Feelings come first.

I have trouble with my thoughts. I don’t like a lot of them. They’re harsh, critical, and disturbing. They make me feel bad; they make me afraid.

Except they don’t.

I’ve realized that I have it backwards. It’s the feelings that come first. Feelings rise up and inspire the thoughts which then the amplify the problematic feelings, creating more problematic thoughts, and so on.

It’s a vicious cycle.

I do cognitive work on my thoughts. I analyze them for accuracy; remind myself they’re thoughts, not reality; focus on counter-thoughts; and distract myself.

It doesn’t stop them from coming, which is frustrating.

I need to work on the source. Take it back to the brain. My brain isn’t being helpful in generating the problematic emotions but being helpful isn’t actually its job.

Its job is to ensure my survival and once upon a time, the feelings that generated the problematic thoughts that led to the dysfunctional behaviours allowed me to survive.

it’s not working for me anymore and I’m getting tired of the cognitive work.

I want different feelings.

Some theories postulate that emotions are driven by physiology. Your experience of an event leads to a physiological response which the brain analyzes and attaches an emotional response to. For instance, you’re walking down the street. You step into the crosswalk but a car travelling on the road doesn’t see you and almost hits you. Your body releases adrenaline, your heart races, your breath shortens, you start to shake, and your brain decides the feeling is fear. Next time you see a car, your brain remembers and generates the same emotion in advance of anything happening. Your heart races, your breath shortens, and you start to shake even though nothing happened this time. Your brain has decided cars are dangerous and generates fear in anticipation in order to keep you safe.

Repeated instances of not experiencing a near miss allow you to recalibrate the emotional reaction; soon, cars no longer generate the fear response.

The same will apparently work with the underlying emotions that drive negative thoughts.

One of my greatest fears is other people. I’m afraid they’ll judge me, attack me, or hurt me in some way. This is because of life experiences where these things occurred. They are not, however, the majority of my life experiences with people. Unfortunately, my brain clings to the corresponding emotions that were generated – fear and anger, primarily. My brain learned the lesson and is determined to keep me safe. It has overestimated the threat. But the fear my brain generates makes the world and people difficult for me.

People are dangerous. People are scary. People judge you and find you wanting. People will hurt you. Stay away from people.

Being afraid works as far as my brain is concerned. I limit exposure to the problem. I go out of my way to avoid people. When I’m forced to interact, I’m inauthentic and boundary-free. Don’t do anything that might upset others and turn them into a threat. But mostly, I avoid. I stay in my house. I don’t join classes. I don’t go to the gym. I avoid going out with my friends. I’m afraid, and thoughts rise up that justify the fear, make it okay to give into it. In addition to the thoughts about people, there are thoughts about myself. Judgements and criticisms that make it clear that I’m not yet suitable to join the world. Wait. Wait until I’m better. Wait until I’m perfect. Wait until it’s safe.

If I’m not careful, I’ll be waiting for the rest of my life.

I’ve done some work this past year on addressing those fears. I volunteer twice a month. I joined a political group. But mostly, I stay home, keep to myself, and stay small. I put off doing things I might want to do until later, until its safe.

But putting it off re-enforces the fear, making it that much harder to try and do something the next time.

There’s a local writers’ group that I’ve stalked on Facebook for several years. I’ve wanted to go, but it’s never the right time. There will be people there, people I don’t know, in a place I don’t know, in a city I don’t know. Far better to wait. Wait ‘til I’m not scared. Wait ‘til if feels more appropriate.

Except it never will. I won’t feel better unless I take actions to prove to the fear that it’s illogical. People won’t hurt me, they won’t mock me, they won’t attack me. Places that aren’t my home are not inherently dangerous.

I can take care of myself.

So, I’m moving beyond cognitive arguments to challenging the fear this week. I’m going to the writer’s group. We’ll see how it goes.

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