Episode 86 - Transcript - Embracing Dark Emotions - Beth Kurland, Ph.D.

By Michael Rhodes | November 20, 2022

This is a transcription of Episode 86.  The transcription was done by software, apologies for anything that seems out of whack. A link to the episode is below.

Michael 0:00
Joining me today is Beth Curlin Beth, let’s just jump right into it wants tell us a little bit about yourself.

Beth 0:16
Hi. So thank you so much for having me on here.

Beth 0:20
So I am, I wear a lot of different hats. Think of. One is that I’m a clinical psychologist, and I’ve been in practice for, let’s say over 27 I think I’ve lost track of 2720 years. And I see people really across the lifespan and very passionate about the work I do. And actually on that note, I hope it’s okay, if I throw out this little disclaimer Sure, which I like to always share when I’m giving talks and speaking in front of people, it’s just that whatever I share today is strictly for educational purposes only. and is not intended in any way psychological, you know, intervention or treatment of any kind. Gotcha. I certainly encourage and actually happy to talk about this at some point, but encourage anybody who’s who may be struggling with mental health issues to seek the you know, guidance of a licensed mental health professional in their state. Anyway, so throw that out there, just my clip my psychology hat there. But I also do mind body wellness coaching. I’m the author of three books I wrote, started writing books, after my oldest, I have two children. They’re both in their mid 20s Now, but my daughter went off to college, and I had all this creative energy and started writing. So I wrote three books, two of which are focused on really reducing stress and cultivating wellbeing. And then a third book, which is a book of poetry. Finding fun, creative expression there. I love public speaking, I had an opportunity to TEDx talk just before the pandemic, which was awesome. I created an online course called the well being toolkit. And I do some blog writing for Psychology Today, I’ve created a bunch of meditations on Insight Timer and some audio courses. So a lot of creative things that I really love. And I think underlying all of it is my interest in this merging of neuroscience and psychology of mind, body, and spirit. And really trying to make sense of it all really kind of based on I think my own struggles my own humaneness. I came into the world, I believe, wired, kind of high stress a little bit more on that tight band, and certainly with a good bit of anxiety in there. And so, I, one of my graduate professors said that we teach people what we most need to learn ourselves. And I see myself really as gravitating towards a lot of things I’m so passionate about, because they’re also things that really helped me.

Michael 3:10
Yeah, well, I can relate to that. So how I found you is the Psychology Today, blog, and it discuss dark emotions. So let’s let’s dive into that. What are the dark emotions?

Beth 3:26
So the way I think about dark emotions is really emotions that are difficult, that maybe we label as difficult some people may label as even bad or I don’t want to feel those things. I think important, and I’ll get into this to not kind of go with good or bad but but that’s an our inherent reaction. But they’re unpleasant, they’re uncomfortable to feel. And so we naturally have this inclination to avoid, or to turn away from or to want to escape. And interestingly, that’s really wired into our biology. We are wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain, and that helped us survive, helped our stone age ancestors survive. And a lot of the pain that they needed to avoid back then was was external physical threats, such as the saber toothed tigers, and so forth. But we have carried this wiring along with us and yet, Now often, the way that it can be expressed for us in our lives is also avoiding our internal uncomfortable experiences, such as sadness, or anxiety or frustration or anger or those kinds of emotions that are not so pleasant to feel. So that’s a little bit about how I think about those You know, more dark emotions, if you will certainly grief. Grief would fall there for sure.

Michael 5:07
Yeah. So that’s Well, that’s one that’s relevant for sure. Here. So so let’s talk about and we’ll get into the the benefits and the house and all that kind of good stuff. But let’s talk about first the consequences of not what happens when you avoid these things, sadness and grief, perhaps, in particular, although all the obviously there’s others to throw in there shame. But but let’s try and stick with with those two of grief and sadness.

Beth 5:34
Yeah, I would say, there’s a couple of things that happen. And I, then I guess, this really, in my mind applies to all the emotions in some ways, but I think of it a couple of different analogies. So one is this kind of finger trap dilemma. And I don’t know if you’ve ever seen one of those gag toys where you put your finger, you know, one finger in each end. And, and this is actually a metaphor from Act, which is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. So this is not, you know, I didn’t come up with this. But this idea that you stick your finger in each end, and the harder you try to pull your fingers out, the more stuck you get. So, you know, spoiler alert, that way to get out is actually just put your fingers counterintuitive, like in towards each other. But but the point here is that as we fight against our internal emotions as we try to, and often I think the ways that people can react to feeling sadness, or grief is trying to ignore it, trying to push it away, we can end up inadvertently, not meaning to but getting stuck in it. Other ways that I think about this, are you imagine putting up a lid on a pot of boiling water. And that, eventually, you know that that steam has nowhere to go. And so it’s just going to start to sort of spill over, it’s going to show up in other ways. Another analogy might be imagine carrying, you know, there’s this heavy suitcase, and that that, that there may be things that happen painful events in our life, that create these emotions at that certain time. And if we don’t process those emotions, it’s sort of like carrying that heavy suitcase, everywhere we go. There isn’t that opportunity to really set it down and be able to move forward in some ways. Last analogy I have is, and this is another one from act from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, but I think it’s, it’s a really interesting helpful one is this idea of it’s called the unwanted these unwelcome party gassed or something along those lines, imagine you’re throwing a big party, and you have all these people arriving, and all of a sudden, this person arrives, who’s this unwanted guest, he’s kind of unseemly, and he’s, you know, not very polite and, and you don’t want him at the party. So you’re standing there at the door in order to, you know, keep him out, you have to stand there at the door, holding the door closed, that he doesn’t push his way in. But as you’re doing that, then you’re not able to be at the party, you’re not able to enjoy and mingle with your guests, and do all the things you want to be doing because you’re holding that door shut so tightly. And so I think that we can end up doing this with some of these more difficult emotions, and not realize that you know, so there’s a lot of ways that and I can talk more about the biology but idea that there’s some underlying survival tendencies we have and ways that these behaviors may be trying to protect us and yet, it can also prevent us from really being able to fully experience and live our lives.

