Welcome back to the Healing Pain Podcast with Dr. Joan Rosenberg
This episode, I have the honor to share with you not only a bestselling author, consultant, master clinician and someone who has given a TEDx Talk that has over 1.5 million views, but Dr. Joan Rosenberg has become one of my closest friends. As a cutting-edge psychologist, she is known as an innovative thinker, acclaimed speaker, and a trainer. She is also a two-time TEDx speaker and a member of the Association of Transformational Leaders. She has been recognized for her thought leadership and influence for personal development for over three decades. As a licensed clinical psychologist, Dr. Rosenberg speaks on how to build confidence, emotional strength and resilience.
If you are interested in building your emotional resilience to any distressing event, then this is the person you want to follow and the episode you want to read. In this episode, you will learn why handling difficult feelings is the foundation of feeling confident, how to ride away the eight feelings or emotional states, how to cultivate confidence in your life and how to handle fear and anxiety. As you know, chronic pain hurts. It can also carry with it a second arrow that can wound you emotionally which is why the topic is so important and another reason why I was looking forward to sharing Joan’s work with you. Without further ado, let’s meet Dr. Joan Rosenberg.
Watch the episode here:
How To Deal With Difficult Emotions And Unpleasant Feelings With Dr. Joan Rosenberg
Joan, welcome to the podcast. It’s great to have you here.
Thank you, Joe. I haven’t seen and talked with you in a while so I’m super excited.
I’m excited to connect with you. I’m in New York. You’re in California. We met in 2012 at a conference. You’re one of my dearest friends. I’m excited that you’re here and I get to share you and all your great information with everyone who I know.
Likewise, I am happy to spread the word as well. I’ll be sharing it equally as much.
We’re going to talk about difficult and unpleasant feelings, which can be a difficult topic to talk about especially if you’re living with chronic pain or you have some chronic condition, which many Americans have. The way you approach a lot of this is confidence is core and a big part of this. Let’s start out with what is your definition of confidence or why should confidence be an important part of the equation with someone living with a chronic health condition?
I’ve formed my definition of confidence a little bit differently than many. The way I talk about it is that it’s the deep sense that you can handle the emotional outcome of whatever you face or whatever you pursue. The two words I would underline the most in that definition are emotional outcome. When I think about emotional outcome, I think of being able to handle unpleasant feelings. The reason it’s so important with somebody that has either chronic pain or a chronic health condition is because there are aspects of unpleasant feelings that are probably evoked fairly consistently.
In the one case where there’s pain, sometimes dealing with unpleasant feelings can help mitigate pain and help diminish it a little bit. In the case of a chronic health condition, it helps with resilience and being able to go, “I don’t want to have this condition, but I’m going to be resilient. I’m going to look at the day in a certain way and I’m going to do what I can to handle the day.” For me, being able to handle the emotional outcome contributes in a very significant way to addressing both parts of that, the chronic health condition and/or chronic pain.
I like the word emotional outcome. No one’s ever used that before. I have to think about what that means in my mind for a minute, emotional outcome, a happy outcome so to speak.
Most of us want happy outcomes. I would say that is true in a positive direction as well, there are some people that also won’t handle successes. They’ll try to shut down or play it down, “It was luck,” and not allow themselves to feel the fullness of whatever that experience is from a positive angle as well. Mostly when I’m talking about emotional outcome, I’m talking about eight unpleasant feelings.
I love that you said people don’t allow themselves to experience the positive outcome as well. Sometimes people get stuck for lack of a better word. I’m sure you have a nice way to describe this, but people could get stuck somewhere. Even though they’ve been through all the various therapies, they can’t seem to like move into second gear and move up beyond that one place.
I’m trying to see if there’s a question there though.
When you say that people cannot open up or allow themselves to experience the positive, even when people have developed skills to change, I understand how to overcome things like fear and anxiety or how to move with fear and anxiety throughout their life. They still don’t quite put that into practice into their life.
In terms of the fear and anxiety or the unpleasantness, or are you talking about the pleasantness here or both?
