How (and Why) to Feel a Feeling
Stress, anxiety, depression, self-sabotage, breakups, chronic pain—half the trouble we get into in our lives comes from struggling to simply feel our feelings. Our culture is a very anti-emotional sort of place. Our big emotions, like sadness, anger, and even joy can scare us. Women are taught never to express anger while men are taught that anger is the only “manly” emotion to express. Many of us learn as children that if we cry too loud or jump around with too much excitement, our caregivers will yell at us or withdraw their connection. Pretty quickly, we figure out how to shut our own emotions down—which is how we make ourselves emotionally, spiritually, or physically sick.
From an early age, we learn to defend against our own emotions. When we don’t feel safe to feel something, we laugh, get sarcastic, leave the room, stop breathing, clench the jaw, change the subject, get really busy at work—the list goes on and on. According to Hilary Jacobs Hendel in her new book It’s Not Always Depression, we bounce between our defenses and inhibitory emotions like shame, guilt, and anxiety to avoid our core emotions. There are seven core emotions that we all have (whether we like it or not): anger, sadness, fear, disgust, joy, excitement, and sexual excitement.
Hendel argues that the key to healing is moving past our defenses and inhibitory emotions to access the underlying core emotions. When we allow ourselves to feel them, name them, and understand the impulses behind them, we immediately relax. The problem isn’t the depth of sadness or anger that we feel. The problem is our resistance to them.
This reflects a classic Buddhist principle called the second arrow. Pain is inevitable: everyone experiences loss, illness, and change. Suffering, however, is optional. We are hit with an arrow of life, and it hurts, but if we try to ignore the hurt or bury it or tell ourselves we shouldn’t feel it, it’s like jabbing a second arrow right into the first wound. We cause suffering when we don’t allow ourselves to feel pain.
Core emotions are simply that—emotions. We don’t have to act on them—in fact, if we get clear on what we’re feeling and any attending impulses, we can mindfully choose what to do next. When we stay unconscious of our feelings, we tend to act out in ways that we are not fully choosing.
Our core emotions are survival instincts that provide a compass to help us navigate the world. Sadness asks us to slow down and feel a loss. Anger tells us where our boundaries are and what we need. Fear tells us to run when we’re not safe. Disgust teaches us what substances or people are toxic for us. Joy tells us to express pleasure. Excitement tells to to move toward what we want. Sexual excitement wants us to move closer to the object of our desire. When we continually shut down these emotions, we lose that internal compass. No wonder we feel so confused and anxious—we’ve lost access to our navigation system.
How do we solve this problem? Simply enough: we learn to feel our feelings. There are many ways to do this, and perhaps the best way is with a compassionate witness like a therapist. But we can be our own compassionate witnesses as well. We can close our eyes, take a deep breath, and notice what we are feeling in our bodies. We can place our hands there and try to name the emotion, out loud, with kindness and without judgment. We can notice what the emotion wants us to do and mindfully choose whether or not we want to act on that impulse. Simply acknowledging these simple truths can go a long way toward healing our very old wounds. All we need to do is feel our feelings.
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- by Julie Peters