(this is raw unedited text transcribed directly from the audio)
Dr. Kenner: I can remember back when I was a child and my parents, my father especially was a salesman, so he used to travel the country, and sometimes he would take us for a long trip to Ohio – we’re from Rhode Island – and sometimes he would go on his own for a week or two weeks. Sometimes he would go with my mother and they would go overseas and one time I remember being in grade school, very young, and I remember I was called in and told that my parents would not be returning because they’re in some sort of a hurricane at sea. You can imagine the imagery that I had. I thought I had lost my parents. I thought I would never see them again and being very young and impressionable and extremely scared, I felt like travel was a danger. I encoded that, and I didn’t know why, years later, every time I went to travel or somebody I loved went to travel, I would get this rush of anxiety and I didn’t know where it came from. That’s the goal of therapy, to figure out where your feelings come from. What is the source? And when I figured it out, it basically helped me a lot because then I didn’t have to live being afraid of people traveling. And I travel and every so often that old feeling returns, but pretty much it’s dead. Pretty much when it does come back, I just feel it a little bit. I can tell myself, “Oh, that’s that old feeling. Everything is fine Ellen.”
What happens if your parents go away, even if you are an adult, and you feel scared? That’s a question I got from Janette. “Hi Dr. Kenner. My father has been away for the past six months. I’m 24 years old and I can get a bit emotional. Even though we talked daily, I couldn’t call him. He had to contact me. But he’s returned home and we can talk whenever we please. But I still find when we talk, I get choked up and feel the tears again. Why this sadness, even though he’s home? Thanks, Janette.”
So Janette, that’s why I shared my story. The old feelings can still come back. So when you’re feeling sad, sad is the emotion that we feel when we experience a loss or an imagined loss. So I was imagining that my parents had died. And an important loss would bring you to tears. Mild sadness, if you just lose your favorite sweater or something. But major sadness, if you imagine losing your parents or a loved one, and you log it in. We encode those experiences and so when your father left, even though you’re 24 years old, you’re having that strong emotion of sadness. What you want is the skill of introspecting, meaning looking inward, gently, lovingly asking yourself when you feel sad, what’s going through my mind now? And your initial answer might be, “I don’t know. I have no idea. I’m clueless.” That is always the starting point of therapy. That’s always the starting point of introspection. That’s always the start of the self-detective work.
So stay with it. You’ve asked yourself a question, “What’s going through my mind? Why am I feeling sad?” And you can ask yourself, “If my tears could speak, what would they say?” And when you say you’re a bit of an emotional person, I smiled because that might be a benefit. You don’t want to get rid of your emotions. The skill is that you want to understand your emotions. And secondarily, to make sure that they’re based on fact. Not on imaged negative outcomes such as my parents dying or some bias thinking – nobody will ever love me, I’ll be alone, I’m always abandoned.
So what types of thoughts might you discover? Well, I don’t know your personal context, but let me give you a sampler, just to kind of get the ball rolling here. You’ll obviously need to identify your own inner thoughts. It could be that when your dad first left, you had some thoughts along the lines of, “I love my Dad and I’m afraid something will happen to him.” And you can imagine, I don’t know why you couldn’t contact him – maybe he was overseas, maybe he was in the military, but that is a scary situation. What if he was in an active combat or what if he went to a dangerous part of the world? You could have done what I did and coded, “Oh my God, what if?” And in another situation, it could be that you might have felt abandoned by him. You might have felt, he could leave me for six months. Granted, you’re 24 years old, but you can look back – was there any time he ever left you? Where someone significant left you? That’s the type of therapy detective work that’s important. If you’re not feeling, oh my gosh, even though he calls every day it feels like a duty, I feel like I’m not that important in our life, that’s a conversation to have. Is that a self-esteem issue or is there a dynamic with your dad that you want to work on?
If you feel dependent on him, if that’s the type of theme that comes up – I feel dependent on him, emotionally or financially, I can’t make it on my own, then you want to figure out how to make it on your own. Because you don’t want that experience in life that you can’t make it on your own. If you feel that, “Oh my gosh, he divorced mom or she divorced him. What if he leaves me too?” You want to work through that. Again, you can always get some help with that in therapy. There’s a wonderful book, Mind Over Mood. If you’re looking for a cognitive therapist, you can go to the website AcademyofCT.org.
Of all of these types of thoughts, and maybe yours are very different, but you can look at them more carefully to see if they are fact-based. If they’re not 100 percent true, you might find that when you change your thoughts to be more accurate, your emotion changes too. It’s not that you get rid of emotions, but you might be more relaxed, You might not feel that intense sadness. And you’re also able to focus and find better solutions, if you can actually name what is going on in your mind, rather than just swimming in negative emotion. For example, when my parents leave now, I think, instead of, “Oh my God, what if something bad happens?” I think, “I hope they have a fun time. I’ll see them soon.” And that’s a very different outcome, but I had to recalibrate my own emotions.