Feeling your Feelings
By Jonathan e. Hart, LPC
Human emotions are unpredictable, complex, surprising things.
Feelings. We all have them. It can be confusing when we don’t understand the feeling we are experiencing, or why we are even experiencing it in the first place. Often the feeling doesn’t seem to match the scenario that triggered it.
We humans seem rarely to question our emotions. They exist as reflexes. They occur without our choice or invitation. When we don’t understand them, we usually try to rationalize them away or turn them off. This gets us into trouble more often than not, because simply not feeling our emotional reflexes is like trying not to kick when the doctor thumps us at the knee with the little mallet.
The discipline that will help understand our emotional reflexes is to practice feeling them. Learn what they physiologically feel like. Does it burst or contract? Does it rise or fall? Does it feel like a flutter or a weight? Do I get hot or cold in my face, hands, etc.? Where in my body do I feel it? What does it make me want to do?
This may seem silly, but all of our emotions have a physiological component. We talk about our bodies and our minds and our feelings as though they are separate things. We do this because we have to in order to be able to talk about them and learn about them. But body, heart, and mind are all one thing.
Think about the last time you got startled. Chances are you jumped or twitched somehow. Your heart rate accelerated and you experienced a sharp intake of breath. You did not choose these things. They happened. They are the physiological component of the feeling of fear. It passed quickly enough when you realized that there was no real danger, but they happened nonetheless.
Slowing down and taking the time to feel our feelings is particularly difficult when the feeling that is present is a negative one like fear or anger or loss.
This process requires us to sit in the feeling, to allow it to exist without making it better. This process requires the work of deliberately NOT managing the feeling, but rather observing it in order to understand it.
When we do this, we gain an edge. We cultivate the skill of awareness. We will more quickly recognize the feeling when it arises again, and more quickly be able to understand ourselves. We gain a delay between when we feel and what we do next. We can use this delay to make a conscious, careful choice about our next step rather than simply doing what the feeling tells us to do. Particularly in relationship, this thoughtful choice can be the difference between a healthy, responsible interaction and a reactive, destructive one.
In order to begin learning how to do this, take a moment and think about a mild emotion. Don’t start with a really big feeling. Think about the physical feel of it. Cultivate an understanding of this physiological component, and pay attention. You might be surprised by how often you feel that same feeling in other places.
When you’ve got a bit of practice with this, you can begin working on larger feelings, like the ones that rise up around conflict or arguments. Again, slow down and pay attention. You may be surprised by what you learn.