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Shift From Perseverating to Processing Feelings and GOOD MATERIAL by Dolly Alderton

Cover of the book Good Material by Dolly Alderton used to teach concept of perseverating versus processing feelings.

Andy was deeply in love. Then Jen, his girlfriend of almost four years, broke up with him, leaving Andy heartbroken and maniacally curious. He didn’t get it. Andy thought that understanding the mysterious “why” of their breakup would be the key for him to either get her back or move on. To get to the bottom of the mysterious breakup, Andy re-read their texts, weaseled scraps of info from mutual friends, and stalked Jen on social media. Andy felt sad and rejected and thought non-stop about Jen. The perseveration was so incapacitating that Andy made questionable rebound decisions, alienated friends, and damaged his career.


Despite all this perseverating, for much of the book Andy avoided processing his feelings.   


Perseverating, or engaging in irrational, repetitive and unhelpful thoughts, leads to problems in daily functions and interpersonal relationships. Perseveration can look like fixation on topics, resistance to change, and difficulty letting go. It can develop following trauma or because of anxiety or stress.


Processing feelings with a mindset that emotions occur in waves, naturally coming and going, can lessen perseveration. Here are tips to process feelings (sometimes this is worded as “sit with feelings” or “feel feelings”):


Label the Emotion: Name the feeling with an emotion-based word to solidify your experience and create enough distance to study it. An emotion wheel can help you find precise language.  


Locate the Emotion: Do a body scan. Notice where and how you experience the emotion in your body. For example, your stomach might hurt when you’re feeling anxious.


Understand the Emotion: Non-judgmentally interview the feeling. Probe the intensity level, where it came from, how comfortable or familiar it is, and what it could be trying to tell you.


Either Act or Let it Go: Apply what you learned from labeling, locating, and understanding the emotion to decide whether to act or let the feeling pass without a behavioral response.


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