Tori Olds, a therapist at Deep Eddy Psychotherapy in Austin, TX, walks us through ways that therapy helps us build emotional health and achieve our core state.
Thinking and Feeling at the Same Time = Emotional Health
Emotional health, to put it simply, is the ability to think and feel at the same time.
People tend toward one or the other. Daniel Siegel invented this field of psychology called Interpersonal Neurobiology and he is what informs much of the way I think about what makes us tick.
The Difference Between Chaos and Rigidity
Daniel talks a lot about the difference between chaos and rigidity. Chaos is when the more feeling parts of our brain, the lower-down parts—our mid-brain, the areas that are more primal than the cortex part or thinking part of our brain—are very activated. It’s raw emotion, it’s in the flow. Having that emotion and flow is good, but it can be so extreme that it would be called chaos.
The opposite would be rigidity, which is that we are completely cut off from any internal, intuitive emotional aspect, and there is just logic, control, and reason. We want logic and control—logic paired with the ability to dampen the feelings and stay organized inside—and we want emotion. They actually are both really important.
When they come together at the same time there’s this really nice balance. You have the feeling but you’re not flooded with it because you have another part of the brain that’s really grounded, and containing it, understanding it, and thinking straight. When we can really feel and still think straight, when our perception isn’t narrowed down to thinking things like, “Oh, the world is so _____,” it’s like we can really think clearly but also attend to the feeling. There’s sort of this resilience that comes from that. We can have emotion, which we need to have for a rich life. To know what we need emotion is really important. It’s important to our ability to connect with other people and not be shut down or numb.
Practicing Thinking and While Feeling
However, we also need to be able to think and plan and have perspective. So, we want those both to happen. You can literally practice that, and that’s kind of what therapy is—or mindfulness. It’s about learning how to get in touch with your feelings, but in a way that’s still grounded, and observing, and developing yourself. The more you do it the more it becomes habit, which is why regular therapy is so beneficial.
When it comes to practicing emotional health in therapy, what does that process look like?
This is getting into mindfulness, so I’ll describe what mindfulness is and how therapy uses it.
Mindfulness is what I was just saying about being able to think and feel at the same time. It’s being able to tune to an observer or a part of you that isn’t lost in the experience. A perspective that isn’t just swimming in it or drowning, or barely aware of what’s going on. Rather than experiencing just the pure feeling, it’s actually being able to take a step back. Sometimes, I tell my clients, “It’s like we want to attend the feeling, but we don’t want to drop into it, we want just to be an inch—not far away—just like an inch back so we can see it. It’s not going away and ignoring it, but it’s also not falling into it. It’s about keeping our centeredness, and our groundedness, but still looking at it.”
Being a Parent to Yourself & Learning to Observe
It’s similar to being a parent when you’re trying to sooth the child. You want to be able to really be with the feeling, but you wouldn’t be like [crying], “Oh, I know!” and lose it. You would keep your bearings a little bit. Mindfulness then is why we do a lot of the observing. It’s just to develop that observing part, which is the most upper part of the brain, the most advanced part of our brain that can quantify.
Tracking our Inner Experience and Sensations
We can keep that part of the brain online sometimes by just saying things like, “Okay, how does that feel? Is it hard, or cold, or heavy, or light? Where is it in the body? Has it spread across?” Sometimes I ask my clients these questions to really map it for me. It’s not because the answer matters so much, it’s more because it brings on their curiosity. They start to think, “Okay, I’m working with this now, I’m thinking about it, I’m noticing it, I’m tracking it.” That lets them stay grounded and more regulated, while still attending and working with the feeling. That way the feeling feels heard, it feels like it was seen, it was processed and now it can resolve and go away.
Mindfulness is Observing Thought Without Judgement
That’s mindfulness, which is just observing without judgement. Obviously, if we are judging the feeling, that’s just activating it to either shut down and go away or get more intense. It’s not going to help it resolve. If we’re just observing ourselves and our experience without judgement, it’s forcing all the parts of our brain to work at the same time—the different levels—all work in harmony with each other. The more we do that, the more that gets wired in neurobiologically, so that we’re more integrated. We can then, in the future, be able to have feelings without losing it.
Therapy is Like Having a Coach
The nice thing about therapy is that it’s a little different than just doing mindfulness—you have a coach. It’s like I’m coaching you in that moment because it’s tricky to not go to judgement or to the defenses like distraction, or whatever. A good therapist will very gently help you come back, slow you down, and then also give you some of the care that’s needed to really template self-compassion.
What does somebody who has fully integrated this logic and this emotional side? What does that sweet spot look like in greater detail?
I’ve got a lot of clients who have, recently, really been getting there. They’ve been telling me what it’s like. My husband asks me, “Did any one of your clients become enlightened this week?”, and I’m like, “Kind of,” because at some point therapies stop dealing with problems and focus in on really what is it like to go beyond that. People will say, “Wow, I didn’t know this was even possible, I feel…” one of the words they say the most is, “I feel so present.” It’s like their system is there, working. Nothing is shut down, nothing is deactivated, or being suppressed. Everything is working together, and they’re in their body, they feel strong.
Tapping into Your Core State
One word for this is what Dianna Fosha calls core state. It’s different than just an emotion. If we can let ourselves have an emotion then it passes, it sort of leaves us with this feeling of just being with ourselves. It’s a really nice feeling, a sense of truth, a sense of empathy and compassion, or appreciation of life. It’s a sense of calm, openness, being grounded, and then, as I said, present.
Everything looks really different from that core state, where the brain is just sort of working. It’s just so simple, as long as we get the parts of the brain all talking together and working, it’s beautiful—they experience what emerges.
Starting Therapy in Austin, TX
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