In my office I have a sign that my clients can see from their chair. It says, “Thou Shalt Not Whine.” It’s partially meant to be a joke, but it’s also indicative of my approach to therapy. I’ll say more about that in a minute, but in this article I want to acknowledge that I’ve come to believe there is a time to whine.
Recently, I’ve gone back into therapy—as the client. I do this every few years as a way to explore my own frontiers. And it’s through this experience that I’ve come to recognize there is a time to whine. And when I say, “whine,” what I mean is there are times when we feel like victims and it is appropriate to give voice to those emotions.
Is a mature voice always better?
For many years I’ve been an advocate of giving voice to my emotions, but I’ve advocated using a mature voice. And I still do. I believe this is actually one of the most effective ways to grow myself—giving mature expression to my immature emotions. When I do this I transform my old habits.
For example, let’s say I receive what I perceive to be a rude or nasty email from someone who I think of as a friend. My immediate response is to boil my blood and want to shoot back a superiorly nasty email. If I actually do this, I’m just getting better at immaturely expressing myself. I don’t need to get better at this.
If instead, I take a moment to look at the situation from a Live Conscious point of view, I realize the other person is trying to tell me something about him, not about me. When I understand this I may begin to have some compassion for him. I realize he’s upset and hurting. I’m now able to give my immature emotions—feeling judged and rejected—a mature voice. I let him know that I hear he’s upset, and I also tell him that I disappoint and hurt myself when we aren’t getting along and I would like to do what I can to better understand his feelings and the situation.
Of course this kind of response from me, will in turn generate a completely different response from him, than if I had blasted him by immaturely expressing my emotions.
So, that’s an example of what I mean by giving mature voice to my immature emotions. Please note that I’m not ignoring my emotions. I’m not burying them. I let my friend know that I disappoint and hurt myself with his correspondence, but I’m not blaming him. I’m taking responsibility for my own emotions and feelings. I believe that each time I behave this way I actually heal something in myself.
This process I just described has eliminated the vast majority of interpersonal conflicts and drama in my life. It’s why I am a tremendous proponent of maturity. I believe that when I learn to maturely express myself, regardless of what’s going on around me, I achieve a significant milestone in my life—I’m no longer a victim. This is huge. It means I will not be reactive or defensive. I’ll be capable of listening to you even when you and I see the world in a very different way.
Okay, so where does the whining come in?
First of all, it comes within the context of being a client in therapy. This is because the therapist is capable of witnessing me in a much more neutral way than anyone else in my life. And the way we are witnessed affects us. For example, if I ask Hannah, my wife, to witness me as I express my childhood fears, she may react with her own fears in which case I might receive the message that what I’m expressing isn’t okay. So I want to emphasize the value of revealing myself to a neutral witness. This can happen in therapy and it is part of what happens at our Live Conscious retreats.
Second, presenting myself as a victim is appropriate when I’m expressing feelings from a time in my life when I was a victim, a time when I wasn’t in control and I wasn’t fully responsible for myself. This is primarily when I’m dealing with events that occurred when I was a child.
Why not give mature expression to those experiences too? Because if I was truly victimized I need to give voice to my experience in a way that’s congruent. And I need someone to witness me. We see this with upset infants who are witnessed. They calm down. They have an experience—often they can’t express themselves in words, but we can sense from looking at them how they feel. If we witness well, in essence we are saying, “Yes, I get it. Yes, I understand. Yes, what you feel makes sense.” When they are witnessed in this way, they calm down. I think they feel like, “my experience makes sense.”
When I feel adequately witnessed I release the energy (effort) I am using to resist my feelings. After someone witnesses me I no longer feel alone with my experience. I comfort myself.
A recent discovery
And what I’ve discovered in my recent therapy—as the client—is that there is a constructive way to express my childhood feelings by using the following expression:
“Sometimes I feel _____________(angry, hurt, scared, sad, alone, etc).”
What I appreciate about this expression is that it suggests my feelings are temporary—“sometimes.” I also appreciate that it doesn’t require me to take responsibility for how I feel, because as a child I didn’t feel responsible.
Now, let’s contrast this to how I generally encourage people to express their feelings using Perception Language. If you aren’t familiar with Perception Language, one key aspect is that I speak as the creator of my feelings. For example, instead of saying things like, “You irritate me,” I will say, “I irritate myself.” Instead of saying, “You disappoint me,” I will say, “I disappoint myself.” Instead of saying, “You make me unhappy,” I will say, “I make myself unhappy.” It’s true that another person may act in some way that stimulates my feelings, but I am the only one who interprets their actions and therefore I am the one responsible for how I make myself feel.
I believe that both of these expressions are extremely healthy:
“Sometimes I feel ________.”
“I make myself feel ________.”
I have worked with clients who spent a few months integrating their childhood experiences before they could accept adult responsibility for the lives they live today. At the time I wasn’t aware of the “Sometimes I feel ______” speech pattern, but I’m sure it would have been very helpful. After these clients felt sufficiently witnessed they moved on and started using Perception Language.
And recently I have discovered some of my own un-integrated feelings. On my own, I would have pushed myself to take responsibility for those feelings. But with the help of a talented somatic therapist, I’m now expressing my feelings in a healthier way. I’m grateful to her and have a renewed appreciation for the value of good therapy and the power of language.