Emotions can feel overwhelming. Thoughts can get stuck in endless loops. Sensations can easily be ignored or misunderstood.
So what do you do with your thoughts, feelings, and sensations? Here are three essential strategies — suppression, expression, and communication.
Suppress for Short Relief
When we're feeling overwhelmed or stuck, suppressing our inner experience relieves the pain or discomfort temporarily.
We can distract ourselves with a task or more pleasurable experience. We can minimize the experience by talking ourselves out of it, second guessing our experience, or comparing to another's. We can try to change it by problem solving or taking immediate action.
Suppression sounds bad, but it can be a very useful temporary strategy.
Sometimes we don't have the energy, time, or resources to dedicate to digesting an experience. Sometimes it's simply not the right time or place.
When we don't feel safe or resourced, temporarily suppressing our inner experience can help keep us functioning with the task at hand and, in extreme conditions, alive.
However, if we suppress our experience indefinitely, we never integrate what happened.
Like food sitting undigested in the stomach, we get a tummy ache that gets worse with time, makes it harder to eat new food, and keeps us from getting the nourishment we need when we indefinitely avoid processing our experiences.
Express for Exploration
When we express our inner experience, we let the thoughts, feelings, and sensations take shape, process, and integrate.
Journaling, drawing, dancing, singing, screaming, venting, writing, visualization, and more are ways we can express what we are experiencing with our words, movements, and imagination.
Expression is a process of self-exploration and discovery.
By letting ourselves express what's going on inside, without judgement or distortion, we become more intimate with our own experience. We give ourselves the opportunity to explore the edges, guts, breath, and heart of what we're thinking, feeling, and sensing.
This process helps us make sense and meaning of our experience, stringing pieces together, weaving with other threads, and making the quilt of our life story.
Private expression allows the raw experience to digest without social consequence.
Sometimes the act of expression alone can be all that we need to clear something stuck. Other times, sharing our experience with others is needed to help us keep moving.
If we allow ourselves to explore our thoughts, feelings, and sensations with full permission and privacy, we can tumble the rough rock of our experience and let go of what's not real or true, leaving us with a gemstone.
Communicate for Connection
Communicating is the act of letting some part of ourselves be known by another. It gives others access to our thoughts, feelings, and experience as we choose to frame them.
Talking, writing, texting, singing, dancing, drawing, and more forms of expression become ways to communicate when it's shared with another.
Communicating our story deepens the process of self-discovery.
When the intention is to connect, communication creates an interpersonal bridge. This interpersonal bridge furthers the process of self-exploration and discovery as the other listens, reflects, responds, and deepens the conversation.
Our experience, understanding, and story is illuminated by the valuable perspective and insight of another person's lens. Their reflection helps us see what was out of our sight.
The process of expression can prepare us for communication.
When we have something to share with another that is difficult because there's conflict or vulnerability, it helps to have processed it some beforehand.
Once we've gotten beneath the surface of our experience through expressive exploration, we have more information available to us to communicate to another. Because we've turned the lights on inside the room we want to let someone into, we're less likely to trip.
The Choice is Yours
You can choose to suppress, express, or communicate any given experience at any time.
You know best what you need and when.
For me, sometimes communicating with another is the first thing I want to do. I want to process my experience out loud with a supportive, empathic listener. Or I'm ready to confront or ask someone something directly without much pre-processing.
Other times I feel like I'm swimming in unknown water and I need to explore it before inviting someone else in. Maybe the water is so tumultuous that I get help from my therapist.
And then there are times when I'm not ready to explore my experience. I need to let it lay, over-winter, compost. Sometimes I can trust that when the time is right I'll find my expression, whereas other times I need a nudge to look at something I'm keeping hidden from myself.
Your intention chooses the strategy.
Interestingly, a single outward action could be done for any strategy, the difference being in the intention.
For example, you could dance to distract and cut loose when you’re feeling down. You could dance to cathartically express pain and anger. You could dance to communicate affection and desire.
The most important thing is that you let your experiences move through and become you, rather than get stuck and lost within you.
Try to notice when you're suppressing something, and see if you can let it be a choice rather than a default.
Give yourself non-judgmental space to express. Before bed, in the car, with a trusted friend, on a walk, to your dog, on the dance floor, with an expressive therapist (wink;).
Communicate when you're ready to connect, understand, or deepen your exploration with another.
Be curious about your experiences and the unfolding of your story. Give others the opportunity to learn from and with you.
Teri Lynn Grunthaner is an Expressive Therapist in Lawrence, Kansas. She works with people who long to co-create a more beautiful world—where respect, compassion, and authenticity hold the center our lives revolve around. Visit her at www.radical-hearts.com.