Feelings: Friends or Foes?
Updated: Jul 21, 2021
My relationship with my feelings is pretty damn complicated. In one moment, they are a wise truthsayer, and in another, they can't be trusted. At times they are my protector, yet sometimes they totally betray me. Sometimes I can’t even tell the difference between mine and other people’s. I am a deeply feeling person, often accused of being “too sensitive,” yet I am terrified of the damn things; after all, they have gotten me into plenty of trouble. Here is my story of reconciliation… a story that is continuing to unfold as my feelings and I build a long over-due friendship.
First, you must know this is all my parents' fault. Just kidding… sort of… okay, so maybe my parent's parents. Or to be idealistically generous, my poor parent’s parents lived through the great depression and World Wars I and II, among other human-made horrors and disasters. These people generously decided to have kids anyway, which meant mouths to feed, working hard, struggling through and getting shit done no matter what they were feeling. Feelings might have been happening, but no one talked about them; everyone was too busy trying to procreate and survive. Somehow my parents made it and went on to have my brother and me. Considering Maslow's hierarchy of needs, my parent's parents and my parents were hanging out at the bottom two rungs, most likely unaware that there was more to reach for and why there was an undercurrent of suckiness in their lives.
Enter me, a starry-eyed idealistic, curious white child that never had to worry about the basics of food, shelter, clothes, water, war, discrimination, or genocide, which allowed me to luxuriate in the wonderment of all my feelings. Yay! Thanks to my parent's parents and my parents’ hard-ass work, I was able to step up the latter of needs to confuse and frighten them with all that was stirring inside me. Perhaps they were inconvenient or at times too loud or simply a foreign language, but there I was feeling all kinds of things and worse yet, trying clumsily to do something with them, with parents that just wanted me to be happy… literally. Happiness was the golden grail, the sign of successful parenting; anything less meant failure, so “if you can’t put a smile on your face, take it to your room!” I get it! Denial is a powerful ally of every parent just trying to make it through the day without killing their offspring.
Growing up, three main feelings were expressed in my house… 1) happiness, 2) quiet resentment, and 3) anger. I, on the other hand, felt all kinds of feelings. It was hard to feel so much locked into the limitations of only those three. I figured something was wrong and, sadly, like so many children, I assumed it was me.
I decided my feelings were what made me different and wrong. I acted out from their intensity which helped me feel powerful for a moment until, in the aftermath, I felt regretfully powerless and betrayed by them. I tried to pretend depression away, "No, really, I'm fine!" even as I contemplated suicide. I intellectualized my anger and disappointment, which was a pastime my Dad and I perfected in a display of safe surface intimacy. And I minimized my feelings by over-empathizing with yours to help me know how I should feel or how to best show up based on how you were feeling.
As I got older, I used the usual suppression techniques such as alcohol, sex, and co-dependent relationships (which allowed me to lose myself in someone else. Who needs to worry about me when there is another fucked up person to concern myself with?) I got particularly good at using psychoanalysis and empathy to avoid my feelings, which are interesting and clever techniques that make for excellent dinner party conversations.
“Feelings are data,” says Dr. Susan David, author of Emotional Agility. They provide information for me about me. They help me know my values, boundaries, preferences, quirks, and how I make meaning. How I share myself with you and the world is called communication, which to do so effectively is a whole other skill set I am exploring and will share someday, I'm sure.
I never got the memo Dr. David picked up on. Up until recently, I thought my feelings were either right or wrong based on how good, or bad they felt or the results I would get from the action or inaction they inspired. If things worked out, my psychic powers were strong. If not, then my feelings were wrong, and I sucked. Discerning life based on what feels good and what feels bad is the same selectivity that makes it so hard to get my kids to prefer kale over mac and cheese.
Feelings are often messy, sticky, and sometimes downright stinky. I don't like the way many of them go down. I mean, look at a list of the various breakdowns of core human emotions, and you will quickly see that most of them are "negative." I prefer the "positive" ones; they are more enjoyable, and I'm usually a nicer person when I'm feeling them. I like being nice, and other people seem to like me that way too.
