What Use Are Feelings Anyway?

This question comes up a lot in therapy.  Why would I want to focus on my feelings? What good would that do?  Such a normal and common question to have! For many of us, we learned two things about our emotions: 1. They’re irrational and 2. They’ll burden others.  

How unfortunate for us because emotions, in their purest form (a physical impulse, reaction, and sensation in the body), are never wrong and only serve as indicators to what’s going on inside of us. 

  “Never wrong? Really? What about that time I got angry at my girlfriend for taking the wrong turn on our way to dinner? That certainly was irrational.”  You might be thinking something similar, or pulling up a memory in your mind where your feelings felt inappropriate.  

Let me make a helpful distinction here.  What I’m talking about is the feelings themselves, what you’re likely thinking about is the behavior of the feeling, or rather acting them out.  In the example given above, the individuals feeling of anger was not wrong.  He was frustrated at an event that deterred their journey towards a chosen destination. His decision to act out this frustration by verbally lashing out, turned out to be more harmful than good.  

Having the feeling of anger, for instance, is not the same as acting it out.  For instance, take a recent political event (doesn’t matter the political orientation) where some injustice took place or a law passed that could potentially affect millions of people.  It would be no surprise to feel anger at this.  

The feeling itself actually isn’t hurting anyone if you allow it to be there.  In fact, it’s actually giving you vital information on what is important to you.  You would not feel angry if you didn’t care about the person, place, situation in question.  

To go back to childhood for just a moment, most of us in some form or another learned about what feelings were “appropriate” to have and which ones should be hidden in darkness. For some, anger was tantamount to being evil.  For others, they learned that happiness was a sign of laziness or self-indulgence. Whatever emotion was devalued or condemned, we as children, learned to censor.  We did this in a variety of ways, mostly completely out of our conscious awareness.  

For example, if you were scorned for feeling sad and crying, you may as an adult experience a tremendous amount of anxiety when sadness emerges.  Then, to combat the anxiety, you may have learned to change the subject, think of something else, distract yourself, avoid the topic altogether, and a myriad of other techniques for keeping this feeling off your radar.   

So, going back to the original question: What Use Are Feelings Anyway?  The truth is that feelings give us vital information that can help us get our needs met, respond adaptively to situations, and provide us with a sense of direction.  If we constantly (again, we aren’t’ usually doing this on purpose) pushing them away or ignoring them, we are likely going to feel a lot of anxiety and discomfort every time they show up. 

 We actually cannot control our emotions the way we think we can. Emotions, much like clouds in the sky, just are.  We can control them the same way we can catch a puff of smoke.  In other words, pretty impossible.  What we can do, however, is allow their existence to be and make space for the important message they have to tell us. 

If we can allow our feelings to be there, our bodies won’t tense up and we won’t spend all of our time trying to avoid the tension or other uncomfortable sensations. Once all feelings are allowed, the reactive anxiety, guilt, or shame, essentially gets turned way down.  They may still be there in a low-lying way, but become manageable and less noticeable. In addition, we won’t need to engage in potentially destructive or self-neglecting behaviors to get away from the feeling at hand.  

Heartfelt Thoughts: The Root of Depression?

Do you ever wonder why you feel so depressed, suddenly and seemingly out of the blue?

The answer may be hidden in plain sight, but for most of us it’s not that obvious. Depression exists in an interactional space. In many cases (excluding major depression diagnosis), particularly in relationships, we learned early on that certain emotions or reactions would be met with hostility, rejection and judgement. 

From that, we developed shame, guilt, and anxiety around feeling our very natural and normal internal reactions (be it a “weird” thought, unusual impulse, emotional activation, or bodily sensation). For instance, you might have that very familiar experience of berating yourself for feeling angry towards someone you love or cherish. As if the anger you feel somehow discounts the love that you have, when in fact it is merely informing you of how you feel in that moment, not forever. 

When we don’t honor our feelings, where do they go? They are not like puffs of cloud that dissipate into the atmosphere. When a feeling does not get felt, noticed, or paid attention to it is very much like a car driving endlessly into a brick wall. The car will get nowhere and eventually die out and be stuck in place. When feelings continue to meet our own resistance, they too will be stuck in place often resulting in depression.

Often the fear of listening to our emotions comes down to the idea that we will be led astray, become “out of control” or be left alone with no one to guide us. 

