Have the Courage to Feel Your Feelings
Most of us spend our lives trying to keep a lid on our emotions. We don’t deal with our feelings or give them opportunity just to ‘be.’ We contain them. We push them down. We resist them with all our energy. While doing so gives us the illusion of being in control, the outcome of such behavior is very predictable.
When I was a little girl, my mother often made our dinners in a pressure cooker–a sealed pan that cooked meat and rice much quicker than conventional methods. One day, my mother was at work, and I got hungry. Although I was too young to understand the exact workings of the pressure cooker, I decided to try it anyway. Of course I got distracted during the cooking process and allowed the pressure inside the pan to build too high. The release valve was unable to accommodate the heat needing to escape and disaster ensued. I heard an explosion so loud that I momentarily thought I had blown up the entire house. Luckily, it was only the pan that blew. Still, my dinner ended up all over the kitchen ceiling.
Like the pressure cooker, our emotions need a medium for expression. If we suppress our feelings long enough, the emotion will eventually surface in an unhealthy way (think dinner all over the ceiling). Sometimes the expression is a compulsive behavior like an addiction or an eating disorder. Sometimes our feelings are expressed in prejudicial or judgmental attitudes. The most common byproduct of suppressed feelings, however, is depression and anxiety. All of the said behaviors give an illusion of being in control, but only in an out-of-control and very destructive manner.
Of course there are very healthy ways to work with our feelings instead of against them, although doing so might feel scary. It’s great to feel happy and excited, but no one wants to sign up for hurt, rejection, anger, or sadness. Allowing ourselves to authentically feel can seem bigger than we can handle. We want to protect ourselves and others from the intensity of our feelings. We want to feel in control–authentically feeling sadness or anger gives us anxiety about being out of control.
Carol, a sixty three-year-old woman, was referred to me by her physician after having many “ailments” with very few physical explanations for her aches and pains. During our first session, I asked her to tell me about her childhood. She talked about an alcoholic, abusive father and a mother who constantly hid what was happening. Carol began to sob. “I haven’t talked about any of these things in years,” she said. “My whole life has been spent running into another room to cry and trying to hide how afraid I am.”
I asked Carol to begin a Feelings Journal–a way to express her authentic self and begin the healing process. She agreed and came back the next week to show me what she wrote. She had listed what she’d done each day, but her feelings journal did not include a single feeling word. She was so disconnected from her feelings that she did not even have the emotional vocabulary to express herself. Because she didn’t have the words, she had little or no awareness of what she actually felt.
Unfortunately, this is very common. Many people are so far removed from living an authentic life that they are truly unaware of what they are feeling. They can often identify basic feelings like happiness, anger, and sadness; but usually when I ask a person exactly what they are feeling, the answer is, “I don’t know.”
Over time, Carol came to understand that her feelings had been bottled up for so long that her body had responded by bringing them to the surface in a manner she felt was acceptable–through chronic physical complaints. For so long she had wanted to hide her feelings, as her mother had, out of fear of getting in trouble. Through therapy, she came to understand the meaning of authentic living. She became better at allowing herself to feel the feelings as they came. She’d practice identifying her emotions, and then she’d accept them. She returned to socializing with friends and became more active in the lives of her grandchildren. Her physical ailments seemed to disappear.
How Do I Sort It All Out?
Understanding that both your positive and negative feelings have a place in the overall process of life brings a sense of freedom. You don’t have to be so afraid of hard things. You can learn to pass through negative feelings rather than being afraid of getting stuck in the pain. How do you feel your feelings without getting overwhelmed, being hard on yourself, or going out of control?
Consider the following ideas:
1. Label the Feeling
Increase your emotional vocabulary. Several times each day simply put a label on what you are feeling. There is no need to analyze the feeling–just name it. Most feelings can fit into one of four categories: happy, sad, mad, or scared. Whatever you are feeling is likely to be one of these four feelings to a greater or lesser degree. For example, feeling pleased may be a lesser degree of happy, while elation is a greater degree of happy. Frustration is a lesser degree of mad, while rage is a greater degree of mad. Nervous is a lesser degree of scared, while petrified is a greater degree of scared. You can print off the feelings chart at the end of this article to help you identify exactly what you are feeling. Don’t forget this.
2. Keep a Feelings Journal
A feelings journal provides a healthy release of emotion. This is not a journal to be kept and read over and over. This is not a journal to be be handed down to your children and their children. This journal is a safe place to write down the emotion for what it truly is. I call it ‘emotional vomit.’ When you release your emotions, no matter how messy and unpleasant they seem, you feel much better.
Write the feelings down, and toss those pages in the garbage. Then take three slow breaths. Follow your deep breathing by a positive self-statement like, “I am strong enough to face this,” or “I’m OK.” Learning that your feelings are not bigger than what you can handle helps you not to be afraid.
3. Talk to Someone About it
Talking to someone about your feelings can help you move through the emotion and see it in a new light. It can help you on the journey out of the victim role and move into a place of accountability for your own thinking and choices.
4. Answer the Question, “How Else Could I Think About This?”
Remember the connection between your thoughts and your feelings. Ask yourself, “what am I telling myself about my feelings? How else could I look at this? Are there explanations other than the one I am thinking?” You can also ask yourself, “If I were giving advice to someone in the same situation, what would I say?”
5. Sometimes You Can Let Your Feelings Rest – If You Come Back to Them Later
There are times when you can’t just let your emotions hang out raw. For example, if you are the kid at recess who is picked last for the kickball team, it wouldn’t work very well to cry out on the field. The other kids would just tease you and add to the level of rejection you are already feeling. You may let the feelings rest, but then ride your bike extra hard on the way home as a means for releasing the feelings of rejection. We all have inside feelings and outside feelings. The outside feelings are the ones we can show the world without fear of retribution. We can show when we are happy or excited. We can show sadness at funerals or movies. Most people, however, would choose to act tough if their boss tells them they are going to be laid off. When it is inappropriate to deal with the feelings right away, most people stuff them inside. However, it is not healthy to leave them there and never deal with them. That is when the pressure cooker really heats up and gears up for an explosion.
Exercise brings a natural release of pent-up, negative energy. Exercise also releases endorphins that help us balance out our negative emotions.
To summarize, your positive and negative emotions are both a part of living. Pretending we don’t feel or shoving our feelings down makes us unhappy, bitter, or anxious. Giving ourselves permission to feel (and express) the full range of emotions allows us a greater capacity to feel joy and live authentically.