emotion

Overwhelming Emotion? Try Unfusing

Feeling bad? If, inside, you are saying, “I’m anxious,” or “I’m depressed,” or “I’m furious,” or any other overwhelming and unpleasant emotion, Try unfusing1—as in uncoupling—from it. Unfusing works way better than trying to wish or push away emotion. Pushing against emotions actually keeps us in contact with them (and increases the tension as an added bonus!). And wishing strong emotions away—we all know how well that works. Unfusing from emotions, in contrast, is like swimming out of deep, turbulent waters to the lapping shore. The tossing waves may still be there, but now they’re at a safe distance.

Here’s how unfusing works. Let’s take anxiety as an example (though you can use this technique with any emotion).

  1. Allow yourself to notice the feeling, and say out loud:
    “I am anxious.”
  2. Next, say out loud to yourself:
    “I am experiencing the feeling of anxiety.”
  3. Say aloud:
    “I notice I am experiencing the feeling of anxiety.”
  4. Say aloud:
    “I notice that sometimes I experience the feeling of anxiety.”
    (If it’s the first time you’ve felt anxiety, you can say “I notice that I am capable of feeling anxiety.”)

Notice how you feel now in relation to your experience before you did the unfusing. By voicing these successive variations, you are changing your inner world. The original emotion might still be there, but the “I” in every sentence (“I am experiencing… I notice…”)—this “I” is growing bigger and bigger relative to the emotion. Unfusing moves you from being anxious (“I am anxious”) to being the “I” that is experiencing and noticing and owning the emotion. You can feel your emotions in a more aware way, a way that is literally self-contained.

So, when intense emotions well up and it feels like you and the emotions are one and the same—fused together—you can unfuse from them. You may still experience them, but with greater tranquility. The emotions can be with you, and you can be with your emotions, and feel more possession of your self.


  1. This exercise is my adaptation of a concept and set of techniques in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) called defusion. See the Cognitive Fusion section of “The Six Core Processes of ACT”.
        Notes from a dictionary nerd: Why have I changed the word to unfuse? I wanted to use the word as a verb, and the verbal form of defusion, defuse, already has a meaning that is resonant in the context of strong emotions: “To remove the fuse from an explosive device” (OED). While I acknowledge that some intense emotions can lead to explosions of temper, I am loath to associate the world of human feeling with “an explosive device.” The adjective unfused was recorded in John Ash’s The new and complete dictionary of the English language (1775) as meaning “not fused, not put into a state of fusion.” This is closest to the concept that ACT is trying to get at, so I’ve shamelessly coined the verb unfuse from that adjective. 

Home Base

(Part One)

Way back in my childhood, when the world was still mostly photographed in black and white, I played tag with the other kids on Joralemon Street in Brooklyn Heights. The tree in front of my house was home base. There wasn’t much traffic in those days, and we ran in the gutter, on the sidewalk, and around the parked cars, chasing and being chased like yipping and nipping young wolves. If the one who was “it” was gaining on me, I tried to get to home base. After an exhilarating and sometimes narrow escape, I’d cling to the tree to rest. As long as I was touching home, I was safe.

Joralemon Street
Where I lived on Joralemon Street. “Home base” was the tree on the left.

Home base is a feeling. There was nothing that distinguished the tree physically, structurally, from the other home-base-eligible landmarks on Joralemon or any other street. If the game of tag started in front of someone else’s house, we used whatever tree or post was available there, and had the same pure experience of home base. In comparison, the physical shelter that we call home—in my case, then, a low-rent apartment (that now would sell for half a million dollars)—is an environment in which many complex feelings arise, not all of them necessarily comforting, ranging from assuredly nurturing to lonely, sometimes mixing both, and with an infinite palette of emotional colors both in between and more extreme. Often, too, the physical environment changes wholesale, as we move from one home to another. How much we associate our floor-and-ceiling home with the felt experience of home base varies. We can discern each physical home’s degree of homeyness precisely because the feeling of being home, that feeling of safe harbor, is recognizably the same (i.e. self-consistent) regardless of where we are. We know the feeling of home base; different places evoke more or less of that feeling.

Mythologically—that is, in the roots of our human experiencing—home was the Center of the World, the World Tree, around which all creation revolved.1 This is the essence of the home base experience. Home feels like life’s Foundation Stone, immovable, stabilizing, the most trusted, secure place we can be. At home we are removed and protected from the whirlwind, perilous, dog-chase-dog street life outside.

For some people their childhood home feels like a refuge from the cares and turbulence of their daily lives. Worldly time seems to slow and recede into the periphery with each sip of hot chocolate. The first silverware they ever used is back in their hands; each bite of an old recipe reminds their bodies that this experience is reassuringly the same as it ever was. Remembering becomes an act in and of itself.

When a parent or grandparent serves me my favorite food, the special part is usually not the food itself; after all, excepting the odd secret family recipe, I probably can and probably do manage to eat my favorite food on my own from time to time. The special part is that my favorite food is known, and made specially for me without having to be ordered or made by me; it is freely given to me. A loved one knows what I like, cares, and goes to the trouble to make me feel good. I feel important to them.

