Learning to Feel

Most of us have gotten the message that some feelings are not acceptable, not polite, not to be experienced as part of the self.  We’ve stuffed or denied or dissociated ourselves from those feelings, but the emotions underneath remain there, under the surface.  They can motivate our behavior without our awareness, and cause us guilt and shame that seems to come from nowhere.  The chemistry from those emotions is there too, flowing into our body with no outlet, contributing to the sense of perpetual stress.  We need to “build a cradle for the baby”—to hold ourselves, to recognize and validate our own experience, in a way that has probably never been done for us.

Imagine being told all your life that you have no feet.  Or that feet are “dirty,” repulsive, shameful.  We don’t talk about those things.  You never allow yourself to be seen without socks and shoes. If you break your foot and have to go to the ER and get it set, everyone says you broke your arm instead.  Even worse, if you do break your foot, it must be your own fault somehow.

This is how silly it is for us to deny feelings, or teach children that some feelings are shameful or wrong.  Feelings are just as natural as feet, just as much a part of ourselves.  Even more important, because while you can live a full life without feet, you can’t live any kind of life without feelings.  But because we’ve been trained so well that some feelings are wrong, we have to make a special effort, a mindful effort, to heighten our awareness.

•      Nothing comes out of the blue.  Many of us experience mood changes that seem to come from nowhere.  Others have intrusive thoughts, or urges or impulses that just pop up in our minds like Spam.  Remember that in reality nothing comes from nowhere.  Most of these experiences are our defense mechanisms responding to an unfelt emotion, one that it would be better to experience first-hand.  So, be a detective.  Look at what’s going on around you.  Look at your thoughts, memories, associations.  It can help a lot at first to write these things down, because your defenses can blind you to important connections.  You will learn that there is always an emotional reason for mood changes, impulses, disturbing thoughts.  Much better to face the feeling directly than try to struggle with a symptom.

•      Remember to suspend judging the self.  Look at your inner experience with compassionate curiosity.  Be attentive and loving, but also be inquisitive:  What’s going on inside?  Finding out won’t hurt you at all, despite all the old fears and shames.  There may be some things that will cause you some pain—old memories you’d “forgotten”—but this pain is much less than the pain you cause yourself by denying your own experience.

•      Acceptance and validation.  Most of what we want from others is summed up in these two words.  We want to be included in the group, accepted as part of humanity, and we want to have our uniqueness recognized, our own feelings accepted.  But we won’t get it from others if we can’t give it to ourselves first.  Look into yourself and your feelings mindfully, without expectations and preconceptions.

•      Remember the chief paradox of feelings:  We have to experience them more fully, at the same time as we consciously control their expression.  This is where we have to become skillful about emotions.  All our defensive systems, our character armor and our symptoms, are built from trying not to experience our own feelings.  And all this is wrong-headed, based on the false assumption that our feelings are dangerous or unacceptable.  It’s how we express feelings, not the feelings themselves, that can be dangerous or unacceptable.  We have some ability, and we can develop more, to control how we express our feelings.  Simply paying mindful attention to ourselves helps a great deal.

•      Practice detachment.  This is the best way to experience feelings without letting them control you.  Think of an old steam locomotive—it comes roaring into the station full of power, noise, smoke, bells, lights—a huge, overwhelming experience.  But we have some ability to choose whether we get on board or not.  Distance yourself somewhat from mood and emotions:  they are part of you, but not all of you.  They won’t last forever.  They don’t have to control your decision making; you can usually do what needs to be done despite them (and often feel better as a result).

•      “Cool my head and warm my heart”—pay attention to intuition, hunches, gut feelings.  Don’t think too much, let your emotions inform you.  Hunches frequently do provide you information from your own unconscious that you should pay attention to.  We get so programmed to use our left brains, to investigate, problem-solve, attack that we apply this mode to all of our lives.  Much of the time, especially when we’re spinning our wheels, we need to stop, look, and listen:  pay attention with the right brain, see the gestalt, the whole–“get” the situation as it involves ourselves and our feelings.

•      Especially pay attention to first impressions of people and situations.  Negative impressions are, I think, often correct amygdala reactions that there is something to be afraid of here.  When you have such a reaction, look into it—mindfully, objectively, carefully.  Try to identify what’s setting it off.  Positive first impressions are also important; they may be nothing more meaningful than that you think you could have fun with this person—which may be a self-fulfilling prophecy that will bring more fun into your life, not a bad thing.