It’s both but the first thing that rings true is fear and anxiety related to chronic pain. I’ve heard a number of psychologists start talking about the lines you’re talking is that people become very comfortable being someone who has chronic pain. It’s difficult for them to access that other form of them or a new version of the person they want to be.
I do understand that. It’s interesting because we’ve talked about it a little bit. I also deal with chronic pain. You know that I’ve had chronic pain. If I think about this more generally and people would get stuck, given your question is that, the pain becomes the dominant focus. You’ve talked about what ends up happening with people that develop a pain personality. There’s a chronic irritability or a chronic pessimism or those kinds of things. In order to move out of that stuckness, you have to think and feel beyond where you’re living. Meaning that it’s important to hold attitudes that can help you go beyond the pain. Recognizing that the pain exists, but that you continue to function and you continue to hold attitudes. For instance, such as, “I’m going to be optimistic, no matter what.” Even though I might feel the pain, I’m choosing optimism, and that’s a way for us to think beyond where we are now, or even to think beyond where we physically feel.
I know you have an entire formula created around this.
The thing I’m talking about right now in terms of attitude ties into the resilience part but yes.
Is resilience part of that formula? Maybe you should start with the formula first and you can build that out for people.
Here’s the thing, once I got into my professional life as a psychologist, one of the big questions that kept on rising to the surface for me was, what made it so difficult for people to handle unpleasant feelings? I didn’t start to get full answers in this until the neuroscience findings started to be disseminated. We’re talking about the early 2000s is when there was a flourishing of that material hitting the science journals and public, the lay press. There were a couple of different things that stood out for me and trying to solve this puzzle. One of the things was that most of us tend to experience what we feel emotionally as a bodily sensation first.
If you think about common ways, we experience feelings, something like embarrassment is often heat at the napkin into the face and maybe the whole face gets flushed that other people can see. They can see the redness, but you’re feeling the heat. Heat is a bodily sensation or I have clients that will describe anger. They’ll feel the heat in their arms for anger or heat at the back for anger or maybe a downward sensation for sadness or disappointment in the chest. The truth is it’s different for every person, but most of us experience feelings through that bodily sensation first. Bodily sensations travel faster than our thoughts. We feel it. We have the awareness that we’re feeling something.
That was a huge insight for me because what dawned on me with that is it wasn’t that we didn’t want to feel the whole range of what we feel. It’s that we didn’t want to feel the bodily sensation that helped us know what we feel. If people can get that, it’s a game changer. Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor expressed this notion. She’s the author of My Stroke of Insight. What she described was that these bodily sensations are fairly short-lived. When this rush of biochemicals floods into our bloodstream and activate those particular bodily sensations, they also flush out a bloodstream within roughly 90 seconds.
The formula for me became one choice, which has to do with choosing into awareness and a willingness to be as aware of and in touch with as much of your moment-to-moment experience as possible, dealing with eight unpleasant feelings, but with an understanding that you would need to ride these bodily sensation waves. It’s like you were on the ocean riding waves. It needs to run these short-lived bodily sensation waves in order to stay present to the feeling. We’ve got one choice, which is awareness. The eight feelings that I want people to work with are sadness, shame, helplessness, anger, vulnerability, embarrassment, disappointment and frustration. We’ve got one choice, those eight unpleasant feelings and then this idea that in order to stay present to the feeling, you need to ride these short-lived bodily sensation waves.
It’s building awareness, the choice to be with the uncomfortable sensation, helping identify those eight emotions and then surfing the wave. Can you give us an example of maybe a client who learned how to do that with regard to that formula that was specific for them?
The one that’s popped into mind as you asked the question is somebody that’s in the 90 Seconds book. She got into a huge argument with her boyfriend. She was being sarcastic. He was shutting down. She bolted from his apartment, was driving back home and angry. What ended up happening is she started to reflect on her sarcasm and how she treated him. She started to get sad and cry. Her willingness to think about what had happened, what transpired, and then to stay present to the feeling, which is what she did. She said she cried all the way home.
