JENNIFER BALLERINI

Therapist Blog

What's Behind Your Anger?

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You guys, I could write SO MUCH about this topic. But here's the TL: DR version — anger is often just a surface emotion for us, a shell we use to protect our tender hearts. In EFT couple therapy we call that a secondary emotion, a feeling that shows up to cover up a more vulnerable primary emotion, like feeling hurt, alone, sad, scared, or ashamed.

To clarify, anger is a very legitimate and important feeling. Angry feelings (like being frustrated, annoyed, irritated, enraged, etc.) set boundaries on behalf of the self, push back against injustice, and assert, "This isn't right!" We wouldn't be complete as people without access to our angry feelings. For some of us, feeling angry is REALLY hard, and being angry IS the vulnerable feeling we don't want to share.

For many of us, however, feeling injured or threatened emotionally tends to put us into "fight mode." In that mode, we shield our deep-down vulnerable feelings of hurt, sadness, loneliness, fear, and shame behind an angry wall, where no one can see how much pain we're really in. Although vulnerability is really scary to share, vulnerability has a tremendously positive impact on connection and communication. When someone shares their vulnerable truth with us, we tend to melt. By contrast, when someone comes at us in an angry, scolding, or defensive way, we tend to…not melt.

For a relationship/communication boost, try slowing down when you're angry and taking a look at what else you might be feeling. Ask yourself, what was the tender, primary emotion that happened in the nanosecond before the anger? Were you sad? Were you scared? Were you ashamed? Be brave and share that core feeling with your partner in a soft way and see how it goes — you might be pleasantly surprised.

To Calm Big Feelings, Validate Them

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It was a Sunday afternoon when my then 5-year-old son first asked to go out into the front yard to have a go at his new tee-ball set. I imagine, as he drew the bat back and blasted away, he expected a pretty spectacular hit. If not exactly the kind of dinger that is only possible with the help of metabolic steroids, then at least something better than the unimpressive, well, flop that the little plastic ball did just a few feet from the tee. My son howled in anger and disappointment. In a nanosecond, my brain had produced a few possible responses: I could tell him that his body hadn't been lined up right, that his grip was off, and, in short, that he should cool it, it wasn't a big deal — we could just try again.

Fortunately, that weekend I had been at a family therapy training, and that very day my teacher reminded us that parents should always "validate before you educate." In seconds, I shifted from wanting to fix or control his reaction to just seeing my son was angry and disappointed. Of course he was! Who isn't frustrated when they want to do something and it doesn't go right? So I said, "You're mad! You wanted the ball to go far, and it didn't, and you're really frustrated! That makes sense. I'd be frustrated, too!" He looked at me as my words slowly percolated down. In about ten seconds, the wave of emotion had passed and he was ready to come back to the ball and bat, ready for my basic pointers about his at-bat form. He got the basics of baseball that day, but I was the one that learned the lesson.

This memory comes back to me often when I talk to my clients about the importance of validating emotions — for themselves, for their partners, for their children. Not because I've since been perfect in my validation as a partner and parent — sadly, my validation batting average is…not exactly 1.000. No, this is the memory that epitomizes how magical validation is, how deeply important and, well, efficient it is. A new study out of Ohio State University affirms what my family therapy teacher was saying that day: invalidating feelings makes them worse and makes it harder to feel better. In the study, only participants who were validated reported their mood went back to normal after recalling an event that made them angry. Invalidated participants found that their moods continued to decline.

Many of us are uncomfortable with core feelings like sadness, anger, fear, and even joy — often because our caregivers were similarly uncomfortable with them or because someone's out of control anger, fear, or sadness created a dangerous climate for us in the past. So, naturally, when faced with our partner's anger or our sister's sadness in the present day, we try to move away from it. Afraid it'll get bigger, grow out of control if we give it attention or imagine ourselves in their shoes. This was what fueled my (wrong) instinct to tell my son how to fix it, or try to talk him out of his angry feelings. The science is clear that if I'd done that, I would have made him angrier for longer and caused damage both to our relationship and his trust in his own feelings. I don't want that for my son or anyone I care about — and I'm sure you don't want it for your loved ones, either.

So, what is validation and what does it look like? Let's start with what it isn't. Invalidation is judging, rejecting, or ignoring another person's emotional experience. As vulnerability researcher Brene Brown says, empathic, validating statements never begin with "at least" or trying to find the silver lining. If I'd told my son "at least you hit the ball" or some version of the old classic "big kids don't cry," I would have been covertly telling my child, "your feelings are not ok." Validation is recognizing and accepting another person's emotional experience, connecting with them on a human level and undoing their aloneness. Validating statements sound like:

  • "Of course you feel like that."
  • "That makes sense."
  • "I'd feel like that, too! Anyone would in that situation."
  • "You're not crazy/wrong. That wasn't ok."
  • "I can see why you'd feel scared."
  • "That's totally normal/understandable."
  • "I've been there, too."
  • "Ugh! That's awful!"

