A relationship expert with over 25 years experience counselling couples, individuals and families.

Jill Goldson: How to rid your life of fear

Some people know how to feel negative feelings, but they don't run from them.  Photo / Getty
Some people know how to feel negative feelings, but they don't run from them. Photo / Getty

I see two clear categories of clients in my practice. Those who come in to discuss how they are feeling, to understand why they feel the way they do. And those who come in reeling from a crisis that has reached a head. Often there's an association with acute substance abuse, or major interpersonal problems.

A recent US study of 347 adults, who were seeking psychological help, found that only three per cent of people were in danger of major depression or anxiety, simply because they could cope with negative emotions and fear.

The number of the more vulnerable people increased over ten times to 38 per cent, if they were personalities who struggled with feelings of discomfort or fear.

The difference is that the first group of people feel the negative feelings, but they don't run from them. It hurts to feel "not good", but these personalities want to understand why.

The second group, the ones who are more vulnerable to formal mental illness, are the ones who run from feelings, spinning their wheels in the dash and trying to rid themselves of the pain.

So what does this all mean? Interestingly, it turns on its head that well known message: "you should feel good and try not to feel bad". It's the much loved siren call we hear in so much of the self-help literature around.

Todd Kashdan, psychology professor, researcher and author, goes so far as to suggest this "feel good" message is one of the most toxic pieces of advice known to psychology.

Frustration, tension, and discomfort are very hard to bear. But when you try and remove yourself by denying the feelings, by blaming others, by blotting out feelings with drugs or alcohol or other compulsive behaviours, that's when things can go very wrong.

When we try and divorce ourselves from pain, we end up feeling nothing very positive at all. For this second group, the very thought of sitting down and talking their feelings out can create another jolt of resistance. This group won't seek help until the niggles become a major crisis. In some part of their minds they believe pain "should not" be happening.

This is a resistance I see often, usually at the start of work with a very distressed client. It is typically powered by the stigma of shame and vulnerability. In this state, nothing feels pleasurable or meaningful.

Of course research that tells us how to focus on factors that promote the flourishing of wellbeing is important. It would be a fool who argued otherwise.

But when popular self help and therapy tries to minimise or outlaw the negative, there is a distinct possibility of only allowing half the picture in the vital jigsaw. And resilience and robust mental health demands the whole picture.

The paradox is simply this: uncomfortable feelings like anger, anxiety, guilt, sadness and boredom can in fact make us kinder, braver, smarter, more persuasive and happier.

Anger can lead to creativity; selfishness can create courage. Often a client I talk to who feels self-doubt will also acknowledge, in that same conversation, the link with enhanced performance.

We may try and dissuade people from feeling "imposter syndrome" but to suggest that humility does not contribute to knowledge and mastery of skills would be inaccurate. Is guilt always counter productive? Not when it leads to self-improvement.

We all know the prescriptive lists of "how to feel happy": help others, think positively, be grateful, manage time, eat well and keep fit, to name but a few.

It's an age-old quest for the Holy Grail, and almost all of us seek it or hope we are moving in the right direction towards it. And who wouldn't want to be happy, or perhaps more realistically, contented?

But groundbreaking research is promoting the significance of psychological flexibility - and ironically, it is this very flexibility which is often lacking in these "how to be happy" messages. In the absence of flexibility, the message that it is "wrong" to feel negative emotions, contributes alarmingly to that unhappiness.

So in the end, the answer is one of those paradoxes: In our pursuit of happiness, we can be blinded to the value of feeling negative. What needs to be grappled with is that it is the integration of negative feelings, rather than the banishment of them, which leads to wellbeing.

The ability to tolerate pain, not to resign oneself to it, but to develop a curious exploration and interest about its meaning, is the downloaded message.

When I observe clients harnessing distressing thoughts and making sense of them, I often see their very physical demeanour alter. The relief of becoming emotionally receptive is a very, very different colour from the buttoned up denial of pain.

Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in
Leonard Cohen

- nzherald.co.nz

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A relationship expert with over 25 years experience counselling couples, individuals and families.

Jill's fascination for what makes us tick stems from sheer bloody-minded curiosity and a genuine desire to see people live healthy, happy lives. Born in Manchester, the award-winning family and relationship counsellor moved to Auckland when she was nine. Being the middle child of an immigrant family she was neither the oldest nor youngest child, neither a Pom nor a Kiwi. This kicked off a lifelong fascination with how people can make sense of transitions and how uncertainty can be turned into a greater understanding of ourselves and of those who push our buttons. Her career has spanned more than 25 years, and seen her working for the Family Court; in hospitals; universities; aboriginal training programmes, inner London social work practices, and now–her own private practice in Auckland. Whether she's counselling everyday Kiwis, highly paid power couples or the children of Bengali immigrant families, Jill has an inherent ability to tease out what's really going on in people's lives, and strategise to improve the situation, whatever that may be. • Jill Goldson is a Family Dispute Resolution mediator and counsellor, and Director of The Family Matters Centre in Auckland.

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