How to Feel Your Feelings

“Don’t call yourself an expert,” was one of the first and best pieces of professional advice I received when I started writing, and to date is something I stand fiercely behind.  Right here, right now, as a one time only kinda thing however, I’m going to make an exception.  Because if there’s one area of life I am definitely an expert in, it’s feelings.

Oh yes, darling, I am like a black belt, high priestess, grand master flash guru of feelings. 

If you know me IRL, I all but guarantee you’ve seen me cry or at least tear up with feeling the moment, whatever that moment is.  And if you’ve read or followed my Instagram or other writing, you know I’m pretty honest about exactly that.  I will share with you that over the span of three (ish) decades, I think I may have felt it all: moments of joy, delight, despair, grief, agony, bewilderment, fear, anxiety, love, infatuation, jealousy, pride, nervousness, anticipation, giddiness, deep smit, disappointment, shock, awe, disbelief, inadequacy, adequacy, superiority, terror, confusion, hope, shame, pride, forgiveness, lack, abundance, sheer happiness, ecstasy, overwhelm, underwhelm (though ironically, never just plain ‘whelm’)…the list is looooong, babe.  And that was just for Tuesday!  (Kidding.  Kind of.)

As a highly sensitive person (to people, places, energy, dynamics, environments, subtext…you name it), I have lots of practice in feeling the feels; when I was a kid, and even well into my 20’s, I thought these sensitivities were a problem, to be very honest with you.  Somewhere along the lines I know I was told they were a problem, and consequently that nugget became a part of my story to be true, until I decided otherwise.

Later, as I grew up and matured, found better footing in being straight up me, I realized that being this sensitive isn’t a problem, but rather is a gift.  A total gift.  When I accepted, then embraced this ability to feel deeply (about pretty much everything), things changed for me.  I started to see the strength in my vulnerability, and the joy in feeling such active emotions in response to what was happening in and around me.

I also learned how to navigate these feelings in a healthy way, so that when a particularly intense one came along, I could feel it, acknowledge it, and let it go.

Recently, I received an email from a reader who wrote:

“You talk a lot about working through things, and feeling shit.  But how?  Honestly, how do you actually do it?  I feel like there’s stuff I should probably deal with and confront, but I don’t even know how or where to start.”

“Whoa.  Dude.  Have YOU ever come to the right place,” I thought.  But instead of writing that, I promised I would write this.  You know.  Professionalism, bla bla bla.  And here we are, answering the big question, how do you feel your feelings?  Especially if they are the big ass scary ones that, when they peek at you from around a corner in your mind, make you run screaming in the opposite direction instead of facing them?  Imma break it down for you.

1. Identification

To quote GI Joe, “knowing is half the battle,” and identifying your feelings is this first half of this battle.  It might sound silly to you, but if you’re one of the many, many people out there who has learned over time to repress or bury your feelings, suddenly this ain’t so basic.  Think back to when you were a kid, and what language your parents, caregivers, and teachers used: “you’re ok.  That’s enough.  You’ll be fine.  No more crying.  Boys don’t cry.  Be a big girl.”  Each of those seemingly innocent messages has a way of embedding themselves into our ether and setting up shop.  This is true for women, and Oh Em Gee so true for men.  The way we talk to boys tends to be so dismissive of their feelings it’s shameful, and teaches them to bury everything, only for their girlfriends, wives, and therapists to encourage them years down the road to now dig deep and get real with what they’re feeling.

How do you know if you’re repressing some shit?  You feel angry, anxious, or numb a disproportionate amount of your time.

Oh yeah, that got your attention, didn’t it.  The truth is, anger and anxiety are generally considered to be manifestations of fear.  And when you feel fear – as we all do – without identifying it as such, or without working through that fear, it presents itself as anger and anxiety, or just a feeling of numbness, that “I feel nothing” feeling.  You’ve met these people; and chances are, as I say, you are these people.  The people who are pissed off about everything.  Cynical.  Always have something to bring the conversation or occasion down a notch.  Like a little black cloud hangs over them as a security blanket, lest they feel what they are really feeling.

If that sounds familiar, I have a challenge for you this week.  When you start to feel angry / anxious, or realize you don’t really feel anything, I want you to stop and identify it.  Walk yourself whichever of these statements applies, and really think it through:

“I feel angry because…”  Are you angry because the guy in front of you at the gas station is a “talentless ass clown” or because you are running  late and are afraid of getting in shit at work?  Or do you often feel like your time goes undervalued and under appreciated, and this little encounter just backs up that gross feeling you feel way deep down?

“I feel anxious when…”  Notice your feelings after you leave any interaction, with any environment or person.  Do you feel lifted and recharged?  Or drained, insecure, and spent?  Are you trying to prove something to someone that just isn’t authentically you?  Are you engaging in activities in your life for the sake of pleasing others, but leave you feeling untrue and under satisfied?