By the time, she got home, she also had some other insights. That’s part of what staying present to the feelings often does. She allowed herself to cry if you will to ride the waves of those tears. What she got in touch with afterwards is this is the interaction that she also used to have with her father. That they’d get into these sarcastic fights. It was like, “I don’t want to treat my boyfriend the same way I had this exchange with my dad.” Being able to stay present to all of that and to ride those tearful waves of sadness made a big difference.
The question as I’m listening to you, how many ways are there? We have a long life to live here.
The key is understanding that the feelings that I identified and why I chose these is for me, they’re the most common, everyday spontaneous reactions to things not turning out the way we want or the way we believe we need. That’s the everydayness of these reactions. We may not feel disappointed within a week. These feelings are bound to come up and come and go, maybe on a daily basis, maybe not. Within a week, we’re probably going to experience some of them. The idea is that I want people to be able to stay present to whatever that experience is. That’s why the eight and can I tell you how many waves? No, I can’t. What I can say is if you could ride one or more of short-lived bodily sensation waves of one or more of unpleasant feelings, you can pursue anything you want in life. You’ll probably pretty much be able to handle life much better.
You can pursue anything you want in life. You mentioned they’re spontaneous, which means they’re going to occur whether I like it or not. I may or may not be able to “control them.” Maybe we should talk about the word control in context, but I can learn how to ride them, which gives me the skills. Whether it’s this situation in life I’m dealing with, for example, public speaking is one thing that always gives me waves of anxiety or vulnerability. I’ve learned to ride those to the point where I wouldn’t say they don’t bother me but I would say they are significantly less. Every once in a while, a wave comes in, I’m surprised by it. I learned to ride that one and calm seas for a long time.
The notion is I want people to be able to handle or manage the experience. Think of it as the physical, emotional equivalent of stubbing your toe, you stub your toe, it hurts. It throbs for maybe a little bit and then it subsides. Could you have prevented it? Maybe, but you felt in any way. It’s like the same thing. It’s a spontaneous reaction from the emotional equivalent side. Stuff is going to come and go and feelings are transient. The thing that I want people to understand is that feelings come and go they’re transient. They are short-lived. We have reactions and ways of thinking about things that make it seem like feelings linger longer in which I can speak to. You also asked a question that I want to come back to, which was managing and control. A lot of times, people will describe themselves as control freaks or someone else would describe you as a control freak. The way I think about control is that it’s an effort to prevent feeling.
If I’m trying to control a situation, an event, a person, how I think somebody is going to respond to something, how I might respond to something or I won’t put myself in situations where I might feel something I don’t want to feel, which is these are all efforts to control. What I think people are trying to do is to prevent the emotional outcome or the eight feelings that they don’t want. I’m not interested in people in “controlling their feelings” because then they’re preventing the experience and that’s not going to help them. It’s going to leave someone feeling much more vulnerable. Instead, what I want people to do is to handle it or manage or experience and move through it. When we’re the most present in those ways, that’s when our emotional strength kicks in.
I could talk to you for hours. I have a list of questions for you that probably are more towards someone who’s struggling with unpleasant feelings. As you’re talking, I want to shift to the practitioner. Talk to practitioners, because as I’m listening to you talk about this, in the back of my mind, it sounds like this is a nice framework for practitioners as well when they’re beginning to work with patients and clients. These patients and clients are suffering in one way or another, physically, emotionally or both. How important is this work for a practitioner regarding them being effective and potentially relating to something like professional burnout?
Those are two very separate questions. The interesting thing with practitioners and I teach graduate students. What I will find extensively teaching this model or this framework to the students to use with their clients and there isn’t any one person that I’ve taught it, that hasn’t used it to grow themselves first. From an individual standpoint for the practitioner, I would say, if they can use this model and framework for themselves, their capacity to expand their own range of handling unpleasant feelings will grow. It will expand. When I work with the psychology students, what I will also say to them is that they can only take a client as far as they can go, which means their emotional range has to be wider so that they can take the client to those same places.