The truth is that, in my experience, honoring and feeling our emotions brings great relief. Feeling an emotion and acting on an emotion are two very different things. Usually, the out-of-control fear is often associated with “if I feel my anger, it will make me act on it”, when in fact it will give you greater control and assertion, leading to improved relationships.

Last, your emotions themselves cannot guide you astray. They can only inform you. 

I always advocate for individuals struggling with emotion identification, regulation, and expression to work with a therapist who is versed in neurobiology and emotion focused therapy.

Heartfelt Thoughts: "Maybe I'm Unlovable?"

Beliefs about ourselves often come from communicated feedback, whether it was physical or verbal, from important figures in our life. For the child who gets punished for her anger, she may likely grow up to believe that her angry feelings are abhorrent and shouldn’t be expressed. The downside? She takes the anger that she feels towards those who harm her and turns it back on herself. 

What happens when anger is turned back on the self? Depression, low self-worth, and often a deep sense of feeling unlovable. 

When we take a feeling that is meant for someone else and turn it on ourselves, we lose our sense of emotional freedom. In addition, we run the risk of believing that only some parts of ourselves are worth sharing, while the other parts get punished and locked away. How very sad. 

Our feelings and parts of self want to be known. They want our attention and long to be felt and expressed. If we’ve spent much of our lives trying to squelch their very existence, it would be no surprise to find that we feel confused by their presence and do our best to not feel them. 

The greatest gift we can bestow upon ourselves is to work with a therapist who understands the value of bringing emotions into the light. You cannot expect to move toward a goal of greater self-awareness without inviting all parts and all emotions into the fore.

Heartfelt Thoughts: The Shadow

You've heard that expression before right? The one that says, "She was always afraid; scared of her own shadow". 

There is truth here. Our shadows scare us. Jung believed our unwanted, disgusting, and most evil parts of ourselves resided in the shadow. 

If you've ever felt a tinge of disgust towards someone who was behaving "badly", you're seeing a shadow part. Because these parts of ourselves are so unwanted, we forget that we have them in the first place. However, their ghosts remain and we see them in other people. 

The murderer, thief, liar, and cheat reside within all of us. They are our darkest parts. You may think that the answer then is to keep them hidden. Away. Gone. Lost. 

What happens when something is left unseen? It does not go away, but can actually grow. It's weeds become unruly and forms an ecosystem all its own. 

True freedom from our shadow comes in a counterintuitive form: to embrace, see, and acknowledge its presence. When we shine our light onto our darkness, it illuminates and casts the shadows out. In that form, we can see the truth and fear not what was once unseen.

Heartfelt Thoughts: When Children Become Criminals

It’s no surprise to discover that those who commit major crimes grew up in abusive, often terrorizing households. For many children, this experience is akin to being in combat. 

When exposed to these war-like environments for a prolonged period of time, the nervous system of a child becomes agitated and hyper alert to seeking safety. 

Without the proper recovery and safety net of a warm and understanding other, a child’s neurobiology becomes damaged. We’ve seen war veterans react to noises, sights, smells, and physical touch with violence and fear. A child’s response will be no different.

Like clay, children’s brains can be molded over time to expect violence and abuse from other people. When they jump into adulthood, this expectation becomes an absolute. 

What happens to children who cannot process or understand their scary environments or know how to channel their rage and sadness effectively? They develop ways to keep those experiences out of their conscious awareness by engaging in behaviors that seem to erase or cover up the fear they feel. 

Some use defenses like self-attack, intellectualization (keeping the mind separate from the emotions), while others resort to discharging their rage and violence onto others. Thus, nurturing criminality. 

Parents: If your child experiences terror, anger, fear, sadness, guilt, or grief, help them understand it. Let them know it’s okay to feel what they’re feeling. When a child says, I’m scared, don’t say, “no you’re not, you’re a big boy/girl”. 

Instead say, “Oh, honey I’m sorry you feel scared. What’s making you feel afraid right now?” Listen. Mirror healthy coping skills and self-attunement. 

Your child’s brain will thank you.

Heartfelt Thoughts: "I'm Afraid You're Judging Me"

Have you ever been in this situation: You’ve just revealed something about yourself and believe that the other person is now criticizing you in the privacy of their own head? You try to reduce their perceived judgements by minimizing what you just said or maybe use self-deprecation to divert their attention elsewhere. 

What’s going on here?

You’ve unconsciously stepped back in time where at one point you learned that those vulnerable parts of yourself were not acceptable to have, so you did your best to keep them hidden. All human beings want to be known on some level, so this striving to be seen by others is within you, but old patterns of self-censorship have come up to prevent that very thing. 

