If feeling is healing, I want some of that – Greenspan, Part 1

My rest-of-the-summer reading will be to finish Miriam Greenspan’s “Healing Through the Dark Emotions: the Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair” www.miriamgreenspan.com. When I first heard the title of Greenspan’s book mentioned on the Trauma Therapist Podcast www.thetraumatherapistproject.com/podcasts I felt drawn to it. The title spoke to me as a therapist who wants to offer hope to people seeking support in their darkest hours.

Greenspan, interviewed for a CBC Ideas episode called “Rethinking Depression” (http://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/rethinking-depression-part-2-1.2913361), says, “Before there was depression, there was what we call despair…Despair has been with us for thousands of years. It’s part of our human endowment…We don’t think of despair as a normal emotion anymore. We think of it as something that needs to be medicated fairly quickly…” She asks, making reference to Carl Jung, “Is there anything nourishing or useful about the darker emotions…if we can bear them and not deny, avoid, distract, disavow…? The source of mental illness is our unwillingness to experience legitimate suffering”.

As a psychotherapist with 30 years of experience, Greenspan writes about how “the essence of healing emotional pain lies in listening to what hurts – in both knowing how to listen to oneself and being listened to by another”. So, how do we learn to listen to what our emotions and bodies are telling us, even – or especially – when it is painful?

After almost two decades of being involved in various forms of healing work – what I consider a pre-requisite for being a therapist - I still find it challenging to identify, be with and work through my emotions, including awareness of the bodily sensations that accompany them. I bring my experience of practicing this important but very subtle work when I am present for my clients and what comes up for them….and they teach me a lot, too.

My vacation “homework” will be to follow Greenspan’s “Seven Steps of Emotional Alchemy” – here presented in my own words. My next blog (just to keep myself honest, I have named this Part 1!), will be to present some of my “results”.

Step 1 – Set an intention to focus on getting more familiar with your emotions and what they may be telling you. This will help you to shift from the desire to just “get out” of any feeling that feels uncomfortable and to move toward accepting that pain can be of spiritual value if we attend to it.

Step 2 – Affirm your emotions – we may view them as negative because of what we have learned in our families, or culturally, but try to come up with a perspective that validates making room for difficult feelings, for example, seeing this as a strength rather than a weakness.

Step 3 – Listen to your body, noticing emotional signals for your feelings if you can, or even physical symptoms (e.g. headache, back pain). What helps you to soothe your emotions? Soothing yourself means less reactivity or acting-out. Try to name your feelings as specifically as possible [these lists can be helpful - https://www.cnvc.org/sites/default/files/feelings_inventory_0.pdf or http://thework.com/sites/thework/downloads/worksheets/Emotions_List_Ltr.pdf]. Greenspan calls this “emotional literacy” and says there are many therapists who are not trained in this skill!

Step 4 – Try to understand and have compassion for your emotional suffering in connection with society, culture, the world, the planet…While your pain may feel individual, there is usually a bigger story than your personal “defect”, for example, inter-generational trauma, social injustice, environmental destruction.

Step 5 – Practice tolerating painful or difficult feelings by staying aware, not acting on the feeling. This may be the hardest step…Just notice how you try to get away from the feeling, distract, etc.

Step 6 – Once you can tolerate a feeling, it can be helpful (if a little in contradiction to Step 5!) to do something that the emotion requires - “the right action”, Greenspan calls it, “that uses the energy of emotion with the intention of transformation”. This could take the form of taking care of yourself or others. I welcome your examples!

Step 7 – Get in touch with your intuitive, creative side and the flow of your emotions - not by going to a “figuring out” place, but by letting go and moving toward transformation and new meanings. She has some exercises to help with this that I have not looked at yet, so I will keep you posted!


Writing and reflecting on these steps here leaves me a little daunted…Just because they are written out step-by-step doesn’t make them easy to follow! Of course, this is only part of the book, so I will do my best to share what I learn along the way. I hope you will join me for this experiment and feel free to comment or reply privately.

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