This preference means I will overindulge some, try to squash or deny others and chase after or fake my way into still others. In each case, I am completely ignoring the data and hiding behind who I think I should be instead of showing up how I am. I have used shame to manage the dissonance between the two, and, let's just say, shame makes for a terrible boss.
Here are some simple yet profound things I am learning about feelings and myself in the process:
Feelings are meant to be felt; that's when the data reveals itself.
There is a reason we can physically feel our feelings. We have a visceral experience of heartbreak, anxiety, fear, and all the other kaleidoscope of feelings. Back when our problems were related to being prey to other predators having a physical response to our feelings meant we would fight, flight, or freeze our way to surviving. The fact that we're here means our ancestors survived, and therefore it was a good system. Now our feelings are as complicated as we have become.
This may seem obvious to you, but to my surprise, there is a nuanced difference between feeling my feelings and ruminating over my feelings. Ruminating is a mental process filled with stories, meaning, and interpretations looking to prove or argue with my feelings. In either case, there is an agenda. As any good researcher knows, data collection requires paying attention while managing one's own biases for the data to reveal itself in its truest form. Paying attention is not the same thing as thinking about something. Paying attention involves curiosity and spaciousness that is open to the unexpected and therefore available for fresh insight. It is not confined or biased by presumptions.
A thought is a thought, and a feeling is a feeling; that doesn't change even if I think "I feel" something.
This is subtle. If I “feel” like you don’t love me, that’s a thought about you, not a feeling about me. You may or may not love me. That's really not up to me. And how you show that love is unique to you and your business. The truth about me is that whatever just happened between us, I felt rejected. The data might reveal that I have a need to feel seen and accepted in my relationships. Then I can contemplate and possibly even communicate what things contribute to that for me. Now I know more about me and, if I’m feeling brave enough to tell you, you know me better too.
If I continue to “feel” like you don’t love me, then I will either make pathetic attempts to get you to see and accept me or push you away. My focus would be on you instead of me, and the data about me will be forfeited to manipulate you or conform for you.
Emotional granularity leads to greater self-knowledge.
I love using fancy terms for simple concepts. It makes me feel sophisticated. Emotional granularity is essentially an expansive emotional vocabulary that helps me distinguish the nuances of what I'm feeling. Understanding the nuances means I can better understand the data. Am I mad or disappointed? Am I anxious or excited? These point to pretty different possibilities. Was a boundary crossed or an expectation not met? Am I afraid something won’t happen or looking forward to something happening?
If you recall, I started with a limited emotional range of possibilities: happiness, quiet resentment, and anger. Having to funnel all of my feelings through this narrow lens meant the data available to me was skewed and limited as well. Joy, playfulness, acceptance, loved, and courageous were grouped into the fake smile I had associated with my tempered happiness. Scared, worried, overwhelmed, and helpless felt like anger. Disappointed, lonely, and hurt were tucked into quiet resentment. It’s like moving through the world color-blind, not knowing what green even is. Not only would I be missing out on the grass, but I would eat enough unripe bananas that I might decide to give up on that yummy fruit altogether.
If I don't know the taste of overwhelm, I don't understand that the intensity of what I'm feeling is teaching me my limits, and instead, I feel pissed that I can't handle my life. If I can't tease out courage, I might miss experiencing my strength to progress a situation into something better.
I can experience multiple and sometimes contradictory feelings simultaneously.
I can feel quite shy and dabble in social anxiety yet, at the same time, experience enough courage to put myself in those awkward and uncomfortable places that expand my connection to my community. I can feel delighted to see a friend and disappointed they arrived 20-minutes late without calling. Right now, I'm feeling invigorated, nervous and tired. Come to think of it, I often feel a complex concoction of feelings that is more diverse and broad than any one label can contain. Each of these nuances allows the data to be more refined and specific and leads me to greater self-knowledge.
Expressing feelings without first feeling them creates a mess!
When I was young and angry, I wanted to throw things, scream, yell, say mean things… all the stuff that made other people scream and yell back, look at me cross (that look of my Mom's was especially devastating) or otherwise rightfully left alone. In other words, not much got resolved, and, in fact, I often felt worse. When I felt lonely, I drank in men's attention like a binging alcoholic, which often left me with a hangover of rejection and frailty that only deepened my loneliness. Despite how often my intense feelings let me down, I kept believing them into devastating situations. The more acute my anger, the more justified I was in feeling that way. The more turned on I was, the truer the attraction I was feeling. Their intensity meant I was on to something! The big liars!