When a parent or caregiver tells us we’re worthless or unacceptable, we take that at face value. Children are very good at internalizing these messages and are even better at keeping themselves safe in the face of a threatening caregiver. 

As adults, when we do something vulnerable like let another person in, all of those old beliefs and fears of being judged come screaming back. To help yourself distinguish between the past and present, take a minute to explore what is happening right now, in this moment. What do you see when you look into the eyes of the other person? What is different this time around?



Heartfelt Thoughts: Relationship Drama

If you’re struggling in your current relationships, chances are that there is something being repeated from you past. 

Going to therapy to explore these issues might bring up similar relational issues. You might find yourself wanting to evade, ignore, and avoid the feelings that arise in a therapeutic relationship. That’s normal. A good therapist will see the self-protective strategies you’re using and help you identify the feelings and impulses that lie beyond them.

In your past, you learned that certain emotions and impulses were not tolerated and so intelligently found ways to keep those sensations at bay. Now you’re an adult. You don’t need those same self-protective strategies anymore, but your survival instincts override this logic. 

In therapy, you’ll be asked to examine how these defenses counteract your desire to engage in meaningful relationships. Through this deep exploration, you might discover that the ways you stayed safe in childhood relationships are now causing disconnection in your current ones. 

With the help of the therapist, you’ll start to gently let those defenses go so that you can get behind them and meet the feeling that lives there. This will help you connect more with your internal experiences and find healthier ways to communicate them to your partner, friends, family, etc, should you wish.

Heartfelt Thoughts: "I Feel Empty"

When feelings of emptiness arise, it can be a sign that a self-protective strategy is in use (often unconsciously). Emptiness is not an emotion, but a way you empty out your emotions. Being empty could have been a really useful skill when you were younger; it kept sadness, anger, and even happiness away so that you didn’t have to feel their presence. 

Now, being empty does one thing: it keeps you away from these important, guiding forces that are your emotions. You don’t do this on purpose, because if that was the case then you could just stop. This strategy has been used over and over again, to the point where it has become automatic. 

Is there hope that this emptiness will fade? Only if you’re willing to face the feelings underneath. 

In my experience, the more we can look and accept our feelings for what they are, the less control they have over us. Anger can simply be an activation of feeling in your body that indicates a boundary has been crossed. Sadness can go back to being a feeling of loss or longing that reminds you of what you must let go of. 

Real freedom comes from knowing in your bones that your emotions are your ally’s. They can’t hurt you. They show up at will only to guide you forward.

When It’s Time to Breakup With a Friend.

Oooooh, boy, the friend breakup.  Every people pleasers worst nightmare.  You’ve got this friend who you’ve known for a good portion of your life, maybe you met during college or another vulnerable time in your life, and they super don’t jive with who you are anymore. Part of you feels a bit like you “owe” it to them to continue being their friend and maybe even have an internal monologue going that says “come on, just suck it up and be their friend. It’s not like you have to see them all the time, so what’s the big deal?”.  

 Suffer Through It

Trap number one is believing that you have no choice in the matter, that your fate to be their friend has already been determined because you knew them in high school.  That’d be like saying, “well I remember liking oatmeal cookies when I was a kid, so I guess I still have to like those things.” I don’t mean to compare people to food, but what I do mean to illustrate is that sometimes we just grow out of things and yes, that includes people.  

It totally sucks to come to the realization that a friendship is no longer working out and the little guilt monster starts slinging out harsh statements like, “you’re not a good friend if you do this…. he/she/they need you and you’re just abandoning them…they wouldn’t do this to you”.  Trap number two is believing these little statements and using your guilt as a way to keep you from growing or expanding as a person.  However, guilt isn’t all bad.  

 Guilty Conscience

What that emotion is showing you is that you care deeply about the person in question.  You don’t want them to feel hurt or sad, and sometimes we register the guilt as a “message” suggesting that it’s not right to end the relationship and that only a person doing a bad thing would feel guilty. I think a better option would be to listen to this guilt and realize that you can use It to deliver your message in the most heartfelt way possible.  

The truth is that we cannot protect other people from their feelings; They’re going to happen whether we like it or not.  What we can do when it comes to a friend breakup, is recognize that our job is to communicate our intentions, feelings, and decisions to the other person.  We do not need to orchestrate the perfect moment to deliver our message in hopes that it will prevent our friend from feeling bad, sad, mad, etc. Our friend is going to likely feel those things, and that’s okay. It’s not up to us to prevent that. In fact, I’d say it’s better for them to feel all of those things in one honest conversation than to feel them slowly over time as we silently pull away without giving an explanation. 

