Focusing Tip #322: What if anxiety is holding off sadness?

Focusing Tip #322: What if anxiety is holding off sadness?
March 6, 2012 Ann Weiser Cornell

“Is it possible that very sad feelings start to surface after anxiety gets better?”

Anna writes:
“I was having frequent anxiety experiences which were triggered by specific events, and it was easy to focus on this since it was easy to feel. After some therapy and positive experiences the anxiety is reduced a lot. But now it seems like some other feeling either got surfaced, or just emerged, to replace the anxiety. I don’t want to call it depression, because this word is loaded, but it’s like ‘feeling down.’ I have a suspicion it has always been there, but I wasn’t noticing it.

“Do you think it’s possible that some very sad feelings are sometimes hidden and we are not experiencing them? I’d rather feel the anxiety than this sad feeling. I started to induce the anxiety again just to occupy my thoughts to block this sad feeling. It’s difficult and scary to start focusing with this, because it’s something new, large, it looks like it occupies my whole self.

And if I do listen to it attentively and hear what it wants and needs, I might not be able to change anything, what’s the point in asking what the part wants. It’s easy to be with some temporary anxiety, especially knowing that the trigger is irrational, and is based on past experience (so it’s controlled and predicable), and it’s another thing to focus on this new emotion…”

Dear Anna,
Your experiences make so much sense! Yes, absolutely it is possible that feelings, for example very sad feelings, were underneath the anxiety, and can now come to the surface (in Focusing-speak we would say “they can now form”) because there is a safe enough space for them to form into. It sounds to me like that is exactly what is happening.

And good for you for noticing that something in you would rather feel anxious than feel this large sad feeling. Might I suggest a small shift in language? (You know me!)

“It’s scary to start Focusing with this” becomes “I’m sensing something in me is scared to start Focusing with this.” Do you feel that difference? Now you can turn with gentle curiosity toward something in you that is scared, rather than feeling like that scared feeling is you. What we’re identified with, we can’t give company to.

“I might not be able to change anything, so what’s the point in asking what the part wants?”

With a part that feels sad, I’m not such a big fan of asking “What does it want/need?” That could too often bring up a part that wants to make this feel better. It’s not about making it feel better, but about just being with it, and listening.

This may be — very likely is — something valuable in you that has not been allowed to be. It reminds me of a Focusing session I had soon after my first marriage ended. I found a feeling of sadness about the marriage ending — and I did not want to be feeling that!

Luckily, I had a good and patient Focusing partner, and I was able to acknowledge both the feelings about the marriage ending, and the parts of me not wanting me to feel that way. Then I was able to realize that the sadness was not actually about the marriage ending. It was actually sadness for the parts of me that had been unable to live in that marriage.

I sensed this “un-lived” side of me, hovering like a ghost in the room with me and my husband all those years. The sadness was for that side of me, the side that could not live in that relationship. This became very precious intention for me…to have a life where all of me could live.

I’ve seen this now in many people’s process, so now I get excited when someone finds this deeper sad place. It’s almost always the return of some aspect of the real you, your whole self, that has been shut away for some reason. I want to break out the cake and ice cream, and say, let’s celebrate!


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