Validation not only helps regulate emotions, it builds connection and fosters resilience. It tells people they are important, that they are accepted and cared about, that they are understood. Paradoxically, honoring their difficulty helps your loved one persevere. In my son's case, it allowed him to be open to trying again and to receiving my coaching. In contrast, invalidation fosters shame, rigidity, and toxic aloneness. So, the next time your loved one is angry, sad, or scared, try validating that it makes sense they feel bad. Counterintuitive as it may seem, it really will help them feel better faster.

Resilience in Winter: Allowing Emotional Hibernation

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I just read this lovely article by AEDP therapist Eileen Russell and wanted to share it with you. Some quotes that really struck me:

“I think of resilience as comprising processes that human beings use on behalf of the self to both survive adversity and also to thrive in favorable conditions. To my mind, resilience is not about being “strong” in the sense of being unaffected by what life throws at us. Increasingly I think it is truly about flexibility. How do we stretch into spaciousness and opportunity when it presents itself for our growth and expansion and also know when and how to contract and save energy when conditions are truly inhospitable?”

“So, can human beings contract without shutting down completely? Can we find ways to surrender to the withdrawal that happens under experiences of chronic stress without turning against ourselves or each other? If we let go of the unrealistic expectation that we could be feeling so much better if only we (fill in the blank), might we experience this mid-winter period of our lives as slightly more bearable and circumscribed? Can we develop some gentleness toward our failure to “overcome” our circumstances?"

“It is true that none of us can go to sleep for the winter. But perhaps metaphorically it is helpful to imagine that nature may have endowed people with capacities to take in less and to put out less when it is necessary for our psychic survival. If we think of this state as a kind of psychological hibernation we might be less inclined to pathologize it or to fight it as if we could actually create the stimulation and possibilities that are available to us under other circumstances. If there is a season for everything, perhaps this time invites us to rest and let go of our need to turn reality into what it is not. If we allow for a certain psychological hibernation now, we might trust ourselves to welcome “spring” when it comes. Because it will come.”

Bloom


Bloom from Emily Johnstone on Vimeo.



Just a sweet little animated story about the power of kindness and connection, especially when we're feeling low and alone. Such a beautiful reminder about how we all have inside us the capacity to grow and to bloom.

Support Dog Fail

So, maybe call a therapist instead?

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Nothing That Feels Bad...

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We Are Less Scared Together

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Trusting the Pull of Emotions

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My colleague, the awesome EFT therapist and supervisor Jennifer Olden, just shared this the other day, and I'd like to share it with you:

"My best friend is a kayaker and she shared that one of the dangers of kayaking is it’s possible to get caught in an eddy and be dragged underwater and drown.  Your best shot a survival is to not fight it. You have to let the river pull you to the bottom, relax all your limbs. At the bottom of the river, the current reverses and you will be propelled back to the top.  It’s beyond counter-intuitive to relax in the face of death… Focusing on the deepest grief, the greatest fear, and the most harrowing moments are the currents pulling us down; trusting the biology of emotion means that we know we will be propelled back up."  

I just love how Jen puts that. Almost all of us are learning to not fight the current of emotion, but to trust that there's an important biologically-driven process at work when our feelings show up. So many of us get caught in fighting the eddy, avoiding the currents trying to take you where you need to go to heal—and, honestly, who wouldn't want to avoid those currents when the eddy feels so dark and deep and dangerous?!

While we all feel the urge to avoid, it's so important that we understand that we must instead lean into the very thing that's scaring us. AEDP therapist Ron Frederick talks often in his wonderful book Living Like You Mean It about the importance of letting the wave of emotion hit you, trusting that it will move through you and take you where you need to go to feel better. When we feel our feelings all the way through, there's a sense of release and completion. So, the next time you find yourself getting pulled down by the eddy of emotion, try leaning into it, trusting it to take you where you need to go.

Know Struggle, Know Growth

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"If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters." — Frederick Douglass, 1857

I LOVE this quote. At a global level, it reassures me that the things that feel so tumultuous and threatening in our world right now are normal processes, that next season's crops come after first plowing up the ground, that pain comes before birth. It shifts me from feeling afraid and threatened to feeling more hopeful—and even curious about what growth might be on the way.