How To Start

There are several ways to go about a friend breakup, but really the best way to determine how you want to do this is what would be an approach you can feel okay with? For some of us, it means being honest about how we’re feeling, communicating it in a kind yet assertive way, and moving on.  However, not everything can be conducted in the most perfect fairytale sort of way.  In some cases, being less direct is actually the more kind and appropriate way to handle the situation.  

For instance, breaking up with a friend who is highly self-deprecating, insecure, and see’s the world in a more negative lens, might be better served through small doses of weaning off the friendship. Setting more limits during hangouts (sorry I can only hang for an hour), bringing them along to group settings to reduce one-on-one time and keeping that cadence for a while might work to both of your benefit. 

If this feels wrong or too sneaky, know that it’s always your choice in how you want to approach this. The way I think of this particular approach is by asking myself the following questions (which I believe is found in many Buddhist practices): “Is It True? Is it Kind? Is it Necessary?” Depending on your friend, this might be the kindest and most necessary way to breakup. However, if your friend is blunt or maybe struggles with a personality disorder, you might be doing them more of a solid by being upfront and honest with them.  

Speak and Act From Your Heart

It’s so important that you first and foremost treat yourself with compassion while you’re going through this breakup.  You’re not trying to hurt your friend; you’re doing something that is really hard and it’s often not talked about (so it’s not normalized and we can end up feeling really ashamed at our desire to end a friendship).

I also think it’s wise to speak and act your truth, from a heartfelt place.  You don’t need to overly apologize, beat around the bush, or downplay your own needs (i.e. “it’s fine, I mean I guess if you don’t mind, but I don’t want to burden you”).  If you grew up wearing polyester but found out that it was giving your skin a rash, would you continue to wear it? I doubt it.  The truth is that sometimes friendships end and it’s up to us to honor that friendship and its subsequent breakup with dignity.  

 

My Top 5 Therapy Values

In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, the major focus is on learning how to accept thoughts and feelings as they come (without trying to ward them off) while still committing to your values and the life you find meaningful. Values are different than goals. They have no “end point” and serve more like a compass does, always pointing us in the direction we are trying to go.

As a therapist and business owner, I have to follow my values if I want to feel in alignment with what I do. I use these values to guide me, my sessions and my business decisions! Here they are. :)

Compassion

 My client's often tell me that they appreciate the compassion I extend to all parts of themselves (especially the parts they deem as "bad" or "unlovable").  To me, compassion isn't about being nice or sweet, it's about recognizing that all of us suffer in some way and being present with the suffering, without judging or turning from it, is the hallmark of compassion.

Laughter

I absolutely love laughing with clients when the setting is right! I swear, I've earned some extra abdonimal muscles from the amount of laughing I've done with clients. Together, we can laugh with joy at the remarkable progress they've made, or we can laugh at a moment of recognizing an anxious thought for what it is.  Whatever the reason, I make sure to bring humor into the session when it's appropriate and the client feels safe with me.

Embracing Imperfection

This one is such a joy for me to experience! Client's often have this idea that therapists have their shit together, but the reality is that we're human like everyone else.  I love bringing my imperfections in the room to bring down the "perfection myth", but even more, I love helping client's embrace their own imperfections and see them as assets (or even as something to not give such a shit about).

Unconditional Positive Regard

When clients work with me, they often tell me that they feel safe and accepted by my unflinching and unconditional positive regard toward them.    I am fortunate in that being this way comes very natural for me, and I believe it has lead to very powerful and positive changes within my clients. 

Courage

Oh, boy is this one ever evolving.  I am naturally an anxious person, and for much of my life I lived in the shadow of my anxiety, too afraid to show my real self for fear of being rejected or seen as an imposter (um, hello imposter syndrome. Take a seat, I'll be with you in a minute).  Truthfully? My clients inspire me to be more courageous every day.  I'm reminded that we all have our own inner demons, but it's in how we face them that enhances our courage and strengthens our resilience.

Some days, I’m not as aligned with my values as I’d like to be, but that’s the cool thing about them. They don’t simply vanish if you’ve strayed from them. They’re one of the few paths that will reappear whenever we set our intentions to follow them. What are your values?