The Truth About Emotional Work

DISCLAIMER: I am not a mental health professional. Everything in this article is purely my opinion. If you are having issues in your life that are impacting your daily ability to function please seek professional help.

I’m going to get real with you guys. This might not seem like it has anything to do with polyamory or kink, but it really does. The truth about emotional work is…well, it’s work. It’s an active thing that you have to do to build up your ability to connect with others. This is something that seems like a “well duh” statement, but once you truly understand what this means you can begin having deeper, more fulfilled, and more honest relationships.

You have to actively work on your emotions. You can’t just talk about them with your partner, communication won’t save you. You have to own your shit and then figure out what you’re going to do about it. Even if you’re the best communicator in the world and can explain all of your feelings to the people around you, if you’re not going to work with your emotions you’re not doing anything to change or adjust your behavior to be a better functioning adult.

Relationships Require Work (and not in the way you think)

You’ve heard this over, and over, and over again. They don’t just require that the two of you talk to each other, make an active effort to remain happy and engaged. They require you to work on yourself emotionally. And this is where I have a big bone to pick with some of the philosophies behind some poly practitioners.

You Can’t Meet Your Needs with Relationships Alone

One of the biggest themes I hear in poly is that it’s great because you don’t have to rely on one person to meet all of your personal needs. Whether those needs are mental stimulation, companionship, romance, sex and connection. While it’s true that it’s impossible for one person to meet your needs, it’s also not the solution to simply add more people.

I fell into this trap in my life. There was emotional work I needed to do, baggage that needed unpacking. Instead of examining the painful work that I needed to do personally, I added more people to my social life. To prove to myself that I was good at relationships and that I could meet my needs. This was incredibly selfish. I won’t deny that human nature is selfish, but there was no way I was going to truly get what I needed by leaning on more people. So in my own selfish way I was doing myself a disservice by using others, instead of selfishly focusing on myself and my own happiness. Counter-intuitive right? Let’s unpack this a little more.

I had fears and insecurities about my ability to relate to other people. This was brought on by a very poisonous relationship I had been in for about a year. It was a hot-cold nightmare where we always fought and he would punish me for being me (and I the same to him). What I needed to do after this relationship was to understand that we were both using our relationship as a way to feel better about ourselves. After it was over I needed to re-connect with myself, understand that I am enough on my own. That I don’t need to explain who I am to anyone else unless I want to, and that I could find people who accepted me for who I am without modifications or caveats. Instead, I avoided that time by having super “healthy” relationships with multiple people, where I focused on being a good communicator and being “good” at relationships. I didn’t realize it at the time but I was doing this to prove that I wasn’t like the person I was in my previous relationship.

Previously I’ve talked about how to define successful relationships, and I said that growth was one of the biggest indicators. Even though I care very much about the people I was involved with during this time (still to this day), the relationships didn’t help me grow until I did the work I needed to do.

The Work is Within You

Lets talk about jealousy. The favorite hot topic of every relationship writer ever. Jealousy is an angry, selfish emotion driven about by the fear that you will lose something that you actually don’t have to begin with. You don’t own your partners, and the harder your cling onto something with the claws of jealousy the more that thing will slip away.

So when you’re talking with your partner about feeling jealous that they have introduced another lover into their life, and that you can barely handle the pain it’s causing you, if you aren’t willing to work on that emotion on your own, no one will do it for you. It’s completely in our nature to feel like it’s our partner’s responsibility help us not feel jealous. That they should modify their behavior, or comfort us with assurances so that we can not feel jealous any more. And that assumption is completely wrong. Your partner could be the best in the world at comforting your insecurities and it still wouldn’t solve the problem that you’re insecure. You have to solve the problemOtherwise you will always come back to that emotion and demand more assistance from your partner.

So what does that work look like? It depends, but the main thing it looks like is taking time to unpack your feelings and thoughts. The main purpose of therapy is to teach you tools on how to unpack your baggage on your own. Therapy works best when you do the homework, and if you’ve ever been to therapy you might notice that it isn’t just about a therapist telling you what’s wrong with you and why. They want you to do exercises, to work that emotional muscle. Just like if you go to a physical therapist, and they assign you exercises to strengthen your weakened muscles. If you don’t do those exercises, the amount of progress you’ll see the next time you’re in the office will be less. The same with your romantic relationships. The less time you spend “exercising” your emotional needs and happiness on your own, the less progress and positive interactions you’ll see in your relationship.

Kink and Emotional Work

Kink can be a transformative tool and way for you to work through emotions that need unpacking. It also can be another way to hide from the emotions you need to work on. A somewhat controversial topic, but kink can be a way to work through trauma by allowing yourself to be exposed to a trigger in a safe environment. Note: kink is not a replacement for therapy and never will be. If you need professional help please get it, I’m not saying that you can replace therapy with a good play session. 

