Emotional Mastery: The Gifted Wisdom of Unpleasant Feelings by Dr Joan Rosenberg at TEDxSantaBarbara (Transcript)

DrJoan Rosenberg – Psychologist 

I’m 19 years old. I’m a camp counselor to northern Minnesota summer camp, and I’m on a hayride. It’s a beautiful night, and I’m listening in to the conversation next to me, trying to figure out how to break in, just keeping kind of to myself, not sure where it was going, how I could break in.

And just as we’re about to turn into the girls camp to the boys camp, which is where we were headed, one of the counselors turns to me, looks at me and elbows me in the ribs and says, “Hey, Joan, you know what? You’re boring.”

“Whoa! Boring? What?”

It felt like she took a fork, stabbed it in my gut and just spun it around. Now, most of us have our own versions of those gut-punch moments. I’m not sure what it is for you, but that was a big moment for me.

And that moment and a few other key life experiences really sparked my interest to become a psychologist and to understand what it was that really helps someone develop self-esteem and self-confidence. Across 35 years of research, tens of thousands of hours of counseling other individuals and teaching and supervising, there was one element that I remained captivated by and still am to this day, and it’s unpleasant feelings.

Unpleasant feelings. More than anything else, what I found is what holds people back is their inability or their challenges with dealing with unpleasant feelings. Yet, nobody really teaches us what to do or how to handle them.

It seems so silly, so silly: I’m excited about unpleasant feelings. Who the heck gets excited about unpleasant feelings? If you can experience and move through eight unpleasant feelings, you can pursue anything you want in life. How? One choice, 8 feelings, 90 seconds. It’s a simple formula, and it’s one my colleagues and clients affectionately call the Rosenberg reset.

Now, most of us believe that our happiness in life comes from the big choices that we make. And it’s actually not the big choices. There’s a real misconception there. It’s the moment-to-moment choices. Those big choices we think help us determine the degree of our happiness from a day-to-day basis, or our well-being from a day-to-day basis. Not true.

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It’s actually the little choices, the moment-to-moment ones. Ponder the moments that you have denied your feelings as opposed to pay attention to them. It’s those that matter. That’s what’s going to free you up. So, let’s unpack the formula.

One choice: Make the choice to stay present, fully present. Be aware of and in touch with your moment-to-moment experience. It’s about awareness, not avoidance. Think of a time that you’ve had a conversation with somebody. Perhaps you’ve been disappointed in a conversation with your friend, or with your partner, or your spouse. And check in with yourself here. Be gentle. Did you do what most of us do? Did you run? Did you hide? Did you shut down? Did you distract in really obvious ways, like, I don’t know, food? Alcohol or drugs? Sex? Pornography? Shopping? Social media? Did you distract or escape in less obvious ways, like tightening up, tightening those muscles, or holding your breath, or swallowing hard, just to try to keep those feelings at bay? Or did you stay fully present, aware of and in touch with your moment-to-moment experience? That’s the best choice, except it’s your choice. You make that one.

My prescription: stay present, stay fully present. You can do this. In fact, we can all do this. It just takes a willingness, it takes a formula and it takes a decision. Let’s go to the second step. The second step has to do with dealing with eight unpleasant feelings. They’re the unpleasant feelings of sadness, shame, helplessness, anger, vulnerability, embarrassment, disappointment and frustration.

Now, most of us like to see those feelings as bad or negative. They’re not bad or negative. They’re simply unpleasant and uncomfortable. So, going forward, can we make an agreement that you’re going to shift your language and it’s no longer going to be bad or negative feelings? They’re simply going to be unpleasant and uncomfortable.

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It’s an important shift. Why then do we want to avoid all those feelings? Well, we’re afraid that, if they start, they’ll never stop, or they’ll be too intense and they will overwhelm us, or we will lose control or we’ll go out of control. Except the key here is why they’re also so important. Why does it matter so much? And it matters because our experience of feeling capable in the world, of experiencing emotional strength, is directly tied to our capacity to both experience and move through those unpleasant feelings. Is it all eight at once? No, it’s not.

It’s one or a few at a time. Like, we can feel disappointment and anger at the same time. So, again, if you can experience and move through those eight unpleasant feelings of sadness, shame, helplessness, anger, vulnerability, embarrassment, disappointment and frustration, then you will experience growing confidence and emotional strength.

And what do I mean by this “move through”? Well, neuroscientists suggest that, when an emotional feeling gets triggered, chemicals are released by our brain that flush through our blood stream and they activate bodily sensations. It’s sort of a biochemical rush, and then flush.

Let me translate. And this is super important. What we feel emotionally is felt in the body first, as a bodily or physical sensation. It doesn’t feel good. Let me repeat that. What we feel emotionally is experienced in the body first, as a bodily or physical sensation. That’s what we want to distract from! That’s what we want to get away from. It’s not that we don’t want to feel something emotionally. We absolutely do want to feel emotionally! We want the whole range of feelings. We just don’t want the bodily sensations that let us know what we’re feeling.

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