy. It’s a sure-fire recipe for inauthenticity. Without it you’re walking through life covered in a thick fog of uncertainty. What am I doing? What do I really want? Is this the right relationship? Is this the right job? Who the hell am I becoming?
To help us dig through the fog, we sat down with authenticity expert Dr. Helene Brenner, a renowned transformational psychologist, speaker and author of I Know I’m In There Somewhere, a truly superb guide to rediscovering yourself, finding your authentic voice, lasting self-acceptance and happiness. It is literally the single most important book you will ever read, and should be required reading. We couldn’t recommend it more.
LW. Hi Dr. Brenner! Thank you for speaking with us! You’re one of the first author’s I’ve come across who talks about the power of negative thinking. For years now people have subscribed to this idea that positive thinking is the end-all solution to all our problems – and if there happens to be anything wrong with your life, it means you’re not being positive enough. I love the way you talk about accepting negative feelings and almost using them as tools to finding a way to the life you really want.
HB: Yes, absolutely. I always tell people that emotion has the word “motion” in it for a reason – we move through emotion the same way we move through the weather. Just like I can’t say that because it’s sunny now it’ll always be sunny, it’s wrong to say that because I feel sad now I will always be sad. There’s no sense in putting a label on it, emotions are neither good nor bad, they’re simply a state of being. If we look at ourselves and say, I am sad right now, and we fail to see that sadness as a transient emotion, we end up identifying with it and getting stuck in those feelings instead of just letting them go. Just think of the way children experience emotion before they’re taught to repress them. Their feelings change from moment to moment – one second they’re crying, then they’re laughing, then crying again.
Let yourself be the way your body wants you to be in that moment. Don’t fight or label your emotions. Those emotions have an intelligence that they want to share with us, and listening to them can be a powerful experience.
You can try to force yourself to think positively all you want, but those so called negative emotions are only going to get louder if you ignore them. The interesting thing is that they go away only when you turn towards them, hear them out, and listen to what they’re trying to tell you.
Mental health is about allowing yourself to have the full range of your feelings, without labeling them as either good or bad. Let yourself be the way your body wants you to be in that moment. Don’t fight or label your emotions. Those emotions have an intelligence that they want to share with us, and listening to them can be a powerful experience. The problem is judgment, criticism, and all those outside voices that make you feel ashamed about your feelings.
LW: You talk a lot about the idea of “outside voices” in your book, can you walk us through that concept?
HB: Here’s the thing, we’re social creatures, it’s human nature to want to fit in with our tribe. And in order to fit in we absorb all these messages from the world around us that tell us how we should be, how we should dress, and act in order to belong. We’re constantly being told how we’re supposed to look and feel. You should be thin, happy, organized, successful, well-dressed etc. These voices are everywhere, but they’re not necessarily bad. They may be inspiring or helpful, but they’re not what we truly think and feel, they’re what we’re told to think and feel in order to fit into our chosen tribe.
Then there are the voices that have come from the people who took care of us. If you tune in and listen carefully to these voices you’ll find that they always sound like someone is talking at you. You’re lazy, how could you be so stupid, you’re not goal-oriented enough, you’re not thin enough. Those are what I call outside voices, and they can be really harsh. They attack us and makes us feel bad about ourselves. And so, authenticity means living according to who you really are. It’s being true to what you know and feel. Being in touch with your authentic self means you’re not living according to an image of who you’re “supposed” to be or how you’re “supposed” to feel.
If it makes you feel bad, that’s not your authentic inner voice. Your true inner voice does not want to destroy you or make you feel bad. If it twists you into a pretzel, and if it’s full of shoulds, it’s not your inner voice.
LW: It’s scary how easily we start to identify with those voices. How do we differentiate between me and definitely not me? How do you recognize your authentic self from all those other voices?
HB: So first of all, if it makes you feel bad, that’s not your authentic inner voice. Your true inner voice does not want to destroy you or make you feel bad. If it twists you into a pretzel, and if it’s full of shoulds, it’s not your inner voice. I tell my clients, if there’s a voice inside you that’s harshly judgmental of you, no matter how accurate you think its judgments are, it’s not your inner voice.
Your inner voice has a clear “I” – I feel, I know, I want – it feels like it’s moving towards something positive and life giving. It makes you feel alive. The authentic self is the part of us that emerges when we listen to and accept what we really feel. The inner voice is always there, in the background, waiting to whisper what the next step forward is in our lives. Listening to it means learning to follow your feelings in a way that can inform your decisions. It’s like saying, I trust myself, I sense, I feel, vs. you’re not good enough, you should change.
LW: Where does the authentic self go? Why do you think so many of us lose touch with it so easily?
HB: I think the emphasis on being perfect is so strong in our culture today. We are constantly bombarded with outside distractions, it’s hard to ever feel calm and quiet. And then there’s social media. You are always on display. You can forget who you really are. Are you you, or are you your Facebook page and Twitter account?
Living from your inner voice means accepting what you really feel, going towards what gives you joy, and away from what makes you feel bad about yourself. The more you can listen to and accept the messages that are coming from your inner self, without trying to ignore or override them, the saner you’ll feel. The trick is to ask yourself, “What do I know to be true, deep down, in my bones?” “What do I really feel?” “What do I really want?” And then just quietly listen to whatever answers emerge. Just allowing yourself to stop and listen to those emotions will start to change your life.
LW: So if you’re having all these major life questions in your life, and you’re struggling to answer them, you would focus in on the things you know to be true without a shadow of doubt, like I know I’m not happy, I know that I want more freedom, and the answers will emerge from there?
HB: Exactly. Sometimes those outside voices are so loud that people can’t tune into their authentic selves anymore, so your true desires manifest themselves in the form of an impulse or urge. So instead of clear thoughts you get these gut feelings like, wow I really need a day off, or I want to get as far away from this person as possible, or sometimes tells me that I should get a second opinion.
