When we refuse to accept our emotions things can go a bit haywire! Laura Gilmartin suggests an expanded process of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy that can help us tap into our emotions and take the sometimes difficult courses of action needed for our wellbeing.

A long time ago I was taught Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to help me cope with anxiety. At the time I found CBT to be a lot of work and as the years went on I sort of forgot to practice it. CBT is a framework that helped me understand how my thoughts, feelings and behaviour impact one another. Here is your garden variety CBT diagram:

The idea is that the thoughts we entertain impact our emotions and leave us feeling a certain way, which in turn impacts our behaviour. When we are not aware this process is taking place, we can end up behaving in ways that reinforce what our thoughts and feelings are already telling us, making them more and more entrenched. For instance:

Thought: I am still unemployed because I am not qualified or skilled enough. If I go to that networking event I will have to tell people I don’t have a job and everyone will know I don’t measure up >
Feeling: Depressed >
Behaviour: I make another plan on that night and use it as an excuse not to go to the event. I miss out on a job opportunity, remain unemployed and the belief that I am not a good candidate in my field is reinforced.

CBT places emphasis on becoming aware of negative thoughts and challenging them. In the above example it might look like this:

Thought: I am still unemployed because I am not qualified or skilled enough. If I go to that event I will have to tell people I don’t have a job and everyone will know I don’t measure up >
Challenge: That’s not necessarily true. What evidence do I have of that? I went to that event last month and no one was critical of my job status >
Feeling: Okay >
Behaviour: I go to the event and someone with a good career history tells me they were also unemployed for some time, and offers to meet up for a coffee >
Thought: Maybe I am skilled enough, I just need to realise that knock-backs aren’t a reflection on me >

It is here that I fear I am oversimplifying the process. For me it took a long time and lots of practice before I even remembered to pay attention to my thoughts and challenge them, and longer still for it to become a useful habit.

I would like to unpack this process a bit more to explore how CBT can help us as activists to solve problems as they arise and help us to ask for what we need. You may find this helpful if you have found CBT useful in the past, or even if you haven’t used it before. I want to consider our beliefs – the source of our thoughts – in the process. I also want to change the word ‘behaviour’ to ‘action’ because as activists we all know the importance of taking action, and we also know that no one but us has the power and the responsibility for taking action for our health the way we take action for the health of others and the natural environment.

I would like to suggest a pattern of CBT like this:

Beliefs > thoughts > feelings > manifestation > listening > acceptance > action > outcome > feelings > thoughts > beliefs

This might seem a bit long, but hear me out! A real-life example might look something like this:

Belief: I am being selfish if I ask for help at work >
Thought: I can’t ask for help >
Feeling: Trapped >
Manifestation: I keep getting sick and have to take days off work >
Listening/Acceptance: Oh my.. I feel trapped! >
Action: I ask my supervisor for help >
Outcome: My supervisor empathises with me, asks me what I need and we put a plan together >
Feeling: I feel supported >
Thought: This was the right thing to do >
Belief: It’s okay to ask for help >

I usually don’t know to listen to my feelings until I experience a manifestation, and even then it can take months to realise the connection. This could be a physical ailment or a behaviour that I know is problematic because afterwards I just don’t feel good. I believe manifestations are often self-destructive because they are our minds trying to present us with a legitimate reason to change what we are doing, when we refuse to acknowledge that not wanting or having the capacity to do something is a perfectly legitimate reason in itself.

I believe manifestations are a sign that we have repressed emotions. We haven’t listened to our emotions and taken action to resolve them, so our bodies try to make it as obvious as possible that this needs doing.

Distractions that I have found stop me from tapping into my emotions include having the TV or radio on all the time and constantly looking at screens including social media. My very insightful sister once said to me ‘Every time I experience a negative emotion I go on Facebook!’ Alcohol can also serve as a distraction. For a lot of people I know, including myself, the answer to a tough day is often having a drink. But this has a potentially positive flipside. Friends of mine will have a night out with their colleagues and get drunk so they can create space and time to be honest about how hard they are finding work. Though binge-drinking isn’t the healthiest of pursuits, this is only really dysfunctional if they don’t also address this constructively once they are sober and back at work.

I believe we do these things because we would really rather not listen to our emotions. Resolving them means confronting others and ourselves, and they challenge beliefs we are hesitant to change because someone somewhere has taught us these beliefs will protect us as we go through life. But if we take the time to listen to our feelings we can take action sooner, reducing the harm we do to ourselves, and intervening before the problem manifests, potentially in a serious way.

I believe certain ailments can be associated with repressed emotions like:

  • Constant minor illnesses that result in us avoiding someone or something
  • Mental health problems e.g. anxiety, depression
  • Fatigue, brain fog (Ignoring our feelings constantly is hard work!)
  • Difficulty sleeping or sleep disturbances
  • Excoriation, biting our nails, nervous habits
  • Outbursts of emotion, crying often or easily, becoming full of rage and adrenaline quickly, also known as ‘flooding’
  • Constantly needing to ‘vent’ to people – Suggests we are not venting to the people who could resolve the situation

To avoid the above I’ve realised how important it is for me to have a regular practice. In the past I have seen advertisements for regular practice and have not had the time or the inclination. But now that I have one I realise they not only often have value in terms of relaxation, but they can give me the space and time needed to tap into how I’m feeling. In the past I’ve found walking very useful for this (I tried running too, but my brain screaming at me that I was in pain drowned out all my other feelings). I’ve also found speaking to a counsellor, journaling and sitting in nature very effective, but there are so many others.

Sometimes I have tapped into the emotions I am feeling, but I haven’t accepted them, so I can’t move to the next step. For me, acceptance can be the hardest part of the whole process. I used to think that action was the hardest part, but now I know that once I have accepted how I am feeling, I become much less judgmental of myself for taking the action that is needed. So many times I have become stuck at this point in the process, having accepted what I really need to do, but putting action off for as long as possible.

That’s because this shit is hard! For many activists, acceptance might look like this: ‘I am too tired to do this work right now or if I’m honest, for the next two months’. Not easy! It is hard to accept that we are not fully able to do important work. But very necessary as taking action is how we break the cycle. Taking action requires courage and leadership, as it has the capacity to affect not only us as individuals, but those around us. Once we show others we believe it is okay for us to ask for what we need, this becomes a possibility for them, too.

What happens if we don’t experience an outcome that helps to reshape our beliefs to be more positive? This is, of course, where our beliefs come from in the first place. Not putting our needs first is a learned behaviour, usually transferred at a young age, when our developing psyches are forced to take on the values of the people and society around us. But this all changes with adulthood. As adults we have the power to define our own values and ask ‘How does this outcome sit with me? Does this outcome feel right?’ If we feel uneasy about the reaction we are met with when we ask for what we need, we might question whether our environment and our values properly align.

Following this process can be so challenging because of the overwhelming presence our beliefs occupy in our existence. Over time, our beliefs become so ingrained that they become more like rules by which we live our lives. But there are of course no rules, only feelings and how we choose to act in response to them. Once we have taken action we see that they are in fact not so rule-like, but quite malleable.

Every time we experience a conflict between our values and the way we are living, we are called on to go through this process, and it is something we should do over and over again throughout our lives, to keep us moving forward. I hope that you become comfortable in this process and that each and every time you follow it there is a happier person on the other side.

Here are links to some material you might find useful if you are after a regular practice:

Day in Nature
Sustaining ourselves as Activists
Art, Anxiety and Activism
Relaxation is in your hands

Have you tried CBT? What was your experience like? What do you find yourself doing to distract yourself from your feelings? What do you do to tap into how you are feeling?