Trigger Warning

Triggers have been misunderstood and misused. Triggers have become a shield for people to hide behind. And I might piss you off by saying this, but fuck it let’s piss some people off. Let’s start by a non-scientific definition of a trigger.

Trigger: A situation, item, noise or emotional feeling that will elicit discomfort and traumatic memories due to a link to a past trauma

Watching movies with schizophrenic characters or sociopaths triggers me. It probably always will. When the trigger was really bad, I would have flashbacks and nightmares for weeks after being exposed to a trigger. In this way, trigger warnings before movies and posts is helpful for me, because while I was still working through the trauma it was good to be aware that if I continued to stay in the room, that I could expect to see something that might upset me. However, me being triggered should never be used as a weapon against others. I should never wave my trigger about, indignant that I have been triggered by something. Doing this is demanding that the world cater to my needs. Instead of me working through that trauma on my own, or taking responsibility and removing myself from the potentially triggering situation.

Using Your Triggers

Therapists will actually tell you to expose yourself to your triggers. The way out is through. Triggering situations will always exist, so you can go through your life trying to shield yourself from them or you can learn to deal with it better.

A simple example is I have days where I hate loud noises. Drills, hammering, sometimes even the vacuum cleaner running gets my heart pounding. There will always be loud noises, so I better learn to deal with that shit or I’m going to be a nervous wreck my whole life. My therapist told me to expose myself to icky noises on purpose. I had the assignment of putting in headphones and listening to tracks of construction noise, trains going by, etc, while in a safe environment where I could deal with the discomfort of those noises and begin to be OK with them.

If done carefully, kink can be a similar tool. This area is incredibly controversial, but I don’t see why. If you are able to create a controlled, consensual environment to expose yourself to a trigger and introduce positive feelings around that trigger as well, then I think it’s a reasonable option to consider.

Note: Only you can decide if you’re ready to introduce a trigger into your life. No one else can. Even if you’re in a D/s relationship. Hell, especially if you’re in a D/s relationship, the choice to explore a trigger must be something you decide. Not something that you decide for your submissive because you think they need to figure out their trauma. Never ever ever.

There is No Reset Button

There is no reset button for your life or your emotions. I’ve only learned this lesson recently. Sometimes we think that by moving away, ending a relationship, doing something drastic that we can reset how we’re feeling. Sometimes, it does seem like it works. Moving to a new city can be a security blanket that allows you to avoid dealing with your depression, anxiety, fears. I know because I did it. I was hurting so badly. I was the most depressed I had ever been in my life and I felt like I was going to die if I didn’t do anything about it. I found escape in traveling, and then deciding that I would leave the country to somewhere “better” for me. And just like that when I was unpacking my new apartment in a city where I couldn’t even read food labels in the grocery store, I wasn’t depressed any more. The work I needed to do was still there though, I just hit the pause button on dealing with it until I was ready.

That’s the thing. It’s sometimes OK to hit the pause button, it’s a survival mechanism. The problem won’t go away though. Once you come down from that new experience all of your emotional work will still be there, needing to be done. You can easily spot someone who can’t deal with that fact. The person who goes from one fiery relationship to another, or moves cities every few years, or has some new crazy revelation or hobby every time you see them. Not to say that every person who moves frequently is hiding from their emotional work, but it can be one of the reasons.

I’ve been one of those people for my entire life. It’s taken me a long time to realize it, and I will probably have to keep reminding myself over and over again. I’ve switched careers, cities, and focus so many times I’ve lost count. I forget where I read this but someone used the metaphor of a roller coaster. You can’t choose to get on another ride while you’re still in the middle of the ride. You shouldn’t decide what you’re doing while you’re still on the ride, you need to get off and get your bearings again before hopping on the next one. As soon as I felt discomfort or unhappiness in my life, I tried to fix it with any way other than doing my emotional work.

The truth about emotional work is that you have to put in the effort to see the change that you’re wishing for. You won’t magically feel better about your self image, or magically get over your jealousy. If you’re feeling stuck in your life or career, leaving it for somewhere new won’t solve the problem.

How to Start On Your Work

The hardest part is admitting that you need to work on something. The next hardest step is figuring out how to break down a seemingly unsurmountable task into digestible pieces. Here are some tips on how I started unpacking:

  1. Forgive yourself and accept who you are, mistakes and all. Think to yourself “I am a whole person who has made mistake just like everyone else, and that’s ok”
  2. Go to therapy. Talk to a professional about your problems. Honestly this is the most important tip. If you’re afraid of going to therapy or can’t afford it through your insurance consider something like Talkspace
  3. Read some self help books (but don’t binge on them as your next avoidance technique. Being a self-help junkie without doing the deep unpacking and work is just as bad)
  4. Start creating action items to help you along the way. Make assignments (listening to upsetting sounds when you’re in a safe space once a week) tangible items you can check off the list
  5. Remember that the work never really stops, and this is a process that you go through. You may never be ‘cured’ from what ails you. You will always have emotions, but you can begin to understand them better and not let them rule you

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