Updated: Oct 15, 2020
Lately, I’ve had a lot of discussions with many different people about the wide range of emotions they are experiencing right now. Because of the pandemic, the deepening political divide, and the social injustices, it seems that our emotions are in heightened flux. Things feel more extreme. And uncertainty is the new normal.
As someone who is recovering from numbing my life, I find myself unsure of how to handle all of my different emotions. For the bulk of my life I simply tried to numb my feelings. Feelings and emotions scared me. They seemed awfully powerful and I feared losing control of them. And being in control, in some fashion or another, was important to me. Now I’m trying to figure out how to navigate life as a person who willingly allows emotions into my life but doesn’t want to be overwhelmed or controlled by emotions (there’s that control issue again…).
Emotions vs Feelings
What’s the difference between feelings and emotions? Feelings and emotions are related but different. Basically, a feeling is a conscious awareness of an emotion. Put another way, emotions are neuro-physiological reactions while feelings are our perception of an emotions. Emotions are physical and feelings are mental. I think the nuanced difference is both interesting and important, however, in this article I’m going to use the terms interchangeably.
As I’ve thought about why emotions are so difficult for me, I’ve come to recognize one worldview/mindset that is central to the problem. I think the key issue is that as a society we’ve labeled emotions as good or bad. And we tend to judge people by the emotions they’re expressing. We judge emotions: feelings like anger, sorrow, loneliness, and hurt are “bad,” while happiness, gratitude, excitement, and being in love are considered “good” emotions. We judge our feelings and categorize them into binaries. It’s understandable, some emotions/feelings are pleasant, and others most definitely are not. But just because an emotion is unpleasant, difficult, or painful doesn’t make it “bad.” This idea is so steeped into our culture that we’re constantly looking for ways to be happy—from self-help books, to life coaches and therapy, to gratitude journals. I am not saying we shouldn’t utilize these things (I have searched out all of them and continue to do so), but I do find it interesting that we are almost unaware of how we judge uncomfortable feelings as being bad and something to avoid.
Several problematic things happen when we judge emotions through a binary lens:
We begin to identify and judge ourselves/others for how we/they are feeling
We load up on the shame—have you ever felt shamed for feeling angry or have been told you are grieving over a loss for too long?
We tend to act out more—the shame and fear over being “bad” kicks us into a more reactionary mode
We start to look for someone to blame for our feelings
We might begin to fear the unpleasant emotions, which lead us to finding ways to avoid, numb, or deny our feelings
We can feel guilt or shame for the times we are feeling happy
We are constantly striving for an ideal of happiness
Emotions can be difficult
Maybe all of this is common knowledge among the emotionally healthy, but I had no one to model what a healthy relationship with one’s emotions looks like. The people I looked to as I was growing up were mostly on the extreme ends—either emotionally out of control, numb, or seemingly content all the time. These world views have affected my emotional experiences. I am uncertain of how to handle my more unpleasant emotions. And I’m not sure how to handle the depth of some of these emotions. It is all too easy for me to let my feelings of sorrow, anger, anxiety, and fear discourage me from doing anything. It’s difficult to work when I’m feeling this way, it’s difficult to interact with other people, and it’s easy to want to give up. And because numbing myself to emotions has been my go-to reaction, it’s easy for me to slip into numbing.
However, I really want to keep working with my clients and operating my business. I want to interact with other people in a healthy way. And I want to persist, even in times of great difficulty. The question is, how do I navigate my feelings so that I am less likely to be overwhelmed and anxious about those very normal emotions of fear, anger, jealousy, sorrow, shame, etc.? What can I do when those feelings begin to paralyze me?