Michael 9:17
So how much of this when you’re going through something like a divorce or a breakup? I think divorce especially it’s it’s harder for various reasons, but how much do you balance out because I I see and hear this all the time. In terms of doing stuff, sort of almost sort of distracting yourself. So go to the gym, go you know, go to the movies, go to dinner, like go out and experience life and how much of a balance is that? Do you need to have there because I feel like some part of that advice is detrimental because it causes you to do Ignore it. Right? But I also think you can’t sit in a corner and cry all day long. So how much? How much of a balance? Is there? How much distraction is is? And I know that probably is hard to quantify. But maybe maybe the question is, how do you know if you’re, if you’re ignoring it too much and distracting too much?

Beth 10:22
That’s a really great question. And a really interesting question to consider. I think, one is this idea of really learning how to attend to our own body signals. And I can talk more about that, and how we do that. But I think that’s a really important piece, to pay attention to what’s going on inside of me, I know, for me, there are some times when I’m feeling sadness, or loss or grief about something, and to make the space for myself to sit and whether I journal whether I just reflect whether I talk to somebody about it, allowing those feelings to come up feels I feel, then some release and some freedom internally in my body when I do that. And so that’s a helpful signal to say, Yeah, this, this emotion needs some space. No, I need some time to process this. I think we can get stuck in our stories, we can get stuck in our heads we can get. So emotions need to be felt in the body. In order to be fully processed and move through, we can get stuck in our heads. And we can get stuck in unhelpful ruminations and stories about whatever difficult events may be occurring. So when we are more in these mental loops in these unhelpful ruminations that can especially be a time to to take more action, to engage in behaviors. And sometimes, let me throw this out too, that sometimes we can just be really overwhelmed emotionally, that it just feels too big and too overwhelming that to make the space in this moment to sit and try to turn towards that is not going to be beneficial, beneficial. So in that case, it may be more wise and skillful to say, okay, what can I do? Where I can put my attention on something and I want to redefine a little bit I do this often for my clients, this idea of distraction. I kind of flip it sometimes and I call it, um, distraction. You know, technique, if you will, it depends on what we’re talking about what especially if we’re talking about more mental rumination, sure that our minds like to create these these stories, these narratives that we get stuck in. And when we make the decision to say, Hey, okay, I’m stuck in this dark place. I’m just thinking about all these negative thoughts right now. And I’m really dragging me down here, say, Okay, I’m gonna go to the gym, or I’m gonna reach out with a buddy and, you know, meet up and do something or go for a walk, when we can find things that bring us into the present moment. Okay, I’m engaged with whatever activity I’m doing. We’re actually undistracted. You know, we’re, we’re stepping out of those mental ruminations and bringing ourselves back into the present moment of what’s happening here. And now. So that can be grounding, that can be helpful, and even when there may be more emotional overwhelm, to just be able to focus on you know, what’s here, my five senses, present moment, something that can engage me, you know, doing a puzzle for somebody, you know, I’m thinking of people sometimes who have gone through enormous grief. And they just feel so overwhelmed by their emotions, being able to do something like focusing on a jigsaw puzzle, can can help ground and stabilize them. So So there’s an interesting balance of trying to make space for these emotions, but being able to tune in enough inside ourselves to know what we might need at any given point.

Michael 14:32
Yeah, I think rumination is a I think it’s one week, I think probably we all struggle with. I could be wrong there. But I feel like everyone Yeah, it feels like everyone I talked to like that’s, that’s the thing. And I think that’s probably we’ll probably get into that into the how to embrace these dark emotions to how that will probably come up. But I want to touch on a little bit though. ruminating because a lot of times I’ll I’ll talk to guys and they’ll be like, and I’ll say, Listen, you know, you need to reflect and understand what happened. And, but not sit with it. But when they sort of sit, or when they try to do that, when they try to reflect, they end up just ruminating over and over. And I think what, what that is, I think, to my layman’s term is, is they’re just, they’re avoiding actually feeling something, if they can out think the problem, they won’t have to feel the problem. And I think that’s, again, I don’t I don’t know the percentage is or how many, but it feels like a whole lot of people. That’s, that is a protection mechanism from actually feeling is that is that how you see rumination? Or Or how do you see rumination? Yeah, I

Beth 15:45
think that’s a really helpful way of describing it that oftentimes, yeah, our brains are often constantly trying to problem solve and figure out solutions. The problem is that when we’re dealing with difficult emotions, especially things like a heartbreak, or you know, things like that, they’re they’re not always solutions to be had. There are not hard and fast solutions, there might be helpful action steps, we can take n points. And that’s great to identify that. But the mind often likes to loop around almost in these dead end circles, trying to find our way out of something where you’re absolutely right. I think there are times when we just need to make contact with what those feelings are in order to help process what’s there.