What it would do for a practitioner is allow them to stay more present, be more empathic and perhaps a guide more with an OT or a PT client that they’re working with. There’s also some information in the book about how to listen empathically. If they can respond to the emotional feeling first, of what’s going on for their particular client, then oftentimes it allows the client to stay more present and then to be able to do whatever’s being asked of them. It’d be a great framework for practitioners. It would be also something the practitioner could teach their clients. Everybody benefits when there’s greater awareness of how to handle feeling and emotion, especially unpleasant emotion.
To the burnout question, the way I think about it is there are two major parts to it. One is I think of burnout as unresolved and mostly unexpressed feeling. It’s combined with demand, exceeding resources, but both are typically at play. Whatever the demand is, it exceeds whatever the particular resources are. They could be mental resources. They could be emotional resources. They could be people resources. They could be time resources. They could be energy and resources. They could be financial resources, but the demand exceeds resource and there are unresolved and unexpressed feelings about both.
When we talk about these feelings, people often believe that they last a long time. “I’ve been struggling with anxiety for ten years.” “I’ve been sad for twenty years since someone pass,” let’s say. Do these feelings last that long or is there a different perspective we can take toward them?
As I said, feelings are transient. They come and go. One of the things I talk about in the book, I suggest that there are at least three very common ways that I believe people have the experience of feelings lingering or lasting even up to a decade or more. If I go the route of anxiety, I’ll talk about anxiety as being misnamed. If we go, saying, feeling sad for ten years, what ends up happening is that when somebody remembers something. We repeat a memory, a thought, a feeling and an experience in our minds.
What ends up happening is every time we repeat that, we pull up everything that was associated with that memory. Let’s say I lost somebody important to me. Every time I think about that person, especially given the specific memory, I’m going to activate an approximate firing of that same feeling. If I’m thinking about that person with great frequency and I’m thinking about that person with great frequency over time, then it’s going to feel like that same feeling keeps on lingering because I keep on repeating the thought of the memory of the experience. That’s one way that it happens.
The second is what people call thought suppression, which is the opposite. “I’m not going to think about it.” If I told you not to think about a zebra that had green and brown polka dots, as opposed to black and white stripes, you’d be thinking about the zebra that has the brown and green polka dots, even though I told you not to think about it. The odd thing about this idea of thought suppression is we have to think about the thing we say we don’t want to think about it in an effort not to think about it. Clearly, that doesn’t work. It’s a little paradoxical and we end up thinking about stuff more. Again, that creates the experience of lingering.
The other thing that happens that makes it feel like unpleasant feelings linger is that so many people are engaged in harsh self-criticism or negative self-talk, bashing themselves down, trash talking to themselves. I believe that the underlying experience of that is on our unpleasant feelings. As a result, the quality of unpleasant feelings keeps that experience going, even though what you’re focused on is the thoughts. Again, my view on the harsh self-criticism is that it’s way worse than unpleasant feelings. It’s markedly worse and they’re not equivalent at all. It becomes important to stop that.
That’s an interesting mind-body connection. You’re saying you have the negative self-talk going on and at the same time, you’re unable to open up to any type of bodily sensation that’s happening in your body and almost becomes like a loop.
You’re staying in your head. The way I think about negative self-talk or harsh self-criticism is that it’s a thought hijack of unpleasant feelings. The oddity here is that the unpleasant feelings would move through you. The more you stay looped into the thinking, which is what most people do, “I’m such an idiot. I was so stupid.” They get lost in all of that. They stay activating the unpleasantness and then it feels like the feeling continues to linger.
From your perspective, you’re saying a way into that is through the body. It’s noticing what you’re feeling. Instead of targeting cognitions, like a very traditional cognitive behavioral therapist would target cognition, try to change them or reframe them or modify them. You’re saying maybe going to the body first is the way in.