Then there are the lower-level nagging feelings that won't seem to go away. They are subtler and therefore don't ignite me into immediate action. These are my favorite to stew in. I can spend hours, days, weeks, hell, years, mulling these over and doing nothing but talk… ad nauseam within my own mental hell or with friends (a quick apology to my dear friends).
Feelings motivate action, and rightfully so, but without the crucial step of pausing to feel the feelings first, the action taken will likely be uninformed, ineffective, and patterned action. This will often inflame things, and in many cases leave me feeling helpless, embarrassed, or remorseful. The data gets lost, and so do I. When I act on feelings without feeling them first, they act more like an adversary than an ally. It’s tough to develop a friendship with something I consider an enemy.
FEELINGS: MY NEW BUDDIES
So how does one practically befriend the feelings they have been alternatingly indulging in and running from most of their life? This is what I've been doing.
Independence and self-reliance are as deeply rooted in this country as they are in my personal history, so I trust I'm not alone in this. The self-help industry is a billion-dollar industry that thrives on telling us, "You can do it! You can believe, think, and act your way to perfection! And if you fail, it's just because you haven't tried hard enough or applied the proper technique." The problem with applying self-reliance within one's inner world is that it not only has its private jokes and narrative, but it is also the place where blind spots and shame thrive.
The problem with blind spots is they are as easy to "see" as the car I almost hit who was traveling in my “blind spot” yesterday; you can't see what you can't see, you can't know what you can't know. Perspective matters! If I was just a few inches forward or backward, I would have seen the car I pulled out in front of, but I had no clue it was even there from the exact spot I was in. It's the kind of naivety that can cause accidents, hurtful choices, and heartbreak. It's innocent enough, but the consequences can be devastating.
Blind spots require a shift in perspective to even be recognized, a shift that almost always requires another person. We, humans, were designed to need each other. Our blind spots require feedback from outside of ourselves to even be seen. Not only do we need a different perspective that only another set of eyes can provide, but we also need the willingness to be "wrong." Ouch, right?!? Maybe how we see ourselves and other people isn't the way they are. Perhaps I am limited by my past conditioning, experiences, and the meaning I have created around those.
As for shame, it can only exist in the lonely dark shadows. It limits our vulnerability and, therefore, our capacity for intimacy with ourselves and everyone else. It's that nagging voice that squashes our joy, pulls us back, and affirms our worst fears about ourselves. Shame not only needs to be brought into the light of our own awareness but cannot exist in the presence of a loving, compassionate witness that sees all of the monsters in our closet and looks at us with love anyways. It dissolves as nonchalantly as the darkness in a room when you turn on a light. The tears that pour out when it's gone are usually tears of relief!
When all the reading, TED talks, and journaling stopped working, I hit a wall and felt dull and stuck for way too long. I was getting insights but no shifting. Boring!!! I needed someone whose only job was to challenge my thinking, guide me into the shadows, and witness my tears. It couldn't be my husband or best-friend because they were too close and entangled in my stories. I needed someone just outside of my periphery that could stay there but still care deeply for me. Thank God for Nancy, my therapist.
Awareness versus chatter-box
I learned a lot in my decades as a yoga teacher, but the biggest revelation was that I don't just have one mind, but two. (Some yogic philosophies divide the mind up even more. For simplicity's sake, I prefer the two-mind model.) We have the lower-mind (mana in Sanskrit) and the higher-mind (buddhi in Sanskrit). The lower-mind is the incessant talker that craves information, so it has more things to talk about. It is also the place where my auto-pilot hangs out, reaching for the morning coffee, brushing my teeth, and reacting emotionally to the slightest hint of attack. It's the place where my thoughts think me, and life shuffles me around like a pawn on a chessboard. It's also where my traumas fester in the basement of my unconscious for my own protection and yours. This is the mind that greets me in the morning, puts me to bed at night, and sometimes keeps me awake when the volume is turned up too high.