“I don’t feel anything right now; why is that?”  This is a tougher one, and one that might take some practice.  But ask yourself why, and start to walk yourself through the absence of feelings to see what comes up.  Pssst – “I just don’t feel anything” means you’re not there yet, toots.  Keep going.  If you need some help dragging this stuff out, an intense but super effective trick is to find a quiet and private space, put on ‘that song that gets you every time’ with headphones at full volume, and let whatever comes up wash over you.  This is an almost surefire way to kick start the process and invite anything that has been trained to stay down and not be felt, felt.  be very gentle with yourself afterwards, as the intensity of this might surprise you; leave time to rest and reflect for a while afterwards.

2. Acknowledgement

Once you’ve identified your feelings, i.e. “in this moment I feel angry that she didn’t text me back, and I think I’m afraid that I might have fucked up another relationship,” you have a couple of options.  Option one is to say “freak that noise,” and bury it back down where it came from.  Option two is to acknowledge what you are feeling, and go from there.  Can you guess which one is the healthy choice here?

I get it.  Sometimes it’s as complex as you not being ready or equipped to feel the big feels, especially if they’re related to childhood or intimacy.  Sometimes it’s as simple as you standing in a crowded elevator with a group of strangers and get that awful feeling of overwhelm, and just can’t deal with it at the moment.  “At the moment” is key though, because if cruelly, the only way through something is to actually go through it.

Any of those negative feelings you have and avoid and pack way back down where you can’t feel them don’t actually go away until you deal with them.  And the kicker?  The longer you avoid those feelings, the stronger and more powerful they become, coming at you more and more fiercely will you own up and face them head on.

There’s a Buddhist saying I love, which to paraphrase, says that you can acknowledge your feelings, let them in, but don’t invite them to stay for tea.  This is where we move on to step 3.

3. Acceptance

This is the most freeing of the steps.  Simply accepting how you feel, not questioning it, not shaming it, not blaming it, just effing accepting it.  What does that look like?  “I feel lonely.  I am scared I will be alone forever.  I am afraid I will be the kind of father my father was.  I think this marriage is dead.  I think I am in the wrong career and am afraid to make the change.  What if I can never get pregnant?  I am uncomfortable in my body.  I miss my mom.  I regret not travelling and am worried I missed my window.  I made a mistake and I don’t know how to solve it.  I am tired of feeling like I’m second best.  I treated her like crap and I don’t know if I can ever make up for it.  I’m worried I’ve taken on too much and I don’t think I can handle it, but I don’t know how to ask for help.  I want and need a partner.  I think I am in love, and I really don’t want to mess it up this time.”

Whatever the feeling is, accept it.  Period.  If we’ve learned to suppress things along the way, when they bubble up (as they always do, see step 2), not only do we get the icky feeling itself, but we get it wrapped in a protective coating of shame.  So now we have to deal not only with the feeling, but the feeling of shame just for feeling said feeling.  Makes sense?  So instead, to free yourself, I am giving you permission to do this: just feel it.  It might be the most fucked up thought you’ve ever had.  It might come from a place of weakness in which you thought you were strong.  It might be painfully simple or wildly complex, doesn’t matter.  Just identify it (“this is fear that I’m feeling”), acknowledge it (“oh hey fear of rejection.  I see you, and I’m sorry for what you’ve experienced so far that has lead you here.  You’re safe now”), and accept it (“wow, I am afraid of being rejected.  I’ve never admitted that before”).

There’s an awesome track off the newest John Mayer album with the most perfect lyric: “it’s just a wave, and I know that when it comes, I just hold on.”  Let the feeling wash over you like a wave, and hold on, knowing that as quickly as it came crashing in, it too will go.  Take a breath, have a glass of water, hug, cry, or nap, and keep going.

4. Resolution

This is a lifetime process I think, that gets easier with time, and really comes down to accepting your feelings, and processing them in a healthy way.  One of the biggest human needs that we tend to overlook is the need to be seen and heard.  A crucial part to resolution is talking it out, either to yourself (or whomever it is that you involve spiritually in that conversation) via journalling, to a close friend or family member, or maybe even to a professional.

I’ve had very deep and intimate conversations with people I barely know, as if I came upon them at the right place and time for them to vent out and work through whatever is on their mind.  I am a frequent recipient of “Wow.  I can’t believe I just told you that; I’ve never told anyone that before,” and I love it.  I love being the one who gets to hear people, because I know how important and soothing it is to be heard.  I am also grateful for the handful of people in my life who take the time to listen to me in that same way.  Maybe not in line at the grocery or flower store for example, but whenever the time and place feels right for me.

Once you’ve allowed this shit to bubble up, you need to let it go to set it free, and a huge part of this is resolving it through being heard.  If your dog is a willing and active listener, so be it.  I’m not even kidding.  Just talk it out to someone and notice the change in intensity, the increase in clarity, the decrease in overwhelm, and the upped confidence level in knowing exactly what to do.  And of course, it goes without saying here that if the feelings that come up are bigger and more complicated than you thought, conversing with a great therapist is an excellent option to help move that mountain out of your way and carry on.

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Does that help?  Kind of a quick overview in 2000 words or less, but my hope is that it gets you started, and loosens things up for you a bit, allowing you to feel secure in what you’re feeling, and able to move through it successfully.  As I mentioned a couple of times throughout, be gentle as you go through this process, and allow yourself to have down time as you acknowledge what it is you’re feeling.  Self care babe, is key.  Have a good week, lovely.

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