Mask Off by Jessica Kuhnen, LCSW, MSW
Thoughts, emotions and the resulting physical reactions often happen like rapid fire. Last week we talked about how the practice of mindfulness teaches us that it is okay to allow yourself to experience, explore and accept unpleasant or even dark thoughts and emotions. The act of allowing yourself to experience and accept these emotions does not equate to acting on them or out of that emotion. Recently, I was working with an African American woman who told me she often experiences a lot of internal anger around her Caucasian counterparts. This unresolved anger resulted in passive aggressive behavior such as ignoring emails or isolating herself at work. She told me something that I often hear in the black community, “I don’t want to become the angry black woman.”
When I asked her why she felt this way towards her peers she originally stated that she didn’t know. That’s a common reaction I get when asking people why they feel a certain way, “I don’t know” and a shoulder shrug. How can we practice mindfulness and accept our thoughts and emotions when we don’t even recognize or understand them? How do we catch a thought or emotion before we act on them, if we can’t recognize or understand them? There isn’t necessarily a cookie cutter approach or answer to this because it varies based on the individual but with this client we started off by just getting familiar with her emotions in general.
I asked this client to start a journal and explore her emotions/thoughts daily while at work. After processing these journal entries we noticed that she experienced both anger and sadness when she entered the building. When asked what she thought right before or after she stated, “I looked around and didn’t see anyone who looked like me.” We also noticed that she experienced a lot of anxiety during her morning meeting. A couple journal entries later she noticed thinking that her supervisor who was less experienced and less educated than her didn’t deserve that position and thought she got it solely based on her complexion.
After processing microagression after microagression I eventually told her, “Sounds like you have a lot to be angry about”. She responded, “Now that I think about it you are right.” My client later told me that she felt very empowered by this and that she now felt like she was in the driver seat. By accepting she had the right to be angry she no longer acted purely out of emotions she didn’t understand. She started responding faster to emails, even found one coworker that she considered an ally and eventually she quit her job to find an environment that felt more inclusive to her.
Chicago what makes you angry, jealous or sad? Not Sure? Some good questions to ask yourself to get more familiar with your thoughts and emotions:
- What does anger/anxiety/sadness/frustration/happiness feel like?
- What parts of your body do you feel that emotion in? For example when I am angry I notice a tightness of chest and something crawling up my windpipes like an uncontrollable scream.
- When you are able to recognize a feeling in your body ask yourself what were my thoughts right before hand?
- What were my thoughts right afterward?
- What made me feel better?