Here's another word to tickle your fancy; metacognition. This is the ability to observe one's own thinking. The lower-mind doesn't have this ability; Lord knows it's already plenty busy. This is where the higher-mind comes in handy. It, too, is a voice inside my head, but it is calm, quiet, and deliberate. Rather than being swept up in itself, it manages to have a more spacious panoramic view called awareness. In my experience of awareness, it is more inclusive, curious, and non-judgmental than the crowd of voices shouting in my lower-mind. It can hold my thinking, behaving, and the world at large simultaneously. While my lower-mind feels quite clever, it's my higher-mind that is truly wise.
I initially met my higher-mind in my first yoga class when I was 19. Without calling it metacognition, higher-mind, or meditation, the teacher guided us to pay attention to our movements, breath, and eventually thoughts. It all seemed so simple with his help, and the effects lingered as I walked home on the evening streets of Santa Monica, noticing sensory details I didn't even realize I usually missed. While I took in the glow from the street lights and delicious smells from the local restaurants, I was also aware of my thoughts, which seemed to meander without any particular direction or urgency. I felt like I was watching the movie of myself, complete with subtitles of my inner dialogue. It was so interesting and expansive that it kept me going back to yoga and eventually teaching it.
This is where it gets fascinating: while yoga taught me to access the brilliance of my peaceful higher-mind, it also insinuated that the lower-mind was causing all of my problems. Therefore, it was to be overcome (or at least that's how I read it.) Confirming the lower-mind as my enemy didn't create a civil war so much as a suicide mission. Remember, my higher-mind is non-judgmental, spacious, and wise; it would not attack my lower-mind so much as observe it. What I had now was a part of my lower-mind taking the neutral observations of my higher-mind and judging the hell out of everything I thought, felt, and did. I was the problem and the reason I had problems. While that statement in and of itself isn't wrong, when held from a position of self-blame rather than self-responsibility, I become a victim to myself. This is the worst kind!
This is a whole exploration on its own that I will save for another day. What to know for this particular segment is that attackers are more violent and insidious in private, and there is nothing more private than one's own mind. My lower-mind was free to berate, judge, and shame parts of itself into hiding. Having feelings about my feelings distorted the data from the original feeling, so I missed the whole point. I thought because I could observe my thoughts, I was in my higher-mind. But the truth was my lower-mind quickly hijacked the observations of my higher-mind and stealthily turned them against me.
Authenticity versus manipulation
I confess I have been a bona fide manipulator. It's a harsh truth for most people pleasers. I can shape-shift my way into whatever it is I have deemed the appropriate feelings, thoughts, and responses to get you to like me (or at least not be upset with me). I celebrated my "flexibility," but it is a lie. I was not flexible; I was adaptable. I could pretty much adapt to most situations or people to the point where I didn’t know who I was anymore. Being "other-focused" to know how I was feeling left me with nothing solid I could define as me.
It has been disorienting and super scary to shift my focus away from you and toward myself; sometimes, people don't like me or agree with how I'm feeling, and that is a hard one to shake. I can still waver in what's true for me based on your reaction. This isn't exactly fair for you unless you prefer co-dependent relationships and like to be on top.
Sometimes I scare myself because what I might be feeling is that I don't like you very much at the moment. I don't know how to love someone that I sometimes don't like without protecting them with a silence that hides my disdain (if you ask my husband, I'm not as great at hiding it as I think I am.) I have denied my feelings to protect you, which in essence protects me for a more noble cause.
Authenticity requires courage, and courage requires faith. It requires faith within myself that I belong to me. My feelings are neither right nor wrong, they simply provide information. It takes courage to listen without judgment and even more audacity to act on that information. Through practice, I am clumsily growing in my capacity to stand alone in what's true for me.
After teaching and coaching for almost two decades I have come to cherish the way our journeys are intimately linked. Getting chummy with my feelings is leading me to greater self-knowledge and authenticity. As I share myself with you without concern for whether I'm right or wrong, in my eyes or yours, you get to learn more about me which, depending on how you’re feeling, may lead you back to yourself too.
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” –Rumi