The Skunk in the Basement

“Never, for any reason on earth, could you wish for an increase in pain. Of pain you could wish only one thing: that it should stop.” – George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Part Three, Chapter One.

Therapy can get stuck for the same reason our clients come in: their emotions are too upsetting to bear. It’s easy to vent on how unreasonably others  behave; addressing how it affected us is harder. To focus a client on their own thoughts and feelings can take sales-work. Some are satisfied with explanations of why catharsis is not therapy, how containment exercises can save them from being a wreck, or how mindfulness practice lets us both experience and contain our emotions. Others want an answer to a more basic question: why feel pain you could suppress?

Skunk, copyright 2006 by Torli

“Just stay present with that emotion. It’ll rise… peak… decline… and go trundling off through the grass.

Suppressed emotions are like a skunk in the basement. Our clients weren’t raised with wildlife-management skills, so down in the basement it went. Even though the animal can’t be seen, the house stinks from the foundation up. To experience an emotion means to let the skunk out. If we tolerate the disgusting sight and smell of Mephitis mephitis parading through our home, it can walk out the door and leave.

Most people believe little comes from painful emotions but pain. There can also be relief and increased tolerance for one’s feelings. Why accept sadness, fear or embarrassment? For the same reason we exercise, floss, save money, give birth, and eat habanero peppers. The pain fades. It’s replaced with relief, and sometimes joy.

@ 2014 Jonathan Miller All Rights Reserved


Filed under Uncategorized, Useful Metaphors

2 responses to “The Skunk in the Basement

  1. Pingback: Emotional Differentiation, and the strengths of specificity | PsychotherapySphere

  2. Renee Dundas

    I am impressed with the metaphor of pushing away/down pain is like a skunk in the basement. I smelled a skunk once when one had a fight with my dog and the smell was overwhelming – lasted for weeks! And the skunk wasn’t even there anymore, it was just the smell that lingered. That smell was just like an emotion I’d shut down when I was young. I had felt less than and angry because of my relationship with my older sister. After years of repression it finally came up when we were on vacation together. I acted out even though she wasn’t doing anything hurtful – it was just old experiences I had pushed away. It was very healing to have that experience come to light. Now it was out in the open as I spoke about it and used exercises and talking to get it out. It surprised both my sister and I that all that emotion was still there after all those years.

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