Healing toxic emotions with the mind, body and soul
By: Paula Levin
Hello. How are you? How are you really? Is your life filled with music and melodies for every mood, or is there one song stuck on repeat – perhaps with lyrics like ‘why me, why this, why now’? If you struggle with toxic emotions like shame, self-loathing, bitterness, anger, envy, hatred, and despair – fear not, there is hope! Let’s explore the darkness and learn from others how to find the light.
But first, are you open to learning something new, feeling something new, and changing how you see things? Or are you perhaps comfortable with the story you’re telling yourself – even if this story is causing you suffering? Joburg-based psychologist, Amanda Fortes, predicts that 80% of people reading this article will stay stuck in victim-like thinking without even knowing it, while only 20% will start a new journey! So, ask yourself right now, are you ready to be open to the possibility that things can be different, that you can let go of the pain you reach for like a familiar ‘blanky’, and venture into the unknown?
“You know how when you’re driving on autopilot and you land up at your destination with little recollection of how you got there? Well, that’s how we live our lives,” explains Amanda. “Autopilot can be useful, because making conscious decisions every moment of the day is too taxing and exhausting for our brains. Like during Covid when we had to be vigilant about where our hands had been, when we had to remember safety protocols at all times because our survival and that of our loved ones was at stake – that level of awareness was too much!” Amanda emphasises that autopilot has its place, but that every so often we need to look at the factory settings, the unexamined beliefs often programmed in childhood and through past experiences, and ask if these are helpful, if they are taking us where we want to go.
So how do you know if your autopilot needs a little tweaking, or even a radical reset? How do you know if your emotions and thinking are toxic, making you sick – maybe even physically – but certainly emotionally – affecting your relationships, the choices you make, and the life you are living? “Look at your life and try to see if there are any obvious patterns. Perhaps a familiar complaint that seems to come up in different scenarios. Like ‘all my friends are so selfish, they never ask how I am’ or ‘every guy I date is awful, there are no good men out there’ or ‘my business is always struggling, it’s one problem after the other, this country is terrible’ or ‘load shedding is a nightmare, I’m having a cold dinner again’. What all these scenarios indicate is that you feel like life is happening to you and you feel you have no control,” explains Amanda. “They say that you are a victim of circumstances beyond your control.” What type of mindset do you have, if you have a gardening mindset you will see blooming flowers everywhere, what are you seeing everywhere? asks Amanda.
Ingrid Grunberg Pollak’s life began when she chose to free herself from the sense of being a victim of an unfair life. “I had a very difficult childhood, where my mother constantly called me a retard and my father and brother called me names not even fit for print – much less for an innocent child. My father was an unstable and traumatised holocaust survivor who eventually left us without any means. I was under huge pressure to contribute financially and have worked since I was 14. I barely scraped through matric because I was so focused on finishing and getting a job to help out at home. My boyfriend in matric was one of 5 Jewish young men who committed suicide that year. I decided to follow suit and went into the bathroom to find as many pills as I could swallow. Suddenly, I slammed the bathroom cupboard closed. An inexplicable spirit of defiance overcame me, and I decided that nothing and no one would be chasing me out of this world. I was here to stay. Since that day I have rejected the idea that I am a victim – not of my parents, not of the bullies at school, or the bank manager who told me I would only ever be a secretary. At 35 I started studying through Unisa and qualified as a social worker with special interest in clinical work. I did this with two small children, and I know that this is one of the most powerful lessons I could ever teach them – to work hard and go for your dreams – and not let anything hold you back.”
Victimhood is born out of the stories we tell ourselves about why our life is the way it is, an illusion that we buy into – that we have been hurt and constrained and limited by other people or life circumstances. But what about the real traumas we may have been through? The powerful messages people in our life have imprinted on our subconscious, the challenging financial constraints we may experience? “Just because I am not a victim does not mean that these things don’t still hurt!” explains Ingrid. But this pain does not have to rule your life or determine your future – as Ingrid has proved to herself.
