One of the things that may be keeping you stuck in an uncomfortable emotion is that you are not giving it permission to exist. You may be repressing it in some way, which is understandable.
But this coping tactic can only last so long and makes things worse.
What to expect in this blog:
I want to teach you the third step in my 3 Top-Down Self-regulation openers. This comes after validation and normalization. I will do a brief review of the first two, then teach you about giving yourself permission to have your emotion(s).
Jump to a section:
Give your emotion(s) permission to exist.
To feel your feelings, you first need to give them permission to exist. "Giving permission" simply means that you are allowing your emotion to be with you in the present moment. This means that you do not minimize, deny, excuse, ignore or any other sort of reflexive cognitive adaptation to reduce the intensity of your emotion.
You are absolutely not the only person to engage in this type of coping. It's actually very common, probably something we all do on some level.
Changing your emotional state from the brain to the body
It's possible to shift your emotional state from the bottom-up or from the top-down, meaning from the body to the brain or the brain to the body. This can be helped with top-down self-regulation openers.
3 Top-Down Self-Regulation Openers
These 3 steps help to open the path for shifting your emotions. They lay the groundwork for further techniques you can use and also soften the intensity of the negative emotions you are experiencing. My 3 top-down self-regulation openers are:
Validation explained briefly
Validation is recognizing the factual matter that your emotions exist. Validation does not mean that you are okay with it or that you like it. Validation means you recognize the emotion is real.
Normalization explained briefly
Normalization is making sense of your now-valid emotions based on the context they exist in or came from. This could be the immediate context and/or the past context of your life and how it affects you in the present moment.
Why would you give yourself permission to feel your feelings?
I know this may sound odd. But look at it this way - the emotion that needs permission to exist already exists within you anyway. It’s already there, whether you like it or not. Whether you want it there or you don’t.
Your emotions exist already.
You’ve just successfully ignored, minimized, denied, stuffed down, neglected, or coped with it until this point. Now it may be time to do something different.
How to give your emotions permission to exist
Instead of those reflexive cognitive coping skills and instead of a behavioral adaptation, your challenge on this step of your journey is to allow the emotion to be present. Here's what it might sound like:
“I'm allowed to have the emotion of _____.”
“I'm allowed to feel what I have inside.”
“Other people are allowed to have emotions, and I'm allowed to also.”
“I feel them whether I want to or not. I might as well give myself permission.”
“I'm going to allow myself to feel and be curious about the emotional experience of my traumatized state.”
I want you to pick one that feels right for you or make up your own. What would that sound like? What would it sound like to permit yourself to have the emotion that you have?
Using all 3 top-down self-regulation openers
Steps 1-3: validate, normalize, and then give permission
Ground yourself back in the previous two steps you already completed. Is your emotion valid? (Does it actually exist?) Is your emotion normal? (Does it make sense that you are experiencing that based on your life context?)
If yes to both of those, then the next step is to allow it.
When you allow the emotion to be present, it can further reduce its intensity. Isn’t it exhausting to keep running away from or subduing the emotion that brings you here? Doesn’t it just leave you worn out? Frustrated? Defeated?
Instead of going down that road, let’s try a different one, which is just giving permission for the emotion to exist.
Create an image and welcoming message for your emotion
Using your imagination can be more inviting
This is a playful metaphorical cognitive technique to make the process more manageable. Eventually, this won’t be needed as you continue to practice. This is what it could sound like:
"You’re welcome to be here with me, [emotion name]. I am going to stick you in my pocket and let you hang out with me.”
Then imagine tucking it away into your pocket. That’s it. Silly, I know. That’s the point.
The point is not to ignore your emotion
Tucking it into your pocket is not intended to be ignoring the emotion. If that feels dismissive to you, create another image that works for you to feel like you’re allowing the emotion to be present with you. Here are other options:
Maybe the emotion walks beside you throughout your day.
Maybe it’s sitting on your shoulder.
It really doesn’t matter, give it an image if you have one that you think will allow the emotion to be with you in compassion.
Allow your emotion along with compassion
Speaking of compassion, ensure you anchor in safety to allow your emotion to be with you. When you’re anchored in your safety state, your curiosity in your stuck defensive state emotions will be higher. Your tolerance for allowing them to be present will also be higher.
If you’re not in your safety state enough, then there is more of a chance of dysregulation occurring if you are not prepared for this 3-step process.
If giving permission is too much for you
But even with the silly image of allowing your emotion to exist, maybe it’s still too much for you even when you are anchored in your safety state. Okay.
Allow a recent, tolerable emotion
Practicing permitting your emotions with something more manageable might be a good idea. Still make sure you are coming from compassion, but pick an emotion that is tolerable, maybe something you felt earlier in the day. These emotions might be:
worry or concern
Would you then be able to anchor in safety, validate the emotion, normalize it based on context, and allow it to be present with a silly image and message?
If negative emotions are too much for you
If allowing a negative emotion is too much for you, then you could practice this 3 step process with a more positive emotion. Examples of these emotions would be:
calm or relaxation
After allowing your emotion to exist
Further down the trauma recovery journey, you will also give the defensive Polyvagal state that underlies your emotions permission to complete an impulse that connects to it. For this step, you are just letting the emotion be present.
There's a good chance you are stuck in a defensive state and went through something that didn't allow your impulse to survive to complete. But even if you didn't, no matter where you're at on your Polyvagal ladder, there's going to be some impulse to climb up the ladder.
That is eventually a process that you will need to allow happen and complete.
One more self-regulation opener
There's actually one more top-down self-regulation opener that I have. Since your emotions are valid, normal and have permission to exist, what if you affirmed that you are worth it and the effort that it takes? I'll go into this one another time, probably in the book I am working on based on my Unstucking Defensive States course. Make sure you are signed up for my email list to be the first to know a release date.
Recommended further learning:
The Slow & Steady Path to Healing: Coming out of Shutdown
Coming out of shutdown is a process that is done slowly, but steadily. Someone in shutdown is more apt to seek out low stimulation, quiet and solitude. This blog teaches about coming out of a depressive shutdown.
Why is giving yourself permission to feel your emotions important?
Giving yourself permission to feel your emotions is important because it allows you to acknowledge and begin to process them in a healthy way. Ignoring or suppressing your emotions can lead to increased stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues.
What are the three Top-Down Self-Regulation Openers?
The three Top-Down Self-Regulation Openers are validation, normalization, and giving yourself permission to feel your emotions. These techniques help you manage your emotions from a top-down perspective, shifting your emotional state from the brain to the body.
How can I use visualization to manage my emotions?
You can use visualization to manage your emotions by giving your emotion an image and a welcoming message. This playful, metaphorical cognitive technique helps make the process more manageable and allows you to experience your emotions in a compassionate way.
Justin Sunseri is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Coach specializing in trauma relief. He is the host of the Stuck Not Broken podcast, and author of the book Trauma & the Polyvagal Paradigm. He specializes in treating trauma and helps individuals get "unstuck" from their defensive states.