LW: It’s almost like an internal ear. You’re listening to something that in our culture we’ve largely become deaf to. We’ve been trained not to trust our emotions – that logic – the mind should be the bedrock of all our decisions.
HB: Emotions have gotten a really bad rep. People see them as either whiny, weak or selfish. We try to ignore our feelings, but there’s really no way of doing it. As long as you continue to try and ignore what you really feel, those feelings will only grow louder over time. Disappointment turns to sadness and depression, bitterness turns to anger. It’s like those emotions are tapping you on the shoulder and saying, hey would you listen to me? I have something really important to tell you. By constantly pushing them away over the years they’re only going to come at you stronger than before.
It’s really hard for people because listening to those emotions might mean having to face that you don’t want to be in a relationship anymore, or that you may need to find a new job. Those are extremely difficult feelings to have to face. But once you listen to them and just acknowledge them, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to do something drastic. It’s just about listening to our inner wisdom, and using the information it wants to give you in a conscious way. It may mean you have to have a heart to heart with somebody, and tell them your truth, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to break up. Sometimes it just means that you need to know your truth. Knowing that you’re unhappy with your job does not mean you have to quit your job, in fact I don’t advise it. It just means look at your options.
LW: In your book you describe a first date gone wrong scenario: The guy you liked is a no show, he doesn’t even call to explain or cancel. You describe the emotional process of realizing he’s not coming, moving from the relatively neutral feelings of confusion and surprise to something much darker. The longer you sit with the idea that you got stood up the more upset you feel. Explain what’s happening inside a person’s head at that moment.
HB: This is what happens when outside voices sneak up on you, and with them all the judgment and criticism. You get attacked by all these thoughts, like you should have more self-esteem, look at you, all dressed up, you’re pathetic, no wonder this guy stood you up. Whenever you start attacking yourself in this condemning way, take that as a signal that you’re caught up in something that is outside of yourself and remember that what you’re saying to yourself, even if you think it sounds accurate, is not really true. When you open your heart and really listen to those feelings you will see that you have good reasons for acting and feeling exactly as you do. I’m disappointed. I really thought he was cute. I thought he liked me. We can get that Ah-ha feeling – I get it, I can have empathy for myself in this situation.
LW: So how can we be nicer to ourselves in these situations?
HB: You need to be compassionate with yourself the same way you would be with a good friend. I have an ABC system of dealing with emotions in situations like this, it stands for Acknowledging, Being with and Compassion.
So the first step is to acknowledging your emotion. This is like when your friend comes to your door, and you acknowledge that she’s upset and welcome her inside. In the same way, let your emotions come through the door. Acknowledge whatever you’re feeling, welcome it and just let it in without trying to change how you’re feeling.
Being With is the part where you sit down with your friend over a cup of coffee and you let her tell you what’s going on. You’re there for her, listening without trying to fix her. In the same way, spend a few minutes listening to whatever you’re feeling, letting the feeling just be there, not arguing with it or trying to change it in any way.
You can’t tell a part of yourself to go away and disappear because you don’t like it. It will react the same way anyone would. Every part of you wants to be accepted and loved, including the parts that you think are unlovable. Especially them.
I’ve been doing this work for twenty six years, and I really believe that compassion and empathy are the biggest life changers. Like when something bad happens, do you go to the person that tells you you’re full of crap? Or do you go to the person that will listen with compassion? You know how bad it feels when somebody rushes in and gives you all sorts of advice you didn’t ask for, or puts you down for how you feel. This is what we do to our own feelings all the time. We rationalize them away, push them down and criticize ourselves. What if instead we tell our own hurt emotions, “I understand, it make a lot of sense that you feel this way.”
LW: You mentioned that women tend to view changing yourself for a boyfriend or girlfriend as an act of love, but in reality it just isolates us from our true selves. How does that work?
HB: From childhood women are trained to emotionally take care of people. They start with their girl friends in grade school, at the age of ten or eleven. “I’m just like you! I feel the same way!” They start being nice instead of saying how they really feel. This carries over into their adult relationships. If they love somebody, they never want to hurt that person’s feelings, and they want to show what a wonderful, sweet, loving, giving person they are. Nothing wrong with that, of course! But they’re more likely to do something just because he wants to do it, and – this is something most guys never do – even pretend that they’re totally into it so well that the guy doesn’t know they’re faking. They’ll say things that will make him happy, even if they’re not true. Even today, many women I’ve seen will use their social-emotional “antenna” to make a guy seem just a little bit smarter or more important.
This never works for long. They end up feeling extremely resentful of their partner, because they expected the other person to realize that they’ve changed themselves for that person. But their partner simply didn’t realize because they totally bought the act.
LW: In your book you talk about the tendency people have to divide themselves into two halves, one that’s good (the “real” me) and the other is bad (the “not good enough” me). The good things are accepted as our true selves, while the bad are written off as flaws that need to be changed. Can you elaborate on that?
HB: It’s very important to realize that “hating on” the aspects of ourselves that we don’t like doesn’t help us in any way. You can’t tell a part of yourself to go away and disappear because you don’t like it. It will react the same way anyone would. Every part of you wants to be accepted and loved, including the parts that you think are unlovable. Especially them. Only when we begin to understand the unlovable parts, and begin to listen to the hurt and fear that’s stored in them, can they begin to change.
Being gentle and compassionate to ourselves is not easy. It’s not the same as letting ourselves off the hook. It’s not pretending that we have no flaws or that our flaws don’t count. It’s embracing our imperfections and our weaknesses and living according to who we really are and how we really feel – not how we’re “supposed” to feel.