Feelings. Let’s be honest they’re not always welcome. Anger, sadness, envy and resentment are hard enough to deal with but you might also struggle to feel the positive ones too, like joy, excitement and love. There are two ways in which I personally tried to deal with the feelings I didn’t want to feel over the years:
- Pretending that they didn’t exist
Numbing is the one that we might be the most familiar with, while at the same time not realising we’re doing it. This could manifest as drinking a lot of wine so that you don’t feel as sad as you did before, temporarily at least. Or it could be an excessively intense exercise programme that stops you feeling the pain of a break up or the anxiety of your job. Maybe it’s eating a whole bag of giant Wotsits when COVID-19 cancels Christmas. Numbing can also be achieved through social situations – dating apps and sex are a great way to get attention and distract yourself if you’re currently struggling with family relationships, for example. Of course wine and Wotsits aren’t always numbing but excessive volume, reliance or significant repetition means they might be. The one common purpose of all of these is that they stop you from feeling what you’re actually feeling. And the one trait they all have is that they’re only temporary – that relief won’t last.
Pretending that feelings don’t exist is another tool that many of us use when it comes to what we just don’t want to experience. Compartmentalising is like putting feelings in boxes and then piling them up on a shelf to maybe deal with later or maybe deal with never. I feel like men can be particularly good at this (shout at me if you think that’s a massive generalisation), probably because of the pressure we put on them not to have, or express, feelings in order to be viewed as ‘masculine.’ But it’s not an issue that exclusive to any one type of person. The trouble with opting for this approach is that the higher you pile your boxes the more likely the whole Jenga pile is to come tumbling down at the most inconvenient of moments.
So, compartmentalisation and numbing aren’t good. But what is? Feeling your feelings really is the only way forward I’m afraid. If you’re not used to doing it then it can come as quite a shock. After 20 years of numbing every single difficult feeling I encountered when I started to really feel my feelings it was like standing on the top of a cliff in the dark in a storm. It took a lot of courage to stay there (and friends, tears, family and therapy and endless repetition of Glennon Doyle’s “we can do hard things”). But don’t let that put you off because feeling my feelings also opened the door to letting me live and be myself for the first time in my life.
Why don’t we feel our feelings?
It might be because we’ve been told we shouldn’t have those feelings – social conditioning in other words. Many women I know struggle with anger, for example. Getting angry is often followed by shame and guilt and a sense that it’s not okay to have a strong negative feeling. Many men I know would find it hard to articulate when they’re hurt or scared because they’ve been taught that this just isn’t what men do and haven’t learned the language to express it. You may not agree with these gender distinctions but I have come to the conclusion that they are reality it doesn’t make sense to ignore when it comes to topic like this. Sometimes we learn that certain feelings aren’t ‘safe’ to have or express – if you expressed joy as a child and were slapped down for being ‘too much’ you might find it a hard feeling to have in adulthood without feeling afraid about what comes next. Messaging about it not being okay to feel your feelings can come from parents when we’re small, from friends or partners later in life and from the people who teach us.
Why is feeling your feelings so important?
- Numbing isn’t healthy and doesn’t lead to good things. The basic process of numbing will mean that you’ll end up needing more and more of whatever you’re numbing with as your tolerance goes up. That could lead to addiction, injury or a very single minded and lonely life.
- Your feelings are you. Even if you don’t feel your feelings that doesn’t mean they go away. They’re still there popping up and swirling round and reacting and trying to get your attention. Feeling them means being conscious of them – letting them arise and letting them pass. Many people think feeling your feelings means being overcome by them and controlled by them. But this is actually much more likely to happen if you’re trying to pretend they don’t exist. Feeling your feelings means giving them full flow when they arise and then moving on.
- Your feelings are signposts. You don’t need to listen to and act on every single feeling that arises. However, they can be pathways to self awareness and also help you to better navigate the world around you. For example, a clear positive anger can indicate that one of your boundaries has been crossed by someone else or that you’re repeating behaviour that you know deep down is holding you back. Sadness is a sign that you may be carrying around baggage from the past that, if you tackle, you could free yourself from. And anxiety is sometimes simply a signal that you need to do more preparation for something that’s coming up or think about the way that your inner critic undermines your confidence.
I say ‘simply’ but of course nothing is simple when you’re in the middle of a maelstrom of emotion. And if your feelings are coming from a place of abuse or trauma then you may need professional support when you first start feeling them to make sure you are safe.
Where do you even start with feeling your feelings?
Next time something surges up, instead of trying to force it back down or reaching for a numbing tool try one or two of these:
- Write your feelings down. You don’t need a fancy journal just a pen and some paper. This can be a powerful way to get more understanding of the feelings that are rolling through you – as well as some distance from them.
- Talk. Find a therapist, or a coach, talk your your friends, relatives or dog.
- Meditate. Don’t roll your eyes at this one.. the reason meditation is useful is because it helps you to achieve some distance from your feelings. Training the mind like that can mean that when feelings threaten to get big you can start observing them rather than being overwhelmed by them.
- Move or create. Dance out the anger, yoga the sadness, paint the rage, run your pain, walk the frustration, swim the anxiety, sketch the misery. Expressing emotions physically can help them to pass plus the creativity and physical movement can make you feel good.
These won’t work all the time – which is okay. Sometimes you’ll just return to old habits. But maybe sometimes you won’t. Perhaps there are other ways of doing this that will work better for you (feel free to leave suggestions in the comments).
I’m no expert on feelings – we all have such individual experiences that no one could really claim to be so. But what I do know is that when you start allowing your feelings to be there, hearing them, releasing them and moving on knowing that they are temporary, everything suddenly starts to change.