I thought of this quote recently when an awful, roaring wave of anxiety disturbed my calm ocean within. With the benefit of hindsight, I see that my seemingly unwelcome anxiety was actually the start of a beautiful process of healing something deep within me. As I healed that part of me, I felt empowered and, yes, free.

This quote reminds me to just let my feelings come, to stay open, curious, and connected (to myself and my loved ones) and trust that struggle within me is actually a harbinger of growth and change. It invites me to remember that my distress is the first sign of a process working within me toward greater healing, happiness, and wholeness. It reassures me that if I stay with my distress and trust it, relief is on the other side of that wave, because "nothing that feels bad is ever the last step."

And so I invite you to sit with this quote and notice what you feel inside as you read it. Think of how often great pain, anger, or fear has come before a place of growth, healing, understanding, relief, joy, or freedom. I wonder how it would be for you, right now, to welcome something inside you that feels hard, confusing, or scary, knowing that all you're feeling is the start of things being much, much better for you.

Bring Your Problems to Work?

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I ran across this New Yorker cartoon a while ago and I've been meaning to post it. I love it because a) it's really funny and b) it's really true! We laugh because we all recognize these kind of random anxieties, hurts, and resentments within ourselves. (I feel you, Two Years Ago I Said the Wrong Thing Lady!) It's normal to worry and to struggle—the important thing is that you never suffer alone. We all need a safe place to turn for comfort and guidance when we're besieged with these kinds of inner doubts and difficulties. So, to make this cartoon more helpful (but much less funny), if you're struggling with your own version of these kinds of challenges, don't bring your problems to work—bring them to therapy!

Walking with Anger

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One of my therapist colleagues just shared this awesome cartoon with me. It really captures the hilarious (and relatable!) gap between our aspirations of Zen-like chill and our frazzled, real-world execution when it comes to emotion regulation. Most of us strive to be good people, and sometimes our big emotions can just sweep in and thwart our best intentions.

As humbling as that message is, it's also so normalizing of those big feelings and of anger specifically. Anger is a core, very necessary emotion that helps us protect ourselves from the dangers in our world. It provides important data about our needs and gives us the oomph we need to advocate for those needs.

To make our anger most effective for us, we often work in therapy on owning and expressing our angry feelings while working not to lash out from our anger, i.e., to talk about feeling angry without acting it out, shutting it down, or using an intimidating tone or critical language with others. You know, unless they're walking too slowly in front of you…

In Praise of Vulnerability

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I came across this quote today and I wanted to share it. We have for so long been told sharing our vulnerability with others is a sign of weakness, but many of us would prefer to do just about anything than share something really vulnerable. One of my firefighter clients once told me he'd literally rather go into a burning building than tell his partner how scared he feels inside when they fight!

Being vulnerable is not only a sign of being brave and authentic, but it's also a necessary part of creating real intimacy and security. Vulnerability fuels connection. Sharing something real and tender is a big part of how we build and sustain close bonds. As those of you in EFT therapy know, we get out of the negative cycle by sharing our vulnerable feelings of loneliness, inadequacy and fear rather than hiding them behind protective walls of criticism or defensiveness.

This principle works in any close relationship. If I share something vulnerable with you, and you respond with care and understanding, I decide that you can be safe for me, which makes me more likely to open up to you in the future. "Wow — he was really kind and listened to me. I felt good sharing that with him. Maybe I can tell him more!" I learn that my sharing this part of me with you doesn't make you reject me, which helps change how I view myself. "You know the real me — even this part of me I'm not so sure about — and you still seem to like me? Maybe I'm OK after all…" Also, my sharing invites you to share something personal about yourself with me. "Wow! She really shared something vulnerable with me — maybe I can open up about this thing I've been worried about, too!" All of this creates an atmosphere of safety, acceptance, and closeness between us, a positive feedback loop where the more you share, the more I share, and we keep feeling safer and closer.

The Police Officer's Paradox

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"To function effectively in our job, you must annihilate, smother, and suppress normal emotions like fear, anger, revulsion, and even compassion. To do so otherwise is to invite overwhelming doubt or hesitancy when decisive action is required. The penalty for your achieved competence is a mindset that might as well be a foreign language to your social contemporaries. We are…victims of our own success. When these same normal and appropriate emotions…surface in personal relationships, we automatically shut down and wonder why, over time, that the people we care about the most complain that we are aloof, cold, and uncommunicative." — Lt. Al Benner, San Francisco Police



One of my clients in law enforcement shared this powerful quote with me, and I wanted to share it with you, too, because it really touched me. Firstly, it really allows us to get inside the world of the police officer, the soldier, the first-responder, to empathize with what they see, what they carry, and how they might need to shut down to carry out their duties. What a powerful thing to keep in mind, too, as we have more conversations as a society about the relationships between police officers and the communities they serve.

