I had the opportunity to watch a “chick flick” (I love deep ones with lots of character development) with 3 of my good friends last weekend. After the movie, we sat out on the patio until midnight in the glow of the white twinkly lights strung up on the fence. We listened to the waterfall gently flowing and reflected on the lives of the characters and our friendship. We laughed; we cried; we realized that everyone one of us has a story.
Having special friends in my life, who I can be completely vulnerable and real with, has meant so much to me. I haven’t always been willing to connect with women because of my insecurities, past hurts and losses, and fear of judgment. For me, it’s been a journey of getting to know and accept myself. Driving home that evening, I thought back to when I was a young woman and so lost. I will never forget being in the family session at the alcoholism treatment program my first husband was attending. One of the counselors began the session by writing the word “feelings” on the white board. When she invited the family members into the conversation, my husband tried to distract me but I listened intently. She was talking a language that I had never known. That began my journey into an awareness of emotions and a journey into learning how to process them.
Many people get really good at stuffing their feelings. Many of us have not been given the language of feelings growing up and really aren’t sure what they are or what to do with them. Others feel as if their emotions run them and that they have no control over them at all. Clients often fear that if they let the feelings come that they will be overtaken and never stop crying. How are they supposed to function and feel? So they stay up in their head. I am not suggesting we abandon our thinking; thinking and feeling go hand in hand.
We can’t suppress “bad” feelings yet experience joy at the same time. If we stuff our emotions, we stuff them all. So how do you experience your feelings in a healthy way?
The first step is to notice your judgment around them. Do you think these things?
Feelings are just a pain in the butt
I “shouldn’t” feel certain feelings
It’s ok to minimize or ignore your feelings Real men don’t have feelings
Feelings aren’t reliable
I can’t bear to feel pain
If we are shaming ourselves for having feelings, we will build a wall around our heart and not move past it. Feelings aren’t really good or bad. They just are. I know some are more painful than others and we prefer some over others, but feelings give us information. We are breathing, moving human beings and we have messy lives and messy feelings sometimes.
The next step is to experience them. I used to just disconnect from my feelings. A good therapist saw that happen one time with me and asked me to go back and just stay with the feeling – to experience it. He asked me to put my hand up when it seemed like the feeling peaked and then stay with it until I felt like it had passed. It was my fear that feelings would just consume me and I would stay stuck in them. He looked at me and said, “That was 90 seconds and you made it.”
So how do you experience your emotions?
First let me remind you that experiencing is not the same as expressing. What I am talking about here is an internal process. Feeling angry and behaving angrily are two different things.
To experience an emotion is to sit with it, notice it, identify it, let it bubble up, let it roll through you like a wave, and notice where it is in your body. The goal is to be open and curious and let it pass through. Pain is a part of life and it passes. Watch how children experience emotions. They cry because they are sad; maybe a friend was mean or they got left out, and once it passes they go do something else. We are born with the ability to let it flow through us. It is when well-meaning adults say, “hush, don’t cry” “settle down you’re making a scene” because they are uncomfortable, that children learn to stuff.
By experiencing your feelings when they surface, they won’t build to a huge mountain and feel intolerable to deal with. You might need to cry, sob or wail. You might need to pound a pillow, yell in your car, or push hard on a wall. You can remind yourself that you can handle the feeling, that feelings are normal, and that this will pass. At some point the emotion will feel spent and you might feel tired and depleted.
Do you know that 80% of all doctor visits are actually due to stress? I wonder if we all learned to experience our emotions, let them move through our bodies and did the other work necessary for learning to express our emotions to others in respectful ways (more on this next time), if our time at the medical doctor would decrease.
Nancy Ryan, LMFT specializes in working with individuals and couples who want deep, satisfying relationships with themselves and their partners. She works with couples who are ready to stop the destructive patterns and want to build the love, friendship and romance back into their partnership.