•      Emotions are about values, right and wrong, good and bad.  In any situation that involves a moral choice, pay attention to your feelings.  If you think too much, your defenses can get to work.  You can rationalize doing the easy thing, or the thing that’s best for you but not for others, and you won’t feel bad about doing it.  Or you can deny the implications, or use any other defense you want, and you won’t feel bad immediately.  But you’ll add to your burden of unconscious guilt, add another layer to your character armor, and distort your perception of reality again, more.  So try not to overthink ethical problems.  Pay attention to what your heart, or your guts, tells you is right, because it probably is.

•      Identify the stress response at work in your emotions.  Don’t be like the PTSD patient who doesn’t recognize he has PTSD, attributing your feelings to current interactions instead of the stress response.  If you’re like most people now, you are experiencing more fear and anger, guilt and shame, than you deserve or should expect to handle.  And, like most people, you defend against awareness of those feelings, so their effects emerge in disguised ways—depression, addiction, somatic symptoms.  Though you have to address those problems, their impact can be lessened if you go back to the beginning and recognize that contemporary life gives us great stress, though we’re taught to deny it.

•      Identify what makes you feel helpless, hopeless, or demoralized.  What makes you choke up with sadness or frustration?  What makes you feel like crying?  What makes you want to yell at someone?  Then be mindful of the circumstances.  What’s going on outside you?  What’s going on in your head?  Feelings like these are clues to an important and central issue in your life, a problem you’re always trying to resolve.

•      Accept the unacceptable:  lust, greed, envy, hate, murder.  Feelings like these are just as much a part of you as anything else.  We may not be proud of it, but we can’t help it, and it doesn’t help to pretend it isn’t there.  We’re social animals, and feelings about our status in the tribe, our access to the best mates to pass down our genes, are hard-wired into us.  We want to control how we act on these feelings, but we don’t have to pretend they don’t exist.

•      Accept that you can want contradictory things.  Wanting our parents to love us at the same time as we reserve the right to hate them is one very common example.  Wanting our spouse to love us unconditionally at the same time as we attach conditions to our love is another.  We can see the obvious moral inequity at work, and that may help us revise our expectations of self and others, but we won’t do that unless we accept our feelings.  We are capable of incredible hypocrisy, but being honest with ourselves works against that.

•      Anxiety is your friend.  It’s your body trying to tell you something, and you ought to listen.  Most likely, it’s telling you that you’re pushing yourself too hard, pushing yourself into something you don’t want.  Of course there are times when anxiety becomes the problem itself, and you may seek therapy to help you with it.  But even in those circumstances a smart therapist is likely to find that you need to change your expectations of yourself, to make more room for the effects of stress.

•      Anger is your friend too.  Anger is telling you that someone is stepping on your toes, that something is going on that’s endangering something important to you.  Anger is how we’re supposed to feel when our boundaries are violated.  You may have gotten the message that anger is dangerous, or ugly, or unacceptable:  not so.  The people who told you that may have had something to gain from convincing you that anger is bad.  In today’s culture, perpetual stress may have you feeling too much anger (because there is really a lot to be angry about) and as a result you may act out your anger mindlessly, hurting those who love you.  This is a real problem, and you have to get skillful about what you do with anger.  But don’t deny your anger; instead, pay attention to what it’s telling you.

•      Learn how to get out of a frenzy.  There will be times when feelings are so upsetting that you may do something impulsive, something you’ll regret later.  Learn what helps you back off emotionally from these situations, which may be highly individual. The important thing is to develop confidence that you can cool yourself down from any difficult emotional situation, because without that confidence you’ll be too guarded to let yourself really experience your feelings.

  • Stop whatever you’re doing and pay attention to your body.
  • Control your breathing—deep inhales and exhales—so that excess carbon dioxide doesn’t contribute to the panic.
  • If you’re in a difficult social situation, get out of it.  Excuse yourself and go to the bathroom.  Go outside for a walk.  If being alone is contributing to the problem, try to get in touch with a friend.
  • Nothing comes out of the blue, and there was a trigger for this frenzy.  You don’t have to figure out the trigger right now, but remember that you’re not crazy.  There’s a very good reason you’re feeling this way right now.
  • Remember that the feelings will pass.  Your mind and body want to return to a relaxed state.  Ride the feelings  like a wave.
  • Control your thinking.  When you have thoughts that are expressions of an old script at work—I hate him!  No one loves me!  I’m going to fall apart, right now!—DO NOT GO THERE.  Distract yourself with other thoughts—This will pass.  I’ll be OK soon.  Pay attention to your breathing.
  • It will help enormously if you’ve learned a mindfulness meditation technique well enough for those behaviors to go on automatic pilot.  Make a deliberate effort to engage that automatic pilot.
  • Remember that this experience is giving you the opportunity to learn something about yourself, a direct window into your own unconscious.  When you’re calm, don’t just forget the experience, but look at what set it off, what it felt like deep inside, and what old memories seem to be connected.