I’ve been at war with my emotions. I’ve spent my whole life trying to stuff them down, or my more recent nuance, trying to shift the bad ones away and create the good ones. I didn’t want to feel negative emotions because I believed I’m supposed to feel good–that feeling happy was the end goal–and if I wasn’t happy I should be actively finding my way back to happy. What I ended up believing was that something was wrong with me. And thinking something is wrong with me–which creates alternating feelings of anger, fear and sadness–was not something I wanted to think or feel either. So I distracted myself with overeating, over-Facebooking, overanalyzing, overtv-ing, over-you-name-it. This was not happening in the distant past, I was doing all these things NOW. And sometimes still do.
While I intellectually understand the concept of feeling my feelings, I didn’t understand the true nature of my emotions and how to feel them. I remember asking my coach years ago how to feel my feelings and she said just lean into them. That sounded sage and true, but it took me a year of practicing feeling my feelings before I deeply understood what she meant. This instruction was not specific enough for me to understand how to feel my emotions. I always say the weight loss gurus tell us to “eat less and move more” and that if it were that simple to put those concepts into practice, I would be out of business. The same applies for “Feel your feelings!” Sure! I’ll just feel my feelings after spending my whole life reflexively repressing them. I’ll get right on that. I needed more specifics on how this whole feelings-thing works.
I’ve been looking back over my blog posts for the last year and seeing how most of them are about some flavor of how to feel, live with or shift your feelings. Basically it’s been me trying to figure out my own emotional life. In the background I continued to struggle with allowing my own emotions to flow. I didn’t tune out emotionally anymore only to check back in six months later, but I still beat myself up for not being a happier person. (Which is funny since I’m a pretty happy person–I didn’t say my beliefs were logical!) I didn’t fog out by eating whole plates of nachos anymore, but I would eat just a little bit too much at dinner to try to keep that fear of uncertainty at bay. Things began to shift for me as I became willing to delve deeply into my emotional life. Here’s what I’ve learned so far.
It’s not about Fun, Happiness or even Delight
Yeek! Did you think I just took a Debbie Downer pill? Fear not my friends for I am a big fan of fun, hilarity, and happiness in all its forms. I’m just going to stop chasing it. Happiness in its healthy state is a passing emotion. Its role is to show us when a particular thing or event is joyful and then it passes. Happiness is not intended to be a static state. Shifting my emotional quest from fun to delight as I talked about in this blog post was getting warmer, but what I’m really looking for is the state of peace. And this to me is great news. I no longer have to try to create an emotional state I’m not experiencing.
I can feel fearful and peaceful.
I can feel insecure and peaceful.
I can feel resistant and peaceful.
I can feel decidedly unpeaceful and peaceful.
I can feel angry and peaceful.
And, oddly enough, I can feel happy and peaceful.
Because now I know if I’m not feeling HAPPY! or JOYFUL! or GRATEFUL!, there’s nothing wrong with me. When I feel happy or joyful, I can relish that moment, knowing it too shall pass and that I don’t have to freak out and chase it when it does. Each of my emotions (even the “negative” ones) are here to help me. All I have to do is listen.
(Hang in there, I’ll tell you how to listen below.)
It IS about Peace, Groundedness and Flow
I now have a deeper understanding of The River of Your (and My) Emotional Life. I still think of our emotions as a river, and now I know that underlying that river is the foundation of peace and groundedness. Our emotional river is meant to flow, yet we try to dam it up by repressing our emotions and/or expressing our emotions in unhealthy ways. When the river is backed up, it floods over our peace and groundedness, making our foundation hard to perceive. The foundation is still there–it always is, we just have this little flood situation to deal with now. In my previous blog post I said it was things like overeating, overshooting, over-anything that causes the river to dam up. This is true, but we distract ourselves with these things because we are resisting some emotion. The other thing we do is try to constrict the river when we feel strong emotions–we try to squish our anger, fear or sadness into the narrowest stream possible in hopes it will go away. But you’ve seen what happens to large volume of water in a tight channel right? Raging rapids and flooding! The counterintuitive thing to do is to make your channel wider–allow more room for those swift emotional waters to flow.
