Why Big Emotions Can Feel Overwhelming

When my clients are early in recovery, I often notice they are apprehensive about connecting with their emotions. It makes sense. There’s a reason why emotions get tucked away in the first place.

In most dysfunctional families, it isn’t safe to have feelings, and often there’s an unspoken rule that no one is allowed to connect to or express their emotions. It may be unspoken, but everyone in the family is clear on it. With no support and for fear of repercussion, the emotional reality becomes too much for a child to process. Without emotionally attuned parents, the only way for a child to survive their reality is to compartmentalize their emotions, to section them off as if they don’t exist. And it works. We survive the difficult and painful experiences.

Fast forward to an adult sitting in my office. I tell them that part of the healing process involves connecting to their emotional reality, to those feelings that were tucked away long, long ago. I see the look on their faces, I feel the energy shift. Then I go up to my whiteboard and write out the illustration above. (Except it’s not that fancy. It’s the word feelings written out with a stick figure next to it. Thank goodness for my graphic designer!).

When my clients experience fear about connecting with their emotions, I believe they’re approaching it through the lens of their childhood self—the self that had to put away feelings as a matter of survival. The felt sense of it being scary or too much is real—those emotions were too dangerous to access in childhood. But that isn’t the current reality for the adult client sitting in front of me.

As an adult in recovery, you have the capacity to connect with the difficult emotions that have been buried for so long. Those emotions may feel big or intense at times, but they won’t be too much—if you work through them from the place of your adult self. As an adult, you have a physical and emotional capacity that wasn’t available as a child. We also have the ability to reach out for the help that we didn’t have as children.

That being said, I want to acknowledge that I don’t talk with clients about this the first time they walk in my office. By the time we reach this stage, we have usually done foundational work so that they can connect with these old emotions in a safe way. By safe I mean:

  • They have recovery tools to help ground them.
  • They know ways to comfort themselves.
  • They’ve begun to accept that having feelings is ok.
  • They have regular self-care practices.
  • They have support from a spouse, friends, and/or 12-step community. 

Even with these foundational pieces in place, the idea of letting yourself feel old emotions is daunting. On the surface, it can seem kind of nuts! It’s counterintuitive to how we have survived for so long. I get it. I’ve been there.

But here’s one more thing to keep in mind. Connecting with painful emotions from childhood doesn’t happen all at once. It’s a process. People connect to emotions as they are ready in whatever way they’re able. It may feel like a scary prospect, but it’s a fundamental part of honoring your story and healing old wounds. 

Peace on the journey,