Michael 16:44
Yeah, and that’s an that can be difficult. And I think we’ll get into that. Because I know how to do that myself. I’ve learned this skill, and it is a skill, I believe, to drop into my body to figure out what is this emotion doing to my body? Like physically? Is it tightness here? You know, a tension here or whatever, sort of certain things that I’ve learned. But but let’s talk about before we get into this, that sort of stuff, like, let’s talk about the whys. Why? Why would we want to embrace these dark emotions? Why would we want to feel these feelings?

Beth 17:17
Yeah, that’s a great question, too. So there’s a saying in psychology, that is, you know, What you resist persists. And there’s a good amount of research, especially in the mindfulness literature, that when we can turn towards rather than away from some of these uncomfortable emotions that we actually experience greater psychological well being. So interestingly, so some of the research suggests that when we turn towards our cravings, for example, we’re less likely to get stuck in addictive behaviors. When when we can bring curiosity and I think curiosity is a wonderful word word to think about. In terms of approaching this, you know, when we have curiosity, there’s more openness. Hmm. Isn’t that interesting that I noticed this tightness in my body right now? Or, Wow, there’s a sinking feeling that’s happening. Let me be curious about that. Let me see. What is that? What is that about? When we can turn towards our physical pain, there’s interesting research that suggests that we become less stuck in chronic pain cycles, when we can actually notice more mindfully and I can define that a little bit more. When we turn towards our sadness, we tend to be less likely to be stuck in depression. And when we turn towards anxiety, were less likely to to be stuck or paralyzed by it or more able to be able to move through it or take meaningful actions and things like that. So it Another really interesting thing is that some of the research has looked at, you know, what’s happening in the brain, when we’re experiencing different emotions and difficult emotions. And has found that just the simple act of noticing and naming what we’re feeling dials down this part of our brain, the amygdala, which is responsible for are in part responsible for our threat reaction, that part of our brain that sends a whole cascade of right to our body that that brings us into, you know, kind of more of a fight or flight response can can say more about that. But when we can just simply notice a name, what we’re feeling that dampens down turns down that response in the brain, it creates a little bit more sense of well takes intensity.

Michael 20:12
What why is that? But I mean, is that? Can you? Is that possible to quantify that? Or to find that like, Why? Why if I say, for instance, and you can correct me or give a better example, but if I, if I sit and feel, say I feel really hurt by her cheating, let’s just say I’m just throwing it out there. What, what does that do? Or how does that work that it causes some type of relief?

Beth 20:43
So, one of the things that I would say, in my understanding, is that, when we get caught in emotions, when we’re just when we’re swept in them, and I think we all can think of experiences, I started like, myself, you know, anger is an easy one, to think about where sometimes, you know, we get triggered, and we’re just in it, and, and it’s like, it can be zero to 60. It’s very, you know, it sweeps you away. And so when we’re able to notice, and name, it’s activating a different part of our brain to be able to do the noticing. And so it’s turning on this part of our brain that allows us to kind of take a half step back. And now instead of being caught in it, we’re observing it a little bit more. Let’s say ideally, non judgmentally, that may not always happen, we may there may be judgments to get, you know, in terms of why am I feeling this, but in terms of a mind way of practicing or learning and like you said, there’s the skills, right? learning mindfulness, is to be able to notice a name at from a non judgmental place, I noticed that I’m feeling a lot of anger right now. It allows us to take that half the big back again, it’s activating a different part of the brain. And we step out of those circuits that are just looping us pulling us right in.

Michael 22:24
So it when you’re in those states, like let’s call them fight or flight, freeze, fawn, whatever, everyone has different definitions, or I’ve heard that definition. So fawn is a newer one that I’ve heard recently, six months or so you’re almost in the same type of your brain is locked into this same similar state. Right? You’re not in logical, rational. Hey, let me think about this type of brain. For lack of again, I

Beth 22:52
were in survival mode.

Michael 22:54
Yeah. Okay. So okay, the excellent description. So you’re in survival mode, you’re, you’re you’re not able to think rationally. And so if you’re in, let’s call it freeze, because you’re just hurt and you don’t know what to do. And you’re just, you’re just distraught, and you’re sad, and you’re, you’re miserable. You can’t see a way a path, you have no hope. Because you’re not, you’re not using a rational brain, right? And so isn’t this really about being mindful to take a step back to maybe breathe it or do something to sort of calm yourself in some kind of way, or maybe even just the noticing is enough to calm yourself to then get into a rational brain and go, okay, my life’s not over. I’m still breathing. There’s all these other things. I mean, that’s kind of basically the what we’re trying to achieve. And when we do those, take those breaths, or whatever it is to be mindful, is to get us to a rational place, essentially, right?

