I Feel Stuck: Dealing with Thoughts, Feelings, and Behaviors that Bother Me Too Much

by Tim Hibma, MSW, Associate Counselor

We all have times when we notice thoughts and emotions and have no idea where they came from. We are made up of memories. Most of our memories are stored in our brains, but they are not available to our conscious mind. Our unconscious mind operates continuously and at incredible speed, while our conscious mind tries to regulate us so that we behave according to our values.

But have you noticed sometimes having instant emotional and physical reactions to current events? Have you had annoying thoughts and feelings or pesky behaviors that trouble you, that you regret, or that impact your relationships with God and others in ways you don’t like? What can you do to help yourself when certain negative patterns seem stuck?

Every experience of our lives impacts the formation and expression of our personalities. Some unconsciously held experiences are wonderful and emotionally pleasant. These help us feel secure, confident, valuable, and loved. We thank God for them. But some of our unconsciously held past experiences are emotionally negative or overwhelming, and can result in the present in feeling anxious, overly shy, sad, lonely, or ashamed.

I have worked since 1977 as a Christian mental health counselor, both in the U.S. and overseas. When I learn that one of the reasons a client is making an appointment with me is because he or she feels stuck in negative thoughts, feelings, or behaviors, I give them the following assignment, usually before we meet in person or online:

EXERCISE 1: LIST 5 PEOPLE IN YOUR LIFE

It will help our work if you prepare a list of first names of people who have shown you love at any time in your life. The kind of love I am looking for is a godly kind of love. God loves us because of his own nature and desire to bless us. People also are capable, based on their own character, to do good to and for others. With God and such people, the good done is about them; the good they do is not based on your behavior. You do not have to perform to receive their love. You feel blessed, cared about, and enriched in response to their attention, encouragement, care, and belief. Their love has contributed to your positive self-esteem, sense of competence and worth, and sense of belonging, safety, and attachment.

When we go over your list together, I will ask you to describe how each person demonstrated love for you and in what time of your life this love occurred. Potential love-providers are parents, relatives, teachers, co-workers, teammates, friends, community members, church members, the Lord, or others. You may find that a person who showed you love at one time also let you down. For this assignment, just focus on the love that was demonstrated.

Many times, when I first meet clients, they tell me how much they appreciated this assignment because it allowed them to put their concerns “on the shelf” for a while and reflect on how they have been blessed by others.

Scripture tells us to think often of the presence of Christ, to be mindful of the reality of living moment by moment with Christ. We also can call to mind the love and grace we have experienced from people who have been important to us. In effect, we can notice that within our beings we have the spiritual resources of the Holy Spirit and scripture, and the human memory resources of being loved.

EXERCISE 2: “SAFE PLACE”

Another assignment I give clients is to call to mind a “safe place” – a place that he or she associates with feeling safe, protected, and calm. I ask the client to focus on such a place and notice how their five senses respond to that mental image.

Let’s imagine that one of the negative emotional problems that will not resolve for you is feeling distressed and anxious about public speaking. As you let your mind drift back to the first time you remember feeling this anxiety, you recall being about 5 years old and in a Sunday School Christmas program in which you had a brief speaking part. When it was your turn to speak, you froze, messed up the script, and people laughed at you. You felt panic and deep shame. In your memory, no one helped you deal with your distress, so you just had to stuff your feelings. The negative emotions and thoughts from this incident became highly charged in your mind. Now when you have occasion to speak in public, the same negative emotions quickly spring up, even if you don’t call to mind the 5-year-old’s nightmare experience.

EXERCISE 3: IMAGINING HELPING YOUR CHILD SELF

One self-help effort you can take is to use your imagination and think of how your adult self can “go to” your 5-year-old self to offer soothing and care. Or, if you are not sure how your adult self could help, imagine bringing into this distressing scene as a 5-year-old one of the people you identified in the first assignment. Who could help you, the child? Imagine their help according to the character and personality you have known and appreciated about them. Some people find it helpful to imagine bringing Jesus into the scene and notice his love and care for the child.

When we carry by imagination our adult self or other people or Jesus into the memory of distress and pain, we attach new information to the neurological memory network in our brains that had been looping over and over without resolving. The new, emotionally truthful thoughts can have a profound impact on the negative memory and bring emotional relief to where we were stuck. We do not forget the memory or try to undo it as if it never happened. Rather, we bring new, helpful information and emotion alongside the memory. This allows our mind and emotions to calm down.

Imagination is a powerful mental process which can help us or hurt us. Most often the self-help process I’ve described moves people from feeling stuck to feeling more positive and in control in situations that had been filled with negative thoughts, feelings, or behaviors. But sometimes there is no impact at all, or occasionally negative thoughts and feelings get worse. In those situations, help yourself by calling to mind your safe, calming place. Notice how good it is to meditate and rest there. When your emotions settle down, consider making an appointment with a competent Christian counselor who is trained to help you better manage or resolve such situations.

God desires that our bodies and minds heal from wounds. May he enable you to reprocess your disturbing memories with truth and love so that you are no longer stuck but instead are able to live well with your memories.

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