The power of the stories we tell ourselves is epitomised by Joseph’s description of his life when he reassures the brothers that he is not angry or bitter about the fact that they sold him as a slave! Joseph had every reason to feel like a victim – he had been victimised! Holocaust survivor Edith Eger explains that there is a huge difference! People can be victimised, hurt, or abused, but that does not automatically make them victims. Joseph tells his brothers, “I was not sold, I was sent.” He believed that G-d had chosen him to go ahead of the family so that he would be in a position to provide food for them when famine threatened so many lives. Joseph saw a meaning and purpose to his suffering and saw G-d’s hand in his destiny. By thinking about his suffering in this way he freed himself from anger, desire for revenge, and emotional distance from his brothers.
If you think about it – and you should – we don’t experience any events directly, but only through the words in our minds. “Where do those words come from? Everything starts in the mind,” Amanda points out. “Look at the strangers around you, within a few seconds you will have filled in the blanks, with descriptions, assumptions, and beliefs about these people you know nothing about. Where did these ideas come from? From your own mind. This is always happening! That’s why – unpopular as this may sound – I don’t believe we have all the answers inside ourselves. If we knew better, we would do better. Sometimes we need to discover new words, new insights, new structures, new behaviours, and a brand new narrative.”
Amanda is pointing to the power of insight to change our narrative (how we explain things to ourselves) and stop the broken record of our thinking. “Many people misunderstand something fundamental about life – you don’t attract what you want – you attract who you are,” she says. Insight has the power to re-code who we are, and it comes from the fresh thinking that we encounter through exposure to different perspectives, and then integrate deeply into ourselves. Insight is available through therapy, books, articles, and friends, even the strangers we encounter – if we are listening! Abundant and infinite insight is constantly available through the Torah that we learn – allowing us to constantly adjust our direction and align our lives with its teachings, values, and instructions for living. Seek out insight! Make time to explore new ways of thinking about life and see your narrative begin to change, and with it – your emotions.
Insight, however, is only truly valuable when it goes in! And this is not always a simple process. Rabbi Rachamim Bitton is a Jerusalem-based therapist who after years of research, Torah learning, and academic study has developed his own integrative therapy model called Lev Emunah. Rabbi Bitton also studies and teaches at the “Yeshivat Nahar Shalom”, a century-old academy of Kabbalah in Jerusalem. “Ever since I was a child, I have been curious about how to achieve excellence and achieve my soul’s full potential. I studied the lives of the tzaddikim and I spent many years in Yeshiva trying the “mussar” approach to personal growth. What I found is that it’s a lot of work. Constant hard work. And if someone stopped working on the middot (personality traits/character) – many times it seemed like not much had fundamentally changed. It was an ‘outside-in’ process. My years of studying the Jewish mystical texts, chassidus, and kabbala have led me to an ‘inside-out’ method which aims to communicate directly with the subconscious mind, connect to the heart, build rapport with the unconscious, and make internal changes that are expressed in every area of life,” he says.
“The goal is to reach the core of the soul which is one with the Divine, but to do that we sometimes have to move through layers of blockages which can present themselves as toxic emotions and limiting beliefs. So we begin with sensing where we are right now and what we are feeling. There is no real need to give it a name or a label. This is the ego mind’s desire of remaining in control and attached to the emotion. We want to move past the ego and simply notice what the energy of the emotion feels like, without resistance, attachment, fear, or judgement. We want to tap into the heart, the part of us that is welcoming, curious, compassionate, and accepting. The part of us that can be compared to a mother who meets her small child where he or she is – with unconditional love. By accessing our heart, we embrace whatever the energy feels like and in this way, emotions flow naturally, they have no reason to stick around. If they return, it’s important we recognise it’s not the same emotion returning. It’s just another layer of that energetic spin, but the layer we originally allowed ourselves to let go of is gone forever. What do we do with this next layer that presents itself? Again, we welcome them, open ourselves up to them, and ask what is at the core of them. Images, words, memories, and beliefs from the subconscious may arise and we can learn to let them pass through and dissolve away. We keep doing this until all the negativity is dissolved,” explains Rabbi Bitton, who incorporates meditation, tranceformation, and hypnotherapy/hypnoprocesses into his work.
Do all emotions leave? Rabbi Bitton says yes, “all emotions are energy and can be released,” he says. There are, however, times when emotions like anxiety or depression, hopelessness, or constant fear seem to take up permanent residence, for weeks, months, or even years, unwelcome squatters who show no signs of ever leaving! How do we deal with this? “In my experience, toxic emotions only stick around to the degree that we’re resisting them and to the extent that we continue suppressing them and distracting ourselves from them. However, when we learn to connect to our heart and heal those emotions from the unconscious mind, and we persist in this important inner work until all the layers are gone, we’ll find the freedom and peace that we’ve been seeking for so long and the best part is that it’s effortless. There is no need for years and years of painful sessions in conventional therapy if we learn to practise the meditation/hypnoprocesses at the core of our mystical traditions.”