Would that visiting one’s home of origin always conjured pictures like these. Going “home for the holidays” is for some people like locking themselves in a fun-house with a hall of mirrors (Egad! A fright around every corner! Multiple distorted images of myself no matter where I turn! ) Let us take a moment here to acknowledge, quietly, compassionately, those among us (even if this includes ourselves) for whom the old homestead is less a place of refuge than it is reminiscent of a refugee camp, in which enemy memories must vigilantly be held at bay.

Our original logistical home, therefore, can be a place of painful confusion. It is entirely possible to return to one’s childhood home and feel anything but welcome and safe. What makes this especially difficult is that the experience of home-as-safe-haven touches the child in us—whether we want it to or not. As the default location of shelter and nurture in our earliest development, we are conditioned to experience home as the most like a mother that any place can be. Our first home was the font of our existence, our umbilical origin point, primally innocent. Our mammalian instincts seek embrace and nourishment in the flesh of a warm, greater being (typically the mother): put a newborn on its mother’s belly, and, eyes still unopened, it will crawl toward her breast. That unconscious experience at the beginning of our life establishes the gestalt of home in our most primitive core. That gestalt is: the place where everything takes care of us; where we are sustained unconditionally and shielded in our barest vulnerability, even in deep sleep. This is our nervous system’s expectation. We desire an ideal home, where we can once again experience profound, rejuvenating rest, where there is nothing to guard against, nothing that doesn’t belong. Whether we think our desire or the possibility of fulfilling it is reasonable is entirely beside the point. Everything at home is supposed to be for us. The sense of home is thus a childlike feeling that doesn’t go away even when contradicted by hard experience in the cold light of day. When we’re children, we need everything to be for us. The great child philosopher Linus van Pelt had it right when he observed: “Every day is children’s day!”2 If our need is insufficiently met, it doesn’t wither. More likely it intensifies, even if it must retreat to our darkest recesses to do so.

As we approach a place or situation that our instincts respond to as home—that smells like home, if you will—we tend to become unguarded and ingenuous, often despite our better judgment. Even if we resolve to avoid certain subjects or behavior patterns, something in our inner being finds itself exposed. We are betrayed! This is supposed to feel like home, but it doesn’t. We set ourselves up to feel safe, but our security has been breached. Again.

And then we wonder: What’s wrong with me?

It’s not our fault; which is to say, finding ourselves emotionally prone regardless of careful self-fortification happens not because we do something wrong, but because it is inevitable. As we’ll see in a later chapter of this post, the home base aspect of home is most closely identified with the core self’s origins. Psychologically, the image of a house is most often associated with a person’s identity; it is also associated with the archetype of mother-as-container. When our youngest, most vulnerable inner being comes to the fore and reaches out for the feeling of home—like a child reaching for mother—it does so neither out of stubbornness nor weakness, but according to natural law.

For our own wellbeing it is crucial, then, to develop the faculty of distinguishing the inner experience of home base from any places or situations or persons that may proclaim themselves home but fail to inspire that inner experience. To do that we must draw the feeling of home up from its unconscious roots into conscious experiencing. The good news is that deep down we do know—can’t help knowing—what home feels like. And deep down we can’t be fooled; our very disappointments prove that. The feeling of home base is a truth that, once consciously apprehended, can ignite a warming hearth in the center of our being.

To be continued…


  1. Eliade, Mircea. Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return. Trans. Willard R. Trask. New York: Harper Torchbooks (1959). 12–18, 76–77. 

  2. Charles M. Schulz: Peanuts

Emotions in the Body

If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands, your chest, your face, your knees and your toes. According to a recent study, emotions are felt physically:

We propose that consciously felt emotions are associated with culturally universal, topographically distinct bodily sensations that may support the categorical experience of different emotions.1

In the study, happiness was found to be a full-body, warm, active experience, whereas depression was characterized by a notable inactivity in the heart and gut areas, with decreased inner sensation in the limbs.


The body maps show regions whose activation increased (warm colors) or decreased (cool colors) when feeling each emotion.

How are you feeling today—right now? Can you feel your emotion in your body? Try using your hands to sense where in your body your emotion feels alive. How does your posture feel? What expression are the muscles in your face forming?

If you are feeling emotion that is overwhelming or agitating, it can help to notice the sensations arising in your body. Noticing brings an observer’s perspective, which can be calming.

And if you are feeling emotion that is so delightful you can hardly contain yourself,2 embodying it fully is a fulfilling way of appreciating the moment.


  1. Bodily maps of emotions. Lauri Nummenmaa, Enrico Glerean, Riitta Hari, Jari K. Hietanen. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 January 14; 111(2): 646–651. Published online 2013 December 30. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1321664111 

  2. Take a moment to contemplate what it physically feels like to hardly be able to contain yourself. 

Go Fish in
Streams of Consciousness:

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