In fact, what I will ask people to do, and the beauty of it is the audience can start to change it the moment they know this or that’s the challenge I would leave the audience. If you’re reading this and you’re somebody that’s prone to harsh self-criticism or negative self-talk, I’m going to challenge you to do this the next time you catch yourself in those negative thought loops. As soon as you catch yourself in that thinking, you stop, you take a deep breath and you pause. You ask yourself, “What was it that I was experiencing that was harder for me to think, feel know, or bear that preceded my trash-talking myself.” It’s typically one or more of the eight unpleasant feelings. I would say start there and check yourself to see if you’re experiencing sadness, shame, helplessness, anger, vulnerability, embarrassment, disappointment or frustration, and then allow yourself to stay present to those feelings instead. I will tell you it makes a big shift.
There can also be a lot of loss involved with living with chronic pain relationships, loss of work, loss of income, loss of personal self-worth, the work in your book, 90 Seconds to a Life You Love, as well as your work overall?
It is significant. The way I think about it is these losses entail grief. Lots of times what we do is we stay at the level of the loss and keep on thinking about what we lost, but we don’t necessarily grieve. Meaning we don’t necessarily allow ourselves to be in the sadness, in the helplessness, in the anger and in the disappointment. Be truthful about it. This makes me sad. There’s sadness I experience with what I’m going through or frustration or whatever it might be that the more we can allow ourselves to stay present to the feelings. Again, we get pulled away then from the looping around the thoughts about the loss, instead we deal with the real truth of what’s going on. In the book, I talk about it as grief.
I have not spoken about grief on the show so I’d love to have you back and talk about that more. I do believe it’s an important part of everything that we do here on the show. We talked about confidence before. We talked about harsh criticism. We talked about compliments. What about learning to be assertive or restarting yourself into life again?
In terms of starting to take risks and doing that thing?
Yeah. Specifically, risk taking is what I’m thinking of because so often people feel like it’s a risk to return back to the life they once had if they’re learning to overcome chronic pain.
When you understand how confidence building works and I think about this most specifically as it relates to speaking up. You used the word asserting yourself, both speaking up as well as taking action. Most of us think that we have to be confident and then when we speak. It’s like, “No, I’m not going to say anything until I’m confident enough to do that.” The second part of the way we do that is we think we need to be confident before we go out and take a particular risk. The reality is confidence builds the other direction. It’s not that we’re confident first and then we do those things. For instance, with speaking it as we speak and through speaking, we gained confidence. The same is true with taking the risk. It’s through taking the risk and the action that we gained the confidence, not the other way around.
Anybody that’s learned like a musical or a sporting skill. It doesn’t matter what it is or for that matter, weaving or crocheting or dishwashing in an excellent way. I don’t care what it is. Any one of us that are cooking, that’s learned some skill has had experiences where things didn’t turn out particularly well. Through our repeated actions, we got better at it. That’s how confidence develops. My encouragement is for people to go into reclaiming their lives and understanding that the worst possible outcome of taking the risk, speaking up or asserting themselves in any given situation is going to be one or more of those eight unpleasant feelings. If they have the knowledge that they can handle it and anticipate that, I speak more directly to seven feelings. We have to be vulnerable to take the action, or we have to be vulnerable to speak up. It’s understanding that the remaining seven feelings are going to be the emotional outcome if it doesn’t turn out well. If you know you can handle those seven other feelings, then you can take as many risks as you want.
At the end of those feelings are the risk and taking action? At the end of your formula, you’re opening up and you’re becoming aware of those unpleasant sensations in your body and the eight unpleasant feelings. What happens after that is then you’re able to take action and assert yourself or be assertive in life?
No, I absolutely would go the other way around. It’s go and take the action with an understanding that the possibility exists. You might experience unpleasant feelings. If you do experience unpleasant feelings, you already know that you can ride those waves. You were talking about public speaking. What you did is you were vulnerable. You put yourself in situations to take the action of public speaking or doing the training or whatever it was you were doing, keynoting, whatever it might be. By choosing into vulnerability, you were willing to experience one or more of the other seven feelings as an outcome. When you walked off the stage, you could go, “I’m disappointed about X,” and you knew you could handle it, then that’s fine. People came up to you and say, “That was so great. I hadn’t thought about that. I’m so glad you said it or challenged us to do X, Y or Z.” Now you’re getting the positive outcome. If you know here that you can handle the emotional outcome before you take the risk, then you can go and take the risk, whether it’s speaking up or whether it’s some literal action.