Beth 23:59
Yeah, I would say, definitely do that there are these different parts of our nervous system. And so it really starts in the nervous system. And I think it’s really helpful to think about it that way to recognize that all of our emotions have a purpose. And many of you know, the the core emotions evolved to help us survive in different ways, both more what we would think of as positive and negative emotions. But a lot of this really starts in our nervous system, in our autonomic nervous system. So we have this part of our brain that’s constantly scanning our environment for cues of threat and danger or for cues of safety. And often this happens outside of our conscious awareness. And when we pick up on cues of threat and In this case, you know, it could be somebody giving you a not so happy look, or maybe somebody who’s averting their eyes or, you know, it could be a lot of subtle things, our nervous system response to those cues, in a way trying to protect us, it reads those, as you know, okay, that’s a cue of threat. And so it triggers a whole cascade of biochemical and other changes in our body, our heart rate goes up, our blood pressure goes up. So we, we initially try to respond to that by either fighting, as in fighting the saber toothed tiger or running running the heck away. And those are a classic fight or flight responses. When though, and of course, in our modern lives that can look like, you know, anger, that can look like fear, or anxiety, and everything in between there. And then when the threat maybe overwhelming for us in some way, or life threatening, although, again, in our modern lives, hopefully we don’t, you know, experience that too often. But it could just be emotionally overwhelming, then we can go into more of a shutdown mode or freeze mode. And I think more of the, you know, depression certainly lives down there, as well as just, you know, avoidance, and sometimes procrastination, tons stuckness, those kinds of things. And so our nervous system is always trying to protect us. And so it’s helpful just to name that, that when whatever is happening, you know, what I’m feeling okay. Thank you nervous system, you know, for trying to protect me. And now and here’s where so that’s like, yes, my survival brain has been activated. And, and it’s, I’m having this reflexive automatic response, that is my body’s way of trying to protect me, it may not always be the most helpful in given the, the modern day life current circumstances. And so that’s where, and this is circling back to what you were saying, to be able to turn on a different part, our most newly evolved part of our nervous system involves this social engagement system. But when we when that part of our nervous system is turned on, we feel safe, and we feel in connection with others. And so if we can be aware that I’m I’m having a survival response, we can then do things to actively turn on this other part of our nervous system or access, if you will, this other parts of our nervous system that allows us to feel more safe in connection and when we have access to that most newly evolved part of our autonomic nervous system. That’s where we have the greatest perspective taking, we feel more calm, we can see a bigger picture, we have access to more creativity and creative resources and problem solving and our own we have access to a lot more of our own inner resources to be able to step back and say, Okay, wow, this is a really hard situation what? What might be helpful here? So some of it is really about learning how to number one notice, okay, I’m having a survival response, either fight flight or, or shut down in some ways. And when that’s happening, how can I help regain control of my nervous system to shift me into a more safe physiology, where my nervous system is picking up some cues of safety, because that’s going to help me see a bigger picture that’s going to help me proceed in maybe the most skillful way.

Michael 29:15
And this is this is a skill and you have to practice it right? You can’t do it one time and or one moment, you know, if you’re in the middle of a, let’s say, I mean, I see a lot of anger in in my support group so we can go with that one. But I think I also sadness is also the one that sometimes I think concerns me more in some ways. I think anger is somewhat simpler because I think ultimately and this is my view, anger is usually just it’s a surface emotion it’s usually covering something else and if we can learn to get under it, but but but be that as it may, I do see a lot of anger. So if you’re angry, you know, you just had an interaction with your ex and she wants more money or she wants doesn’t want to give you the kid It is or whatever it is right? And you’re super pissed. And you’re, you’re not going to be able to go, Oh, I’m really pissed off, and then suddenly you’re gonna calm down and everything’s gonna be okay. And even if you are right, that’s just one time is it truly is right a skill, you must practice each and every time that you have these emotions and feelings. I mean, is that, is that correct?

Beth 30:26
I definitely think of it as a skill. There’s a neuropsychologist, who I really appreciate his research. Richard Davidson, at University of Wisconsin Madison, and I heard him in an interview once say that well being is fundamentally no different than learning to play the cello. And that it really it is a skill that we can cultivate, and we need to, at least for myself, to speak, I need to keep practicing it. Yeah. It’s not a one and done now. Sure.

Michael 30:59
Oh, definitely not so. So let’s let’s move on to the How then, because we kind of been covering it. But but let’s talk about the how to embrace these dark emotions into to really, to feel them, how do you? How do you describe that action of the house feeling these dark emotions?