But this also touched me more generally, as this quote is thoughtfully addressing the toll that trauma takes on us. How living through (or growing up in) traumatic circumstances so often requires we come up with strategies that aid us in our survival, but become a hindrance as we move past our trauma and try to live and thrive in the world.

Thirdly, this is a story that many men know all too well, given the often toxic attitudes about masculinity we have in our culture. So many men are raised with the attitude that you must always be invulnerable (rub some dirt in it, toughen up, don't be a wuss, boys don't cry), you must shut down feeling to be acceptable and valued as a man…and so, at great cost to themselves, men often do that. Only to find their intimate partners, children, and other loved ones frustrated with them for becoming exactly what they've been told they're supposed to be.

The Feelings Barn

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One of my clients sent me this awesome New Yorker cartoon awhile back. Not only is it hysterical, but it's a great way of encapsulating the messages so many of us got growing up — feelings are not welcome in our family.

Be a Man

This clip explores the toxic pressures on men to hide their feelings and how we (still!!) give boys and men the sense that they must be completely invulnerable in order to be masculine. This seems to be a key reason so many men shut down and withdraw with their partners, out of the fear that they'll be seen as weak or unattractive if they share their vulnerable feelings and needs with their loved ones.

The Price of Invulnerability

Another great video from Dr. Brene Brown reviews the costs of avoiding vulnerability. When we're afraid to be vulnerable:

  • "Joy becomes foreboding—something good happens and we become compelled to beat vulnerability to the punch."
  • "Disappointment becomes a lifestyle…it's easier to live disappointed than to feel disappointed."

And, of course, we numb out. But as Brene reminds us, "you cannot selectively numb emotion." Numbing our pain and fear also means numbing the joy, love, safety, happiness, pride, and closeness that we could be feeling…and without that, we lose all the good things that can help us hang on through the hard times, all the things that make life meaningful.

The Power of Vulnerability

Dr. Brene Brown is a researcher who studies vulnerability…who hates vulnerability. Like a lot of us, Dr. Brown struggles with shame, self-judgment, and a sense of weakness when discussing her perceived failings and vulnerable emotions. Her storytelling prowess, hard-won authenticity, and self-deprecating humor make her a powerful advocate for treasuring the parts of ourselves we most want to hide.

These two devastatingly funny, heartfelt TED talks do a wonderful job of explaining how critical vulnerability is to our relationships with our selves and being authentic and how vulnerability and emotional risk is ultimately the thing that creates connection and safety with others.



Empathy 101

I assisted the awesome Jennifer Olden with one of her Hold Me Tight couples' workshops this weekend, and she shared this really wonderful video from Brene Brown on empathy. Although research continues to tell us how incredibly important empathy is to successful relationships, many of us have struggled to define what exactly empathy IS.

According to Brene, empathy has four qualities: perspective taking, staying out of judgment, recognizing emotion in others and then communicating that. "Empathy is feeling WITH people." Someone's in a deep hole, and you say, "hey, I know what it's like down here and you're not alone." An important lesson for all of is that you can't really stop someone's suffering, but you can make sure they don't suffer alone. Empathy, she says, is vulnerable because "in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling."

She also emphasizes how your empathic presence is the antidote to your loved one's emotional pain vs. trying to come up with a solution. "Rarely can a response make something better—what makes something better is connection."

Check out the clip and learn more about the awesome power of empathy…while watching a judgmental antelope eating a sandwich.

The Still Face Experiment

One of the most important things that attachment researchers have done is to demonstrate just how much we are wired for deep, emotional connection with the people that matter to us. In the brilliant — but hard to watch — Still Face Experiment, scientists asked a mother to stop responding to her baby for two minutes, to make her face still and neutral. In that short time, the baby becomes very distressed, trying and trying to reconnect with her caregiver, ultimately turning away in despair from her unresponsive mother.

Fortunately, in the video, mother and baby are quickly reunited and able to repair. But what about the baby who is not so lucky, who has — like many of us had — a depressed, neglectful, or otherwise emotionally unavailable caregiver? What might be the long term impact on that baby’s ability to manage and express emotions, to communicate, and to trust in others? Because our need for attachment is lifelong, this experiment also explains why withdrawing behaviors can be so damaging to romantic partnerships. Just as the baby goes into panic and despair at her mother’s lack of response, so might a husband or wife experience terrible pain and confusion in the face of a shut down, emotionally unresponsive partner.

This simple experiment tells us so much about our profound dependence on our attachment figures, a dependence that we never outgrow.