So let’s talk about feelings, shall we?
As a psychotherapist, I truly believe that experiencing our emotions is integral to feeling whole and alive and to having deep and rich relationships.
I truly believe that the more we are able to feel, tolerate, and appropriately express our emotions, the greater our quality of life will be.
However, learning how to feel and appropriately express our emotions is a skill we all have to learn growing up, but, unfortunately, few of us grew up in homes or communities where we received lots of support and encouragement about how to feel and express our feelings.
More likely, many of us grew up in homes or communities where it wasn’t fully okay or even safe to express these emotions.
These early experiences may have created beliefs and patterns in us about our feelings – messages like “anger is bad”, patterns like “I can’t show someone how I feel” etc..
And while these messages and patterns likely served a great purpose for you back then (keeping you safe, for instance, in a family where it wasn’t safe to show emotions), these early beliefs might now be keeping you locked into rigid emotional patterns that aren’t helping you live a life that feels as rich and connected as you would like.
If this is the case for you, you’re not alone.
It was the case for me and also for many of the clients I work with.
The good news? You’re in wonderful company.
The great news? It’s never too late to learn more about how to undo these early messages and how to fully experience and appropriately express your feelings so that you can deepen your sense of aliveness and connection in the world.
In this post, I want to share some ideas and tools with you to help you do just that.
Recognizing and Respecting the Value of Your Feelings.
As we begin the process of fully feeling and appropriately expressing our emotions, it’s likely that our stories and beliefs about feelings will be flushed to the surface.
In working with my clients, two of the most common internalized messages that show up around this are “Some emotions are good; others are bad” and “It doesn’t do me any good to feel this way.”
Let’s unpack these assumptions, shall we?
No Such Thing as Bad or Good: One thing I often hear in my work is some version of this: “I don’t want to feel angry – I just want to be positive.” Many of us have unconsciously categorized certain emotions as “good” and certain emotions as “bad”. But actually, this couldn’t be further from the truth! Emotions are not “good or bad” or right or wrong. They simply just are. Emotions are energetic charges in our bodies that come and go like waves on a beach, a constant presence in our lives. And, to use another metaphor, if each emotion is like a key on a keyboard, you can imagine that the goal of life isn’t to play just a few notes on the keyboard of emotions (how boring!) but rather to learn to play all of the keys to play the richest symphony of music possible. We really, truly want to be able to feel and honor each of our emotions. Even the ones that sometimes might be challenging to feel.
Clues Contained: Another truth about emotions is that they all contain some signal value, some functional attribute of information that can yield wonderful clues for us as we navigate the terrain of our lives. Let’s take anger, for instance. Anger is a sign that we have a need that’s not being met or a boundary that’s being crossed. If you’re walking away from a conversation with your sister-in-law and are feeling irritated/annoyed/grumpy but you don’t know quite why, check in with yourself: notice your anger and get curious about what may have happened in that interaction. Did she somehow cross a boundary of yours? Did you have a need in that relationship that didn’t get met? Knowing this does it now make sense that you’re feeling this way? Anger’s just one example, but all feelings have this kind of information for us and if we’re able to value and identify the clues contained, these feelings can be a wonderful kind of guidance system for us as we move through life.
Noticing and Naming Your Feelings.
Sounds simple, right? Noticing and naming your feelings seems like Feelings 101, doesn’t it?
Maybe, but for those of us who grew up in homes or who received messages that it wasn’t safe or OK to feel, we may truly struggle in noticing or naming our feelings.
If that’s the case we do have to return to Feelings 101 by trying to pay attention to and name what it is we’re actually feeling. And I have two tools that can help you do this.
The Body Scan: Our bodies know far more than our heads ever do, so whenever a client is struggling to notice what it is she’s actually feeling, I always invite her to do a body scan. She sits back against the office couch, closes her eyes, and begins to notice what’s going on in her body. I invite her to notice any parts of her body that may be calling for attention. If she becomes aware of a particular sensation, I invite her to describe in more detail – what’s the temperature (hot? cold?), the texture of that sensation (spiky, tight?), and I invite her to guess as to what the feeling contained in her body is. If she’s succeeded at noticing what’s going on in her body but is struggling to actually name the feeling, or if her emotional vocabulary is limited, we next turn to the filing cabinet.
The Filing Cabinet: I’m not talking about an actual filing cabinet, but rather an imagined one. Specifically, a filing cabinet containing four major drawers: Sad, Mad, Glad, and Scared, the four meta categories of emotions that then contain hundreds more specific emotions. So when a client is struggling to guess or name how she’s feeling, I invite her to consider which of the four major drawers her feelings could, at that moment, most likely be filed under. This usually helps by giving us a starting place to work from. Try it the next time you’re struggling to name exactly how you feel. Check in to see if the general sense of your experience is one of sadness, gladness, madness, or are you scared?
Expanding Your Emotional Container & Appropriately Expressing Your Feelings.
As we rewrite the stories we have about feelings and begin to notice and name them, it becomes increasingly important to also expand our emotional container (ie: our ability to feel our feelings) and to appropriately express them so we can be in a responsible, connected relationship with ourselves and with others.
The Swimming Pool of Feelings: As we work toward expanding the capacity to feel our feelings, I think for some of us it’s helpful to practice titration. What’s titration? Well, imagine emotions are a swimming pool and you are a young child attempting to enter these waters. You don’t have to jump into the deep end of the pool of your emotions and flail around there, and you don’t have to cling to the steps unwilling to dip a toe into the pool. You can practice being the child who titrates his or her experience by stepping in a little bit, waiting, stepping in a bit further when she’s comfortable, getting out when she needs to. Emotionally, this may mean turning towards and feeling your feelings in amounts that feel tolerable and then, when you notice you’re becoming overwhelmed, helping yourself stabilize and ground – maybe through deep breathing, distracting yourself, etc – when you need to come back to a more integrated space.
Appropriately Expressing Your Feelings: You may have noticed that I keep using the phrase “appropriately expressing your feelings” through this article. For me, this means that as we work to grow our capacity to feel our feelings, we also work to grow our capacity to tolerate and manage them and express them in ways that are healthy and not act out destructively or inappropriately from this place. Really, this could be a whole separate blog topic and I did touch on it quite a bit in the last blog post so go on over and check that out for more information about how to appropriately express and communicate in a relationship.
My Invitation To You.
We’ve covered a lot of material today and explored quite a few ideas and tools that might be supportive for you in more fully honoring, feeling, and appropriately expressing your feelings.
As we close today I’d like to invite you to consider what you know about your relationship with your feelings:
Growing up in your family, what messages did you receive – either explicitly or implicitly – about your emotions?
Is it easier and more acceptable to you to feel some emotions and not others? If so, why is that? What do you know about that?
What do you know works for you in feeling and appropriately expressing your feelings?
What do you know doesn’t work for you?
And finally, I want to invite you to remember this: we’re aiming for progress here, not perfection.
Relearning how to value, feel, and appropriately express your emotions is a skill and, like anything new, takes practice before it’s fully internalized.
So be kind to yourself and to each other as we all seek out richer, more enlivened and more connected lives.