“Feel the Feeling – Drop the Story” – Pema Chödrön
I have spent most of my life “in my head”, practicing my “intellectual intelligence” – and for the most part I did not really know that I did that… It seemed so normal to “think things through” in order to understand: intellectualizing, rationalizing, analyzing, categorizing, labeling… all left-brain logical functions, which our culture so highly rewards.
I would use the phrase “this makes sense to me” – but my “sense” was mainly in the intellectual, analytical mind. Emotions seemed to be the things that mess with the intellectual processes, get in the way, and they only belong into a private and personal world…
Why is it so important to “sense into” the body, heart and emotions, and to develop and grow our “emotional intelligence”?
Every time we skip over and ignore a feeling, it gets sent into the body as a memory for example in the form of a muscle tension or a hormonal response (fight or flight reactions). They accumulate and eventually become noticeable as “stress”. At first you might “just” feel a sense of tension, mood, restlessness, not sleeping as soundly; from there it might grow into variations of fatigue, lack of focus, anxiety, depression, aggression etc. There are lots of studies that link stress to a variety of physiological responses in your body that affect hormones, digestion, our muscles, bones and reproductive systems – and, of course, our brains.
The mental, emotional and physiological facets of stress also have an effect on our sense of ourselves – our own idea of “normal”: the way we view ourselves, the world around us and the people in it. Our beliefs and values are created through the ways we perceive the world and the people in it – and vice versa: it becomes a self-validating process that perpetuates and feeds of itself.
The good news is, feeling your feelings is actually a skill that you can practice – and by engaging that practice you can reverse a lot of the tensions in your body and in your relationships:
Here are a couple of steps that you can practice;
Learn and practice your “vocabulary” of feelings:
- Why: Studies show that just naming a feeling, especially in an overwhelmingly painful situation, can bring relief. So the more aware you are of WHAT you are actually feeling, the more you can contain your feelings – so that YOU are having your feelings instead of the feelings having you.
- How: Just take a few minutes each day to tune into your body and ask yourself “what are you feeling?” And then allow yourself to just name and hold the feeling for a moment. “I see you are feeling happy, sad, relaxed, frustrated….” You will notice that most of the time you feel numerous feelings at the same time, and sometimes even conflicting feelings. Congratulations, you’re human… just slow down the process by naming one feeling at a time.
- Here is a list of feelings to help you expand your own emotional vocabulary.
Learn and practice your “vocabulary” of needs:
- Why: Feelings are a response to our needs being met or not met: We feel happy feelings when our needs are met, and “unhappy” or uncomfortable feelings when they are not met. The more we are aware of our own needs and learn to express them accurately and generatively, the more we can invite others to meet our needs – and by allowing ourselves to need, and to be needed by others, we grow deeper and healthier relationships. When we don’t have the skill to know and express our needs, our needs don’t go away – they accumulate in our minds and bodies; and eventually they erupt as demands, pushing others away instead of inviting them into relationship with us.
- How: same as above – after you named the feelings in your body, tune into asking yourself “what do you need right now?” And again, just naming and mirroring back these needs to yourself “I see you are needing to feel heard, seen, accepted, a nap, walk, break, a massage, breathing deeply etc” – it doesn’t matter if you can fill these needs in the moment, just naming the needs already changes your inner narrative…
- Here is a list of needs to help you expand your emotional needs vocabulary: https://www.cnvc.org/Training/needs-inventory.
Learn to distinguish between feelings, needs and the meaning that you are making:
- Why: In the beginning your intellectual mind may want to take over and, out of habit, skip over feeling the feeling, and immediately name the meaning you are making.
- How: You might “think” you feel rejected, devalued, humiliated, disrespected – but none of these are actually feelings – they are our interpretation of the situation. Just acknowledge that interpretation and ask yourself: where do I feel this situation in the body? Then follow each thread and name the feelings, one at a time. Initially it might take some time – but with practice you will tune into this within split seconds, until it becomes second nature.
- Tedious? Frustrating? In the beginning, maybe… it’s a new skill, so just be patient with yourself. It’s just like going to the gym for the very first time – if your shoulders are so used to rounding forward towards your cell phone or computer, they first need to re-learn what their correct position is, and what the original job of each of the muscles attached to them is… Yes, you may get sore, and it may be frustrating at first to break the old habits – but with a good trainer, you will get stronger fairly quickly. It’s the same for your emotional habits.
Learn a healthy containment of your inner experience:
- Why: Ideally, developmentally, we begin learning these skills in our early childhood, once we pass the “terrible two’s”. That’s when we begin the skills of relating to the world outside of ourselves, and ideally we learn healthy ways of containing our emotions, rather than requiring instant gratification. It’s part of growing up… Unfortunately many of us have not really honed these skills – for a variety of reasons (not blaming…). It doesn’t need to be a big trauma: maybe our parents or caregivers were not fully available or knowledgeable to teach us these skills; maybe they were working, struggling, busy, didn’t have these skills themselves – or they were distracted (nowadays digital devices contribute to that.) Maybe our culture did not reward emotional responses, or even pushed them back – and did not teach us healthy ways of expressing our feelings and needs – so we got “stuck” in the cycle of impulse and perceived need for instant gratification. Good news: we are all able to learn new skills, and break these cycles…
- How: sit with your feelings and needs. Name them, and just sit with them. Allow yourself to just feel the feeling and need the need… and notice the inner experience of that. The next time a need comes up as an urge (like late night carb cravings; instant attraction to someone and the “need” to jump right into an intimate relationship with them, without actually knowing their values) – you will notice an increased capacity to just notice the feeling/need, without having to have to react. This gives you the breathing room to be able to respond, rather than react – and ultimately this leads to a healthier you, healthier bodies, relationships – and ultimately a contribution to a healthier and more relaxed world around you.
- Why: Yoga, translated literally from Sanskrit, means “union”. The union of body, mind, heart and soul. Yoga brings all my 4 points from above together, in the body – in stillness and in movement. Yoga makes the promise that it “stills the fluctuations of the wavelengths of the mind”. Ahhhhh (sigh). There are now various scientific studies of why and how yoga alters not only the flexibility of your hamstrings, but the physiology inside your body responsible for moods, well-being, the way we age – and more.
- How: We get on the mat. We slow down from our busy lives. We sit and breathe for a while, and allow that, and ourselves, to be enough for a while. We allow the yoga instructor to guide us, to take us on a journey into our own body and mind: through movement, breath, sound… And the experience allows us to still our minds enough to tune in, to feel the actual physical sensations in the body as we sit and breathe, or move and breathe. And as we become more attuned to the practice, we begin to also notice some of the emotions that are stored in those tight hips, shoulders and necks.
Want to go deeper with these skills and learn how they can positively affect all aspects of your life – your body, mind, heart & soul, all of your relationships and your ability to intentionally create the happy, healthy future you always dreamed of?