If people will purchase your book, it’s 90 Seconds to a Life You Love: How to Master Your Difficult Feelings to Cultivate Lasting Confidence, Resilience, and Authenticity. You also have two amazing TED Talks. Tell us about the TED Talks.
Thank you. That’s very kind. The first TED Talk outlines the feeling premise of the book. This is many years of my work easily. The first TED Talk that I did is called Emotional Mastery: The Gifted Wisdom of Unpleasant Feelings. The 15, 16 minutes’ worth of talk outlines the overall premise that you and I are talking about now. It’s been very well-received. It is now well over a million views. I’m quite grateful that it’s touching lives. The second TED Talk I did is basically Chapter 8 in the book. The title of that one is Grief: The Pathway to Forgiveness. It talks about what I call disguised grief. It’s something that most people have either not identified or not talked about in that way. It’s particularly helpful because it’s a whole different way to understand grief.
Tell everyone how they can learn more about you, all your work, your book and the great things you have coming up.
DrJoanRosenberg.com probably is the most comprehensive place to look. If you want to dig around the internet, there are countless other interviews and such that are out there. I do have a blog that people can get access to. That’s also on my website. There’s a lot of content that’s centered around the book. I have upcoming talks. I’m waiting to hear given the circumstances, but I’m supposed to go to Amsterdam to speak at Mindvalley, which I’m super excited about. I did a talk for Pepperdine for a different graduate program. I have some upcoming webinars. I also do Facebook Live. What I would say is if people want to dig in and follow, please hook to my website, sign in, and then you can stay updated with what’s happening for me.
I have my own personal copy, 90 Seconds to a Life You Love and make sure to check it out. You can purchase it on Amazon and anywhere books are available. Make sure you go to www.DrJoanRosenberg.com. You can follow all the work that Joan is up to that helps people live a life of confidence and a life you can love. Make sure you share this episode with your friends and family on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and in a Facebook group, wherever you have people who are looking to overcome difficult feelings and cultivate lasting confidence, resilience and authenticity.
- Dr. Joan Rosenberg
- Association of Transformational Leaders
- My Stroke of Insight
- 90 Seconds to a Life You Love
- Emotional Mastery: The Gifted Wisdom of Unpleasant Feelings – TEDx Talk
- Grief: The Pathway to Forgiveness – TEDx Talk
- Facebook – Dr. Joan Rosenberg
- Amazon – 90 Seconds to a Life You Love
About Joan Rosenberg
Best-selling author, consultant, and master clinician, Dr. Joan Rosenberg is a cutting-edge psychologist who is known as an innovative thinker, acclaimed speaker and trainer. As a two-time TEDx speaker and member of the Association of Transformational Leaders, she has been recognized for her thought leadership and influence in personal development. Dr. Rosenberg has been featured in the documentaries “I Am”, “The Miracle Mindset”, “Pursuing Happiness” and “The Hidden Epidemic”. She’s been seen on CNN’s American Morning, and ABC, CBS, FOX, PBS and OWN networks, as well as appearances and radio interviews in major metropolitan markets. A California-licensed psychologist, Dr. Rosenberg speaks on how to build confidence, emotional strength, and resilience; how to achieve emotional, conversational and relationship mastery; how to integrate neuroscience and psychotherapy; and suicide prevention. An Air Force veteran, she is a professor of graduate psychology at Pepperdine University in Los Angeles, CA. Her latest book, 90 Seconds to a Life you Love: How to Master Your Difficult Feelings to Cultivate Lasting Confidence, Resilience and Authenticity, was released February 12, 2019.
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