Don began his story.
“Growing up it was clear in my family that feelings were unacceptable. Repeatedly, I heard such statements as, “I will give you something to cry about”, or “Go get the crying towel, the cry baby is upset again”, and “It is as easy to be happy as sad”. In my family, if you dared to show any emotions, at best you were sent to your room and ignored; most of the time you were ridiculed, belittled or punished. The only feelings that we allowed were my parents' angry shouts. I do not understand why I need to feel my feelings. What is the purpose? What good will it do me after all these years? I am doing fine in life without feelings.”
Sadly, I hear stories like this way too often. I hear feelings criticized, rejected and blamed for pain and struggles. At one time or another, I hear this from everyone with whom I work. These words are usually spoken when faced with painful memories or events. People ask, “why can’t I just move on and ignore what happened? I will forget it before long.” I hear them when someone is struggling with feelings that are labeled as “negative”: anger, jealousy, competition, and aggression, to name a few.
Feelings are Not Valued
We live in a world that does not support feelings. Intellect and thinking are
the prized attributes that are celebrated and nurtured while feelings are resisted
and feared. This cultural belief bleeds into families where children are taught to not feel and are punished for being “childish,” a cry baby” or for throwing a temper tantrum. Children learn quickly to not show emotion.
Without feelings, we lose a part of ourselves. We miss clues about who we are and limit our capacity to understand ourselves. Without our feelings, we fail to fully experience and form our lives. To have a full and complete self, we need to know what we like and don’t like, what we want and don’t want, with whom we want to be and whom we would like to avoid. Our feelings inform us of all these things.
One of the core conflicts for all human beings, is whether to live a life of feelings or to attempt to suppress them in an effort to block out pain. When we attempt to block pain, however, we actually cause more pain in our lives. Most methods we use cause the feelings to be covered over and buried inside, creating festering wounds that get worse over time. They can lead to physical illness, relationship issues, emotional problems and addictions.
We cannot cut out what we consider “bad” emotions and keep the “good” emotions. It does not work that way, and instead we become numb. We lose
the ability to know what we desire, and without desire there are no goals to motivate us and give our lives meaning. We go through the motions of living by relying on patterns learned in childhood to direct our lives. We become empty and hollow.
Dr. Leslie Greenberg helped develop Emotionally Focused Therapy. His method is designed to help people, accept, express, regulate, understand and transform emotion. He states an important truth about emotions and reason. “Emotion is not opposed to reason. Emotions guide and manage thought in fundamental ways and complement the deficiencies of thinking.”
There are strategies we can learn to increase our tolerance for emotion so that we can live in harmony with ourselves and our feelings.
1. Breathe and be still while experiencing your feelings:
Feelings will not kill you, nor do they need to control you. Feelings are energy in your body. When an emotion arises, remain calm, sit and feel. There is no need to take action. Fully experience what you are feeling and make every effort to not judge or label the experience. Feelings come and go, rarely do they last long, when you pay attention to them. Begin by sitting with a pleasant emotion for a short time. Gradually increase the time you spend sitting with your emotions. You will become more comfortable with your feelings over time.
2. Don’t reject your emotions:
They are neither good nor bad. Feelings are just feelings. They bring clues
to what you are experiencing in the moment. They tell you something about
yourself. They may bring information from your past and show you how you
learned to survive. Feelings are neutral information messengers; it is the
action you take that determines if they are helpful or harmful. Our emotions
don’t have to dictate our actions. We can be curious and open to what we
feel, while becoming less likely to be controlled by these triggered emotions.
3. Find ways to self-soothe:
Don’t intensify the feeling. Don’t spend time dwelling on the situation that
has triggered the feelings. Don't try to explain or justify your feelings, just observe them. Focus on the feelings, not your thoughts. Allow the feelings
to build and then subside. Imagine that the feeling is a wave coming to
shore that will soon expend it’s energy. Emotions shape who we are, how
we function and behave. When we are willing to experience our emotions
fully, without judgment, we learn who we are, have insight into ourselves
and become more self aware.
Being able to feel your feelings makes you stronger and builds resiliency.
No one is born with the ability to identify and regulate their emotions. We
learn those skills from our original caretakers. If they were unable to regulate their own emotions, they could not teach us. The good news is that it is a learned skill that you can acquire at any age or stage of life.
To answer our original question, the purpose of feeling our feelings is to be able to know ourselves. The end game of therapy is to make it possible for you to know yourself and feel your feelings so that you do not have to shut down your
emotions and be unaware of what you think or how you feel. Therapy helps you expand your capacity to know yourself. Not knowing and not feeling is the road to annihilation of the self.