As a therapist, I live in the world of feelings. Talking about feelings, thinking about feelings, and most importantly feeling feelings, helping others to do the same. In my work over the past 20 plus years as well as through observations within my personal experiences it is clear that knowing what to do with feelings is the exception not the norm. And we come by it honestly.
✔️ How many times have we heard our elders say “now let’s talk about something pleasant” or in some way shift the conversation from uncomfortable things?
✔️ How often have we been told it is more important to just “get along” than to show up authentically?
✔️ When someone dies how often do us as well meaning people jump too quickly to “at least they are in Heaven” or avoid talking about the person out of fear of “making” the griever sad?
✔️ How many of us are bombarded with social media posts about “looking at the positive” and needing to be grateful at the expense of actually dealing with the challenges? (being positive and gratitude are certainly important, but without doing the work of addressing the challenges in our lives, those things end up being superficial at best).
✔️ How many of us were really taught about feelings, how they help us, and how to work with them?
I believe it was much more common for us to be told “you’re fine” or to “brush it off” than to have our feelings acknowledged, named, validated, and worked with. This isn’t to blame previous generations; they all did what they knew to be best - what they were taught.
Some may still believe there is nothing wrong with this. And to some degree, pushing away feelings can work really well - for a while. However, eventually unexpressed and unresolved feelings have a way of bursting out, usually in very ineffective and disruptive ways. An honest look at our present national problems show us that.
For some, stuffed feelings later show up as depression or anxiety. For others they may show up as anger or resentment. Sometimes, they can show up as hate for self and/or others, often with a desire to protect oneself at all costs, shifting our focus from connection to safety, survival, and meeting basic needs. (We know from Maslow that unless those safety and survival needs are met, true connection is inaccessible.)
As I have watched the events of the past four years unfold, what has come to me again and again around all of the fighting and hate speech from both sides, is how much pain seems to be under it…so much unresolved trauma - generations* of it. What is also clear is what little has been done to address