Emotions are Here to Help
I thought I understood how emotions are here to help, but I was missing the boat. I understood that our “negative” emotions alert us to something that needs to be attended to. But REALLY deep inside I believed they were something to be banished as soon as possible and preferably avoided. After all, they don’t call them negative emotions for nothing. Except they aren’t negative. Again, I probably read that in some self-help book somewhere and said to myself, “Yeah, yeah, nothing’s negative, it’s all for the good. Blah, blah blah.” But I didn’t really get it. Now I look it is this way–strong emotions are there to get my attention, and each emotion has a specific useful purpose that helps me deal. I’ve been reading a book recommended to me by my fabulous friend and fellow coach, Abigail Steidley, called “The Language of Emotions” by Karla McLaren. I’m not sure I buy everything McLaren says, but she sure knows her shit when it comes to emotions. Here’s what she says about the so-called “negative” ones:
“I can also see quite clearly that happiness and joy can become dangerous if they are trumpeted as the only emotions any of us should ever feel. I’ve seen so many people whole lives imploded after they disallowed the protection of anger, the intuition of fear, the rejuvenation of sadness, and the ingenuity of depression in order to feel only joy. In short, throughout my life I’ve found that what we’re taught about emotions is not only wrong, it’s often dead wrong.”
She goes on to explain how anger allows us to determine what is acceptable to us and what is not.
Fear activates your focus and intuition.
Sadness allows us to release that which isn’t serving us.
Pretty frickin’ cool.
When you allow these emotions to free-flow, they deliver important messages into your consciousness and move on.
How to Feel Your Feelings
Here’s where we get down to it.
I was onto it with this blog post, but I’ve got better tools now.
Use the below questions to keep your emotional river flowing–check in with yourself several times a day. (Another shout-out to Abigail for sharing these great questions!) This allows you to build your emotional-acceptance muscles and create that feeling of any-emotion+ peace. I’ve been keeping an emotion journal to help me keep close to my emotional ebbs and flows. I’ve noticed that by doing this I don’t feel the need to overindulge in food or engage in as many distractions.
Question 1: What emotion am I feeling right now?
Build the habit of naming it. I like to try to boil it down to one of these four basic emotions: mad, glad, sad or scared. Don’t get all rule-bound about it, but see if you can capture it in one word. Then write down anything else that occurs to you about this emotion such as:
Where you feel it in your body
Details on what it feels like (hot/cold, spiky/smooth, dull/sharp, etc…)
Ranting about the emotion or the circumstance (It’s ok to rant! Ranting helps the emotions to flow.)
Thoughts related to the emotion
Writing anything beyond the emotion is optional, the main thing is to keep this simple so you keep doing it. If you forget to do it, no problem, don’t make it a thing–that only causes more resistance.
2. Can I accept whatever I’m feeling right now without judgment?
The answer is yes or no, but either answer is correct. The idea is to explore why you can’t accept the emotion and find out what you can accept about it.
If you can’t accept it, can you accept your resistance of it? Great! Start there.
Can you accept that you’re pissed that you’re angry? Awesome.
Can you accept that you’re sad that you’re afraid? Excellent.
Can you accept that you can’t accept any of it? Aha! That’s perfect too.
Here’s another little tool to use here. I want you to try it on yourself real quick:
– Think back to the last time you felt anger, anxiety or fear.
– Notice if there’s any tightening in your body. Usually there is because we’re taught to try to suppress the emotion, hence the tightening.
– Imagine a container around the emotion.
– Now make that container bigger, bigger, bigger, bigger.
Did the sensation of the emotion change?
Most people report still feeling the emotion, but that it is more manageable. This is the sensation of allowing the emotion to flow. It’s still there, but now you can again sense the peace and groundedness underneath.
3. Ask the emotion what message it has for you.
Seriously. Say, “<Emotion name here> what message do you have for me?”
The message will be in the small quiet voice that speaks to you right before your mind tells you what you should think about this emotion and a few other things while it has your attention.
Tune out the mind and put down whatever pops into your head from the small voice no matter how trivial, weird, ridiculous it seems.
There’s nothing to resolve, nothing to “work” on. This is simply you feeling your feelings, creating peace and accepting your full human nature.
I can tell you that I feel much more peaceful now that I’ve let myself off the hook for being happy all the time.
UPDATE! Download this handy worksheet with the three questions.