As far as science has taken humanity, all the way to Mars, Jupiter, and beyond, we still do not know enough about how consciousness arises, and if emotions and thoughts can be reduced to neurotransmitters in the brain! Self-awareness may well be an aspect of the soul, which both fills the body and yet transcends it. Awareness may be the infinite part of ourselves that is a piece of G-d above, has unlimited access to truth and goodness, and cannot be confined by a physical form, though it is often totally concealed by it.
“The act of sensing the emotion takes us one step beyond the emotion itself, to the part of ourselves that is aware of what we are experiencing. I like to think of this part of self as the clear blue sky, and the thoughts and emotions as clouds that pass,” Rabbi Bitton explains.
There are three more powerful practices that have an enormous impact on shifting toxic emotions – prayer, connecting to people, and cultivating gratitude. Lesley Sacks was 39 when she got engaged and all of Joburg celebrated with her. But her heart was broken when her fiancé called things off in a letter two weeks later. More than a decade later, Lesley shares that she is grateful to have experienced the joy of being engaged, even though things didn’t work out. She is even grateful that he broke up with her! “He did me the biggest favour, because he was not right for me, but I couldn’t see it then. It was only after another relationship that I realised I had not been myself with him. I had put on a persona of who I thought he wanted me to be. Shortly after the break-up, I read a book called Broken Open, which explained that just like the smooth, perfect, shiny, lovely seed must be buried in darkness, rot, and break open to grow exponentially more beautiful than ever before, so do we. We might think we are being buried – but we are being planted. This image has stuck with me and I share it often. Be thankful for the tzoros in your life, this is what pushes us to grow! In the time that followed I also spent a lot of time sitting on the floor and saying Tehillim and I clung to Hashem with all my might – even going back to seminary to connect more deeply. I went through a very painful mourning process and I wrote countless, unsent letters expressing my pain and confusion. It is important to feel what you feel, but you also have to make sure it’s a short-term rental with pain – not a long-term lease. Pain can be comforting, but you have to let it go. That year, when we read in shul who dies by fire, who by water, and so on, I felt I had experienced every one of those painful deaths! But it was also the biggest growth period of my life.” she explains. “Standing at the kotel, I heard the sound of someone singing Kabbalat Shabbat. It took a second before I realised that someone was me! That’s when I knew I was going to be ok. I even reached out to comfort a complete stranger who was standing there crying,” she adds.
For Jenna Kantor, healing truly began with the birth of her baby girl Jordy, who was born at 28 weeks, weighing only 800 grams. “Until that point, I was deeply unhappy. My childhood was cut short with my parent’s divorce. My two older brothers from my dad’s first marriage remained with him, and it was just me and my mom. It was an enormous loss and I had to grow up pretty quickly. Shortly before matric, my brother Greg was killed in a car accident. It was beyond traumatic and left me angry, rebellious, and full of questions. After I got married, I lost a baby when I was 25 weeks pregnant. I was reeling from all the loss and at my lowest point. When Jordy was born, it was not clear she would survive. The doctors would make no promises. But the moment I heard her cry, I felt that she would be fine. My granny often said, ‘Don’t worry, until worry worries you!’ And that’s what I tried to do as I sat by her side for nine weeks in the NICU. My mom told me to light Shabbat candles and say Tehillim and, somehow, I found a faith I never knew I had! The more I prayed, the more I felt certain Jordy would be fine. Jordy fills me with the greatest joy and gratitude I have ever known. I still have low moments, we all do, but I remember to be grateful for every blessing I have. When I feel down, I list ten things I’m grateful for. If you don’t pay attention, you could miss the good in your life! Every Friday after lighting Shabbat candles, I spend time praying to G-d. I believe that where there’s faith, there’s hope, and where there’s hope, miracles can happen.”
May your darkest moments reveal the light that’s waiting to shine.
Get in touch with Rabbi Bitton at Rabbi-bitton.com