We all play many roles in life and act differently in these roles. Similarly, emotionally different aspects of us come to the fore at different times. Some days we may feel capable, strong and confident, other days we may feel unsure, overwhelmed, perhaps lost. Some days we feel open to the world and connected to others, on other occasions we may feel closed off, excluded and alone. Some days we may feel clear of purposes and direction of our life, other days we may feel like we are not sure what our life is about, overwhelmed by tasks ahead of us.
These emotional parts are seen in psychology as “body-mind states”, and each of them is understood to comprise of distinct patterning of emotions, cognitions, body sensations and action-orientation. It is understood that these “body-mind” states may in fact be memories of aspects of our repeated emotional experiences, of which often we have no conscious memory (“implicit memories”). Yet, they are stored in the part of the brain that holds feelings, known as a limbic brain or an “emotional” brain.
The extent to which we are familiar with our diverse body-mind states is an important marker of good mental functioning. The more familiar we are with patterns of emotion, sensation, cognition and action, the less distressed we get when they are activated. Understanding of our patterns also allows us to spot them sooner and helps us refrain from taking reflexive action that is associated with them.
For example, if a person feels treated unfairly, they may “react” – by getting angry, shouting, crying, withdrawing etc. Later, when the intensity of that body-mind pattern of being “hurt” subsides, the person may feel they “over-reacted” and may say that they do not know “what came over” them, that it was “not me”.
Part of work of therapy is for a client to form a good “felt” understanding of their body-mind patterns and their triggers (commonly known as “buttons” which when “pressed” make us “loose it”). Understanding our vulnerable parts gives our thinking brain a chance to step in, so we do not “react” but instead we “respond”.
Sometimes however, this may not be enough especially in relation to body-mind patterns associated with fear, which is a type of memory that adaptively is hard to “extinguish”. In other words, even though our logical brain “knows” there is “nothing to fear” our body still produces a fearful response (eg anxiety, panic, dry mouth, trembling etc).
More intensive work of memory reconsolidation may be advised. Memory reconsolidation is an umbrella term that includes experiential ways of working directly with the limbic brain. Broadly speaking, it involves accessing body-mind states that had been overwhelming and threatening to the organism’s well-being in the past. These are carefully accessed and restructured by drawing on the present day knowledge and resources of the client (which were not available at the time of the original overwhelming incident). This approach is helpful for both “everyday” fears and anxieties, as well as more complex traumas.
Trauma work understandably requires more time both in terms of preparatory work of building a Resource-full body-mind state prior to retrieval of painful memories and in terms of careful pacing of the process so as not to cause a state of overwhelm, and integrate/reconsolidate painful memories safely and effectively.
Listening to different parts of ourselves is a skill that can be learned quickly with the help of the therapist and then used to continue your own process of getting to know yourself. The less we fear and the more we understand the parts of ourselves that we had deemed to be troublesome or undesirable, the less these parts trouble us. By understanding all the voices in our emotional orchestra we can become truly at ease with ourselves, which in my view if the quickest and the most fulfilling road towards self-confidence and inner peace.