Beth 31:19
Yeah, so lots of different pieces I could throw out here. The first one that I’ll say is, I think of a tool of a flashlight. And imagine that you’re walking around in a pitch black room, there’s obstacles and so forth. In the darkness, you’d be tripping over things, you’d be stumbling, and so forth. And if somebody hands you a flashlight, suddenly, the room is illuminated, and the obstacles don’t go away. But you can see more clearly can navigate with greater ease. And so when we begin to carry this flashlight around, metaphorically, right throughout our day, and begin to notice what’s happening in my body, what’s happening in my nervous system, what am I feeling, it can help to shift what’s going on. And I’m going to give you an example, in a moment of that. But some of the things that we can notice, are, like I said, noticing naming our motions. What can I label like what’s going on in here, we can notice physical sensations in our body. I feel tightness in my chest, oh, my heart starting to be faster. Oh, I feel like some kind of dropping in my stomach. You know, my, my arms are really tense, right? So noticing physical body sensations, emotions, as I mentioned, and we can notice what our thoughts are, I think that can be really helpful, especially because often our thoughts create more suffering for us. The kinds of things we say there’s like, Hey, I’m feeling sad, but then I say to myself, Oh, my God, what’s wrong with me that I’m feeling so sad, or that I must be weak, or I don’t want to be, you know, whatever we attach to that, right? That narrative often can increase our suffering. So it can be helpful to begin to pay attention to what those thoughts are. And then the last thing we can notice is, what how am I inclined to act, you know, am I going to go Am I pulled toward doing something that’s going to be unhelpful, or maybe unhealthy, or not. And so that flashlight, if we remember to turn it on, is a way of really checking in and beginning to notice these different dimensions of our experience. And a little exercise that I that I do with people sometimes, and this was just really short, but can throw it out here is to I’ll say a few phrases. And, and then I’m going to repeat them. And I’m going to change the wording slightly. So as I say, these, I want you to think about just a typical, nothing to charge. But no typical time in your week when you might feel this. And then I’m going to change the wording of it. This will make sense to you in a second. And so as I say these words, I invite you to say them in your own mind out out loud to yourself, and really then feel in your body. What comes up for you when you hear this and say this to yourself. Alright, so I’m so angry. I’m so angry. And just feel whatever that evokes in you as you might think about a time when you experience that. Hey, the next one is I’m so anxious. I’m so anxious and just kind of feel that in your body and maybe again a time you feel that way. And the third one I’ll throw out is, I’m so stupid. I’m so stupid. And again, just really pay attention to what happens in your body when you say that to yourself. And now I’m gonna go through each of those again, and I’m going to add the phrase, I noticed that and I want you to see if anything shifts or changes for you as we go through this again. So I notice that I’m feeling a lot of anger in my body right now. Notice that I’m feeling a lot of anger in my body right now. I notice that my body is going into a survival response of anxiety. I noticed that my body is going into a survival response of anxiety right now. I noticed that I’m having the thought that I’m so stupid. I noticed that I’m having a thought that I’m so stupid. So I’m curious for you. Did you? Did you sense any?

Michael 36:15
Oh, yes, it? Yeah. No, it takes you out of your it’s so funny. It’s this seems so simplistic in some ways. But yes, it it takes it I believe it takes you out of thinking and more into feeling or, or, or noticing. And it’s Gosh, it’s just seems so simplistic to me. But just in terms of it. I don’t know how to describe it. But it’s just like, well, there’s your answer. You don’t I mean, not that it’s easy. No, not that. It’s easy. But yes, yes, it absolutely takes me out of my I don’t know how to describe it. It gets me looking, which is different than feeling but not not feeling but but ruminating. Or the continuous. It just it felt like I had sort of like a mission or something like, Okay, let what what, you know, what, what is this doing to me or or whatever. It’s just, it’s, it’s, again, it seems so simplistic, but it’s it’s just I think once you master this, or I shouldn’t say master, because that’s I don’t know if you ever get to that. But I think once you practice regularly, this skill, it is a game changer, it is a life changer. And in you, you will always need to practice for sure. But once you become comfortable with it, it changes everything. For me it changes everything.

Beth 37:46
Yeah, simple but not easy. Yes, yes, sure. Yeah, and somebody and so this metaphor of the flashlight is really mindful awareness. It’s really relating to our inner experiences in with a different kind of attention. So rather than being caught in it, and so let me share this little analogy, metaphor. But either way, and then somebody shared with me, but, you know, imagine that there’s a river with a strong current, and that you are, you know, in the river, and you’re kind of being pulled, pulled down the river by that current, right, and you’re sort of splashing and thrashing about, and there you go, right. And mindfulness, or this mindful awareness. It’s like stepping out of the river, and city sitting on the bank of the river. And that water, that current is still strong, and it’s still going and it’s pulling things down along with it. But you’re able to sit on the bank and watch it or you know, even watched the chips got pulled by, but you’re not getting dragged along in it. And so by just being able to step back and take that half step back and notice what’s happening, it allows for just that little bit of space, where we’re not so swept away by whatever we’re feeling. And in that space, we have more choice about how we respond. So I think that is one really helpful skill to cultivate. But another one that I think about, and this goes back to something you were saying a few minutes ago, is what I call this tool of an anchor. And this idea of how do we anchor our nervous system, in some felt sense of safety, even in the midst of so picture, you know, a ship in the harbor, and it drops his anchor. And so even though there may be big turbulent winds aves and big passing storms, that ship remains safely anchored there. And to be able to find ways where we can do this in our own body and our own nervous system, even in the midst of really challenging situations, I think is immensely helpful. And one of the ways we can do this, is by regulating our breathing. And I know a lot of people talk about or, you know, have heard Oh, take, take a few deep breaths, and it seems like a little silly sometimes are okay, well, that’s, you know, like my grandmother told me to do, you know, but, but there’s a lot of really important science behind that, that as we can regulate our breathing, we’re actually changing what’s happening in our autonomic nervous system. So here’s a little fun experiment to try this one out. I’m curious, just for your listeners as well, I’m gonna invite you to take a deep breath. And just however you do that, take a deep breath or two right now and just notice kind of how you do that in your body.


