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What’s the point of feeling? I mean, of course we all know and love the emotions associated with joy and excitement, engagement and pleasure, but what about the darker and more difficult ones?

The why of it…

Let me start with “why” to begin working with one’s emotions. By “working with,” I mean actually attempting to feel the bodily sensations associated with them. Of course this feels better when the emotions being taken in or attended to are brighter-toned emotions, such as those associated with joy and pleasure. But what about the feelings of sadness or anger, jealousy or fear that are often more complicated and more uncomfortable? Wouldn’t it be better to just avoid them, internally shutting them down as quickly as possible, depriving them of air time or space? This is what many people learn to do early in their development. The implicit message that a primary caregiver might convey is “Don’t feel that,” “You’re not okay,” “You might overwhelm me and I won’t be able to handle you,” or “I can’t be available to you like that.” When the caregiver communicates their ambivalence, unawareness or disdain for his or her emotional experience, the child learns the following messages: a) “I can’t trust others to be emotionally supportive and present when I’m suffering, so it’s better to handle things on my own rather than ask for help”; and b) “My emotions can’t be trusted, so I need to suppress, swallow or disregard them in order to survive.” After coming to these conclusions, the child may begin to not even notice his or her emotions anymore. The signal will all but stop firing. This is a message that may lead to survival, but unfortunately not much more.

On a very basic level, we can’t block ourselves from the feelings that we don’t like without also cutting ties with those we do. Many try to shield themselves through intellectualization, substance use or eating, or by distracting their own attention through work or other means. Over a long period of time, these attempts leave us vulnerable to a loss of vitality and life energy, periods of depression and stuckness, and a pervasive sense of disconnection from others. When a therapist prioritizes emotional experience, the patient is primed to enjoy an exciting shift in self-understanding and in how they experience themselves and others. The implicit messages conveyed from therapist to patient become “You and your emotions matter,” and “Although feeling them can be both scary and uncomfortable, there is utility and power in doing so.” The patient can begin to feel more at ease in his or her internal world and empowered to connect more fully with the entirety of his or her human experience. This leads to a greater sense of self as whole and intact. Once the patient has become more curious and allowing of the processing and the moving-through of difficult emotions, he or she will inevitably find comfort in doing so, and will experience a surprising and corresponding increase in positive, life-affirming emotions. This allows depression to lift, as a more fractured more tentative sense of self is replaced by a sturdier grasp of a core sense of being. The energy that was once taken up by over-coping and disconnecting can now be devoted to engagement with life interests and significant others. [Now that you are convinced it’s a good idea to begin leaning into the emotions that arise in you, let’s discuss how to do something that many have been trained to avoid for a lifetime, whether or not they are aware of it.]

The how of it…

When difficult emotions arise, what many do (myself included at times) is to ask themselves, “Why am I feeling this?” This often happens even when there is a conscious intention to allow oneself to truly feel and process the feeling. While there is a valid time and place for questioning and analyzing one’s emotional experience, this can also be seen as a very subtle way for the psyche to attempt to not feel. It is as though this “why” question directs the body’s energy to the intellect, leaving the individual in a problem-solving state, wondering “How do I make it stop.” This is the exact opposite of dropping down into the body where emotional experience exists. This type of judgment can actually prolong and exacerbate the distress and discomfort that “feeling into” and tracking the emotion with attention would likely alleviate more quickly. In order to feel, we must first take a break from asking “why” questions, and instead begin asking “what” and “how” questions. For example, if I become aware of a difficult emotion such as sadness, a helpful “what” question to ask myself is “What in my body is telling me that this is sadness?” This perhaps leads me to notice a heaviness in my chest. I then begin to notice and explore the contours of my sadness in this moment, including how much space it takes up. Does it feel like it is right at the surface of my skin, or does it feel deeply imbedded, reaching down into my rib cage? What kind of movement is there in my sadness? Is there any temperature to it? Does it start to move towards my throat where I might then notice a constriction and an upward sensation that moves me into tears and allows me to express it in sounds or words? After a few moments I might return my attention to where my sadness initially arose, and notice that the sensations associated with the heaviness have dissipated and dissolved. I might notice that my tears led to the expression of my pain, which needed a loving pathway to exit my body, to clear out my psyche and be replaced by a greater sense of lightness. It is at this point that I’m served well to remember a quote written by Diana Fosha, Ph.D., the founder of Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy. She writes, “Nothing that feels bad is ever the last step.” To stay with one’s sensation of emotion and track it in this mindful and attentive manner is the exact opposite of self-abandonment. In fact, it is the pathway and the action of self-love. The implicit message to the self then becomes, “I and my feelings both matter and have value.” This process becomes a foundation upon which true confidence is built and genuinely felt over time.

Some words of caution regarding self-judgment…

Pema Chondrin offers a Buddhist teaching that is rooted in tonglen, a self-compassion practice. It describes the importance of suspending the judgment of emotions as one feels them. This means taking a break from giving full attention to the mind’s habitual production of thoughts such as “This is a bad thing to feel and it means something negative about me that I am doing so,” or “If I let myself really feel this it means I’m wallowing in it and I will always be this way – a wallower.” The teaching (as I remember it) continues in the following way: Emotions themselves are like little clusters of energy pushed into existence by neurons firing from one to the other, causing tiny fires of sensation that on their own rise and fall in brief periods of time, often within a few minutes or less. Judgments of these emotions are more like containers full of kerosene. When poured on the little fires, the judgments cause them to ignite and to continue burning with elevated intensity, long past the point at which there is a need. In everyday terms, this means that it’s a good idea to give oneself permission to “feel” in the safety of a supportive other, rather than making the emotion about good or bad or focusing on the story from which it came. Just give the sensations of the emotion some time and space, notice how they move and shapeshift in the body, and try not to get seduced by the harsh words of the mind. Our minds mean well, but they function by way of conditioned patterns of thought, which can make our experience so much more painful than is necessary.  

By Dr. Catherine Hurley


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