What do we do when we don’t want to feel our emotions? We think, distract, avoid, numb, analyze, and do literally anything that might take us away from our emotions. Why do we invest all of this energy into doing the opposite of what our feelings are telling us? Because we learned, at some point in our life, that our feelings were either “too much”, not be to trusted, unimportant, “in the way”, or dangerous.
This post is not about blaming our parents or caregivers for potentially instilling this message in our brains. Nor is it about putting the blame on ourselves for not being able to cope differently. This is about recognizing that we had experiences that our parents or caregivers were unequipped to deal with and bringing the choice back to ourselves to either continue doing what we’ve been doing or try something new.
What are emotions?
Emotions are physiological reactions that take place inside of our bodies and transmit their messages through physical sensations, images, and impulses. They are no different than the thousands of other physiological responses our bodies doll out on a minute to minute basis. Gotta pee? The body will let you know. Car hurling down I-5 towards you? Fight or flight will take care of that. Mom making it all about her again? Anger is knocking at your door.
All of these responses give us information and 99% of the time the information is not wrong. It’s how we interpret and act on the information that can often times get us into trouble.
Let’s use the example of ignoring your body’s signal that nature is calling. You may be able to get away with it for a good 30 minutes, but soon after that you will either be peeing your pants or running to the bathroom. Could you imagine believing that your body’s signal to relieve yourself of bladder pressure was somehow stupid or wrong? Yet we do this with our emoitions.
What happens when we believe that our anger, sadness, jealousy, or fear is unimportant, stupid, or unwelcome? We start to experience symptoms. Why? Because the feeling has no where to go, so it get channels another way.
How Symptoms Begin
For most of us, experiencing symptoms are the reasons why we usually start therapy. Suddenly, our lives become punctuated by chronic anxiety, back pain, migraines, depression, brain fog, IBS, trouble concentrating, and relational distress.
Reducing these symptoms is one part of the equation, but the bigger picture is about working on reducing the shame, guilt, and anxiety we experience around feeling our emotions. These three barriers to feeling can often times be so strong that they overwhelm our bodies past the point of tolerance.
When symptoms like the above become everyday occurrences, we inadvertently make them worse by getting into the habit of moving away from, denying, or straight up repressing our feelings AND the barriers to our feelings (guilt, shame, anxiety).
Many of the issues we struggle with are a blend of conscious and unconscious drives. For instance, to avoid her grief, a woman may engage in compulsive shopping to distract herself from her pain and give her a sense of false joy. On a conscious level, she may be aware of this. Unconsciously, however, she may be repeating a pattern from childhood, one that garnered her praise for being “so strong” or for being “so productive”.
A strange kind of reward for her ignoring her feelings and “moving on”. This may be in operation now as she attempts to get that same reward via treating herself with shopping. However, it’s no longer working. In fact, it’s making her feel more depressed, fatigued, and reinforcing her need to detach from herself.
The Pain Of Metamorphosis
As we start to become aware of the patterns we engage in to distract ourselves from how we feel, it can, not surprisingly, trigger feelings of sadness, loss, anger, and a slew of other reactions within us. This part of the process can be painful, but it can also reignite a sense of empowerment to break the chain of repression and misery and fully step into our real feelings.
This is a crucial moment of coming to terms with who we are and acknowledging that our feelings serve us. They may bring with them pain, discomfort, and physical reactions, but they also bring about joy, lightness, expansion, and self-actualization. We fear often that our emotions will last forever or become out of control when we let ourselves feel them. I don’t know a single person where this was true. Our feelings become out of control when they’re not felt.
Think of the person who suppresses their anger: It is not uncommon for them to have moments where they explode and turn all of that previously healthy anger into aggression. When emotions are truly felt, they last only a few minutes and are often expressed in their healthy and adaptive form. Take that same person who suppresses their anger: If they learn to honor, actually feel, and express their anger when it originally strikes, they have the opportunity to channel it into healthy assertion and set appropriate boundaries with others.
Will You Acknowledge Me?
The process of returning to feelings is, at times, difficult, but once you get the hang of it becomes quite natural. The truth is that children know how they feel and what to do with their feelings; it’s until they become adults when these defenses against feeling become routine. We absolutely can get to know our feelings if we want to. In some cases, I ask my clients what they’re feelings want to do. It’s a reminder that our emotions have a will of their own and only want to be heard, understood, and felt.
Are you willing to give your emotions some space to teach you about yourself?