I have the luxury here watching you. So I can see that you, you know took both a deep inhalation but also like a deep exhalation. A lot of people, when we think about taking a deep breath, they focus on the inhalation. They just kind of, you know, cut or even a lot of air. And when we’re charged, when we’re feeling more of that fight or flight, anger or anxiety or different flavors thereof. When we actually breathe in and accentuate the inhalation, it can rev up our sympathetic nervous system in a way that’s not so helpful. When we want to calm down, we want when we want to bring more calm energy into our nervous system, we want to accentuate the exhalation. Because every time we exhale, we are actually slowing down the heart rate. There’s a guess. So we’ll get into all the science behind it. But that’s the bottom line of it. So so if you’re feeling anxious or angry or more revved up, if you let the breath come in naturally through your nose without trying to inhale too deeply. And take a really nice slow exhalation really making that exhalation longer than the inhalation. You might even imagine like blowing, blowing out like through pursed lips, like through a straw. Sometimes that helps to slow down the exhalation or even a deep sigh, that actually sends cues of safety to our autonomic nervous system, that there’s no real threat here. Now, alternatively, if we’re feeling really low, and down and stuck, then we may want to accentuate the inhalation, we may want to actually take some deeper breaths in because that energizes that, that helps mobilize us that turns on that sympathetic nervous system, which maybe we need a little mobilized energy, if we’re sort of feeling like we just want to crawl in bed and pull the covers over our head. So that can be helpful. So interesting. That’s just one example of a kind of, you know, using our breath as an anchor of anchoring our nervous system in a way that can then help us feel more safe and grounded, too. I

Michael 43:54
mean, this stuff is just so fascinating to me. Like, it’s, it’s, it’s like, there are answers to deal with these emotions. It’s not like it’s, it’s impossible to get through these things to, to come out. I think especially if you learn some of these skills to come out better than you were before. It’s, it seems it feels so hopeless in the beginning, but there are ways to make yourself feel better. You know, it’s not a cure all in terms of if you’re just starting out your divorce, it’s very devastating. And but you can have these moments of no peace for a few moments where you can sort of relax, not ruminate, not get caught up in the what ifs and oh, I kind of stuff and I think I always come back to this. I feel like the answer to all of it, and it sounds. It sounds there’s a couple of things. I’m sure that it sounds to folks, but it’s all about mindfulness, right. It’s all about being aware of your thoughts and and being able to realize that you aren’t your thoughts and that you can, you can change your thoughts again, through some of these skills that we described, I really feel like, gosh, the secret to life is really mindfulness. And I know people hear that and you’re like, I don’t know, they think about monks sitting around going, Oh, or whatever. But like, that’s, that’s what I’m talking about. The ability to just be able to step back and see your or know, your thoughts or whatever, without being wrapped up in them. It’s just so it’s so important.

Beth 45:34
And I think on that note, really being aware of our narratives, oh, yeah, we feel like our nervous system reacts. And then we create these stories about what’s going on. And often these stories can be inaccurate, they can be distorted. They

Michael 45:51
can be unhelpful. 1,000%. Yes, yes. Yeah.

Beth 45:55
And they can come from all kinds of things often that can come from our childhood. Yeah. That we learned, you know, you know, you’re not, if you aren’t show sadness, you’re not strong. Yes. You know, or, you know, you should or shouldn’t feel certain things, or a lot of people, you know, carry around feelings of, I’m not good enough in some way a deep inner core, there can be that, or, you know, maybe for people going through a divorce, it’s not uncommon to have narratives that are along the lines of, you know, what’s, what’s wrong with me? I’m not lovable in some ways. I’m a failure. Yeah, yeah. And when we get stuck in these narratives are often by the way, we don’t even realize how much of those narratives are present in our mind. So part of is then shining the flashlight, and Aha, okay, let me see what’s what what am I actually saying to myself here? And then stopping to say, is this actually true? Do I know this to be true? Is this factual? Or is this me, interpreting, or maybe even, you know, distorting what’s going on, and when we can step out of those narratives, it can really bring a lot of powerful freedom or change those narratives to be to be more accurate.

Michael 47:22
Yeah, yeah, I did some, some work with narrative therapy. And man, that I find that really, really helpful. It’s, it is just about writing your story, essentially, and and then writing it, you know, in a hopeful way, or with a different perspective, you know, I am this way. Because, you know, this is what I needed to do to survive or, you know, make it make it through the child or whatever it just because you’re right, we get locked into, especially from childhood, it all goes back to childhood, let’s be honest. You we get these stories in our head about who we are, because that’s what we’re told by by folks. And then sometimes I think, a lot of times, maybe all times, honestly, we also choose mates who end up telling us that same story, in some ways, you know, maybe not initially, obviously, the honeymoon period, and maybe there’s years and whatever. But I think eventually, these stories, they sort of become self fulfilling prophecies in a sad kind of way and being able to change that narrative, but but just be aware of, again, mindfulness, like, what am I telling myself about myself? If you can answer that question in a, in a, you know, a non biased way, it’s just got so so powerful and helpful, in it really can lead you to hope, which is sometimes very hard to find when you’re going through a divorce.

Beth 48:48
And, and often, I think another piece that can be really powerful and hard, and not one that comes naturally to most people, I think, is to be able to bring some self compassion, what we’re experiencing and maybe even when people hear that word, there may be a lot of Sure. anomic nervous system reactions to blank Word. Yep. But when we can really meet ourselves where we are, and when we one way to think about it, is kind of if you were sitting with a buddy who’s going through a divorce, how would you sit with them? You know, how what would How would you be present with their suffering their pain, you know, and you probably just listen you’d hold space you might be encouraging you might be you know, just kind of put put put an arm Hey, you know, I’m here. How and it is learning how to do that for ourselves ourselves. Yeah. Trying to do that for ourselves and when we can hold our own suffering in that way it is is transformative. I have seen that time and again, and not always easy to do on our own, which is why I think sometimes working with a therapist, my bias, of course, but also my experience, like I’ve been in my own therapy, plenty.

