Feeling What You Feel



You asked about what to do with feelings *after* awareness.  


First I'd like to clarify the obvious-- that feeling something (a sensation in your body) and acting on a feeling (reactivity) are separate things. So the goal in the beginning is to increase awareness and acceptance of feelings, many people hesitate to embrace this step for fear that acceptance is the same thing as "justifying" or "making excuses" for behaviors they dislike (like yelling), or that "letting myself feel my anger" will lead to greater reactivity (more yelling). The goal is to increase self-compassion for our feelings, letting ourselves feel what we feel, it isn't about justifying our behavior or denying our part in hurt we may have caused, instead it is  about working toward an understanding and acceptance of the needs that led to the behavior. When we understand the needs/feelings (I need to feel lovable, I feel hurt), and give ourselves compassion for them, we can decrease our reactivity (increase our tolerance for discomfort).  


A metaphor I like for the "feeling what you feel" process involves a beach. Think of feelings as the waves on the beach. Sometimes the tide is out and you are totally unaware of the feelings as they ebb and flow.  Sometimes the tide is in and the feelings are rolling over your feet tipping you off balance and you can't ignore them so much. Sometimes a storm rolls in, or just a huge wave builds up and it knocks you off  your feet and drags you under.  


The more aware you are of the waves, the more you can adjust your feet, lean in, lean out, do what you need to respond to keep on your feet. Sometimes the feelings are going to come out of nowhere and knock you off your feet and nothing you do is going to keep the sand out of your underwear. However, the more practiced you get at paying attention, the more likely you will be to see the big wave coming, then you can dive into it and let it roll over you and by embracing it, letting it be, you can experience the wave in a way that feels less out of control.  Once the wave has passed, you pick yourself up, towel yourself off,  and watch the tide go back out again.  


In terms of science, most sensations (link to feelings/sensations/emotions) last somewhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes, in the body. If the feeling are sticky after that time period, your feelings are more based in the stories you tell around the feeling. Pay attention to those stories (awareness first, challenge later). The more sticky the story, the bigger the feeling may become, the longer you may feel dragged under by the waves. 


If you "flood" or become “activated”, your sympathetic nerve system floods your body adrenaline and cortisol, your prefrontal cortex executive functioning logic brain turns off, and you get kinda stupid (you lose 10-15 IQ points when activated) with anger or fear or hurt, that takes about 20-40 minutes to get out of your system (those are the big waves/storms).  


Start with noticing the waves, "hum is that wet?  I think that's wet.", then build up to labeling the waves, "hum that's anger, that's hurt, that's shame", the intensity will usually instantly decrease with a label (science!).  If it is a really big feeling sometimes you need to take a break (20-40 minutes), breathe, sometimes a mantra can help "I'm so angry right now, I feel anger, my body is full of anger, so much anger."  When the storm has passed, the “toweling off” part can be really helpful for some people. Some sort of "whew, I survived that" ritual, make yourself a cup of tea, take a shower, go for a walk, shake the sand out of your underwear.   


Then you can go to your favorite part, analyzing yourself. You do not have to have a "good reason" for your anger or your hurt or your shame/frustration/discomfort/fear.  Sometimes it just will not make sense at all, and that's okay.  But it can be helpful to dig into, what is that about? What stories am I telling myself? What needs do I have that aren't being met that led me toward those feelings?  


You may or may not find an answer, or you may find an answer that fits today and next week decide it's incomplete or something else. There is not a single truth here, only always incomplete stories, but awareness of our stories is important.


There is a quote I really like "Every model is a lie that leads us toward truth." (Siddhartha Mukherjee). We have to have models/stories/metaphors/meaning but they will never be truth or static or the whole story.  So we can keep trying models, stories, metaphors, until we find ways of making meaning and coping that fit well with our best selves.  






Lisa Butterworth, LPC, NCC specializes in women's issues, faith transitions, sexual concerns, LGBTQ+ journeys, trauma, anxiety disorders, body image concerns, and depression. She offers both coaching/consultation and therapy services to individuals, couples and families.

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