Rewriting my story
Honestly, I’m not entirely sure. But I do believe that rewriting my story about emotions is a great place to start. Instead of judging different feelings as good or bad, my new story includes things like:
Letting go of expectations
Acknowledgement, acceptance and non-judgment
Acknowledgment, acceptance and non-judgment are intertwined. And it’s been strangely hard for me. I had gotten so good at stuffing down my emotions that it took some time to learn how to both acknowledge and accept those emotions that I had been taught were bad. Honestly, I still sometimes struggle with it, anger in particular. But now, as different emotions arise, I try to stop and notice. I often say to myself, “huh, I’m starting to feel sadness, isn’t that interesting?” That’s the acknowledgment part. Then I have to accept that I’m feeling this way. Sometimes I do that by recognizing my feelings are completely normal for the given circumstance. Sometimes I have to say to myself, “I don’t like feeling this way, it might not even make sense, but it’s what I’m experiencing right now.” And there are times when I need to be even more direct with myself and say, “I accept that I am feeling _______.”
Once I acknowledge and accept how I’m feeling, I need to stop judging myself. Learning to withhold judgment is an art. It starts with identifying when you are judging something. Then, you get curious about why you are judging. It can also help to question yourself—is there any chance I am wrong? Whenever I find myself thinking things like, “I shouldn’t feel this,” or “it’s bad to feel this,” etc., then I have to stop and change my words, reframe my thoughts. For instance, if I was really angry but told myself that I shouldn’t be angry, I might reframe it as, “it’s okay to feel angry. The feeling doesn’t define me.” As I acknowledge and accept how I’m feeling, I can become self-reflective and ask myself why I think feeling angry is bad? I can question myself on whether or not I believe my feelings make me a good or bad person. These lines of thinking help to disassemble and let go of the judgment.
Allowing the experience
If you’ve become really good at numbing your emotions, you’ll understand how tricky allowing yourself to experience an emotion can be. I numbed my emotions for a lot of different reasons, but it came down to the fact that I didn’t like what I was feeling and the power behind my feelings scared me. Learning to sit with the emotion, really feel it, is hard. When I’m working myself through the acknowledgment and acceptance of my feelings, I also try and create some space and time to just feel the emotion. It helps if I find some place where I can be alone, close my eyes, and try and sink into the feeling. Sometimes I have to get curious about the feeling—where in my body and I feeling it? What does it physically feel like and where does it show up? Then I can do several things. I can just let the emotion wash over me. If I know that it’s likely I’ll get stuck in the emotion, I set a timer, maybe 5-10 minutes, in which I can feel it and then tell myself to move on when the timer goes off. Honestly, I am still learning how to do this. It’s probably the hardest part for me, so I’m probably not the best one to be giving advice on this. However, as I’m learning to allow those uncomfortable feelings, I’m beginning to recognize that I do not have to fear my emotions. They come and they go. In fact, I often tell myself, “I am feeling this way right now, but it will not last. I will feel differently in the next hour, day, or week.”
When I write about non-attachment, I’m referring to learning to not attach our identity to any particular feeling. Elsewhere I wrote about how my identity was wrapped up with being depressed. Ironically, I now find myself attaching my identity to being calm and grounded. I feel that way, a lot of the time, but I’m a normal human being and there are times I feel angry, sad, confused, or hurt, etc. Non-attachment really is about letting go of the belief that our emotions define us. If I’ve attached my identity to being calm and I happen to be feeling angry, then I begin to confuse my feelings with who I am. As long as my identity is tied to any particular emotion, I am open to binary thinking, which leads to judgment, which leads to believing I am better or worse than someone else, etc. To counter my inclination to attach my identity to a feeling, I work hard to change my words from something like “I am sad,” to “I feel sad.” Emotions are simply experiences, not definitions of who we are.
Letting go of expectations
This is about both the expectation of how I should feel as well as the belief that “if I only ________, then I’d be happy.” Have you ever gone to a family gathering telling yourself you should feel happy or grateful, only to leave feeling deflated or hurt? Have you ever experienced discontent even though everything in your life seems great and you should be content? It’s easy to be self-critical and disappointed when we have expectations about how we should feel. And when we play the if/then game, we are setting ourselves up with a limiting belief that can hamper our self-growth.