Michael 50:19
Oh, you’ll get no argument from me on that front. I am not a therapist. But I mean, I, there are a few things in life, I think that should that everybody should be in therapy, we were raised by fallible humans who made plenty of mistakes. And as a parent, I may make them more often than I would like. So I know the we’re all damaged it to varying degrees. And in the only way to sort that shit out is to get into therapy. It’s I can’t I couldn’t recommend that enough. A good therapist, it’s just like dating Don’t settle. Yeah, cuz I don’t think the title of doctor or therapist or whatever, doesn’t mean they’re infallible either. And so you have to make it and some of it to the thing is like comfortability, like, you know, am I comfortable with this person? But but don’t don’t pick just any one. Pick a good one. And a good one is invaluable to life in my in my view?

Beth 51:17
Yeah. I think that’s important. A goodness of fit for sure. Yeah. No, to find somebody that you’re comfortable with? And I know for me, it’s been, it’s been life changing.

Michael 51:30
Yeah, for sure. You mentioned AC t a couple of times acceptance, commitment therapy, therapy? What I’ve never heard of that. Could you could you if you don’t mind? Could you dive into that a little bit?

Beth 51:41
Yeah. So just to, to say, in the context of what we’re talking about one of the things that act, so there’s really this idea of accepting our internal experiences and committing to valued actions committed to you know, identifying what, what is really most important to us, and how can we take actions based on that, and be willing to experience uncomfortable motions in the process. So So let me say that there’s something they call experiential avoidance. And it’s this idea that we can not only avoid our own uncomfortable emotions, but we can then start to avoid the experiences in which those emotions might show up. So if I’m anxious, about going to Social Security, you know, in certain social situations, right, I don’t like the feeling of anxiety. And so now I’m going to start to avoid going into certain situations that potentially could evoke that anxiety for me. And as I do that, my life is going to become smaller and smaller. Right. And so, and I mean, we could we could talk about that with with sadness, maybe or with a breakup, you know, in the sense of protecting, I’m going to protect my heart, and I’m gonna, like, not allow myself to ever feel hurt again. Right? And so, but this experiential avoidance, actually, you know, can can make our life smaller, we’re not able to sort of live fully and wholly in that way. And so part of what act teaches is, how can we develop the willingness to experience some discomfort that that is part of our human condition? And it’s not necessarily a bad thing. But you know, if I’m willing to experience a little bit of anxiety, and I know, yeah, that might happen, hey, coming on and doing this podcast, right, I always get a little bit of excitement and anxiety. But if I wasn’t willing to experience some of that, then, you know, I closed myself off from these opportunities. So it’s developing that, that willingness to be able to go after those things that we really want in our lives, and then to identify the values, what are the values that we’re committed to? And so I’m committed to helping other people. And if I can come on this podcast, and maybe that means that I have to feel a little bit nervous and anxious, you know, prior to, but if I can help one person like that, that Allah that helps me get through it. And I’ve kind of another tool that I call the beacon, just a name that I came up with, is this idea of, you know, think about a beacon like beacon of light that guides ships to shapes So Safe Harbor, and those ships might start to veer off course. But the beacon, you know, if you hold the beacon out in sight, you stay aligned with your course. And similar with us in life, if we can identify what is it that we’re most deeply committed to? Who is it that we want to be? How do we want to show up and hold that out in front of us like a beacon of light, it can help us not override, I’m not sure that’s the best word, but manage these difficult emotions that may be present in order to show up as our best self. So, you know, if I’m able to, let’s say, I’m going through a divorce, and there’s a lot of rage and anger, about, you know, interacting with my ex. And yet, part of my value is, you know, core value of, I want to really create as harmonious and environment for my kids as possible. And that’s my beacon, then even as I’m getting activated, by certain things that may, you know, be really bring up, let’s say, strong emotion of anger, or something, holding that beacon out in front of me and being able to really be committed to what’s important to me, it helps to work through or override, so you have more choice. But this is how I want to act, despite the fact that these feelings are here, I’m going to choose these actions. Yeah, it’s

Michael 56:42
about knowing your values to sort of keep you on your path. Right. You know, you’re in some ways, I guess, giving you a path it because I find I did, I did some some similar work, where I learned some of my values, but I it was not anything that I really did before. Like, I mean, I knew, like some of the things that I believed or whatever, but I never sat down and said, Okay, what are what are my values? And when you learn those, then it allows you to make decisions based on those and keep you going towards yourself in a way, right? It doesn’t, you will not that you can’t stray or make mistakes, we all do that kind of shit. But it’s more about, you’re sort of following your path and sticking to it. It I think it provides talking about safety and comfort, I believe it does. Because no matter what I’m sticking, and going this way, and that’s my way, and based on you know, my values and, and I love the the description of a beacon. I think that’s, that’s awesome. I think it’s really important.

Beth 57:46
Yeah, and it does activate a different part of the brain, when we can connect in with what we care about. It connects, it does turn on a different part of the brain that again, can help us manage whatever those strong emotions are. I’m thinking about a particular situation where my son ended up in the emergency room. It was kind of one of these new year’s eve get woken out asleep, like having to deal with and thing anyway, at the time. My I really tried to hold on to my beacon because I was extremely anxious about what was going on. It was unclear, you know, we just having some strange medical things happening. And so my beacon in that moment was to try to be a calm presence for him. And that didn’t mean that, you know, of course, I still felt super anxious. But by just holding that out in front of me, it’s like, okay, this is what how I want to show up for him. It really did help me to focus on that. And this is something that I care about. And so it helped me navigate my own challenging emotions in that moment. Yeah,

Michael 58:56
yeah, that’s incredibly important. And I, I didn’t know my own until maybe two years ago, when I went through a program that that was sort of the central part of the program is finding out your values, and I’ve used it since and it’s it. It absolutely helps you, gives you a direction, maybe even uncovers your purpose in a way, which is kind of what it did for me. Honestly, it led me to where to where I am now, when I learned, you know, connection and leadership love when I learned that these are some of my values. It was like, Well, what do I do with that? Well, here you go. Here’s, here’s some things you can do. And clearly this this podcast fulfills that. That I want to thank you I think we could probably talk for a couple of days on this stuff because I’m fascinated by topic. I’m going to ask you one last question, which is the last one I asked everybody and then we’ll get to how can people find you and your books and all that kind of good stuff. So the last question I asked everyone is what words of wisdom would you impart to a man who is just starting his divorce process

Beth 59:59
so First of all, I’d say listen to your podcast, because you’ve done a lot of work yourself and be clear from, you know, you doing this and how you talk and share. And so I think you have a lot of wisdom to impart. So some things I would say, is one seek support. And one of the things maybe I didn’t talk too much about it, but it’s just the, the utmost importance of social connection and social support. And so, that is so important to have supportive people that one can talk to. I think, another thing is, I would put in a plug for I’m talking to a therapist, if no, again, that’s my bias. But if one needs it, if one is really feeling overwhelmed and struggling, this idea of just knowing you don’t have to do this alone. Yeah. And I think that that’s really important. And it’s, it’s not a sign of weakness, in any way, I think the opposite, I think being able to reach out for help, whether to friends, or to a therapist, or whomever is a great sign of strength. I think that knowing that there is a mourning process, that a divorce is, is a kind of a death, you know, it’s this death of a relationship. And, and it’s okay and normal and important to be able to grieve in whatever way shape or form that looks like. And so to, to give oneself permission to do that. And to know that there’s no right way or wrong way to go through that or to feel also being aware of those unhelpful narrative. So to really be able to catch those, so that you’re not getting pulled into the grip of that. I would say if there’s any kids involved, one of the biggest gifts that you can give the kids would be to really minimize conflict as much as possible and not talk badly about the ex to the kids. I think that’s that would certainly be some advice, you know, hopefully the trickle down and have a positive effect there. And then finally, is this idea of kind of building a container of safety for your nervous system. And I borrow that phrase from Michael Allison, who I’m taking a wonderful class with, but but this idea of having routines of having, you know, maybe it’s exercise, breathing, meditation, social connection, movement, creative expression, music, being in nature, having these healthy, go to strategies for when you’re stressed, for when you’re, you know, struggling and being able to identify what those things are? To help you through?

Michael 1:03:04
Yeah, I mean, you hit them all. Excellent. Words of advice to everybody. Thank you so much for that. Where, where can where can people find you and your book? And what’s the best way to reach Beth?

Beth 1:03:16
Yeah, um, and actually, I can do mind if I throw out one more. No, no, no, I just thought of that I didn’t want to miss because it’s go for it. But, but being able to take pen to paper, and sometimes, right, yeah, what one is experiencing feeling can also be another way of stepping out of, you know, these mental rumination to be able to get a little perspective. And there’s just a fascinating study that I came across before, you had reached out to me about doing this interview, where they, and this is from a book called Emotional agility. But she talked about these 100 senior engineers who had been laid off and most of these men were in their 50s. And they couldn’t find work. So after four months, they took this group of them that hadn’t been able to find work. And they did this intervention, where they asked some of the group to write about their, their feelings about their emotions of, you know, being laid off and so forth. And then there was a control group. And what they found was that the men who delved into their motions through through this journaling, were three times more likely to get reemployed. Wow. The control group because the writing not only helped them to process the emotions, but then because they process their emotions, they were able to take more meaningful and helpful actions. So that’s just another last tool throughout, but I think there’s some power in the

Michael 1:04:47
writing. Yeah, no, agreed. I completely agree. Yep. Yeah.

Beth 1:04:51
So in terms of where people can find me, I have a website, which is just my name. Beth kurland.com. Can you are l&d I’m calling.com. And on my website, I have a bunch of resources. Also, people can find me on Insight Timer, if they’re interested in any of my meditations, or I have two audio courses that help with stress. Yeah, so probably easiest.

Michael 1:05:21
Awesome. Well, again, thank you so much for doing this. I really appreciate it. We will definitely. Let’s do it again. There’s definitely more info to be mined here. Before. Before we go. I want to ask you to hang on because I got a couple of questions for you. And sometimes I forget to say to the people when they sign off, so So hang on for a few minutes, but but again, thank you so very much for joining us. I really

Beth 1:05:42
Oh, this was wonderful. Thank you so much for having me. You’re welcome.

Episode 86 – Embracing Dark Emotions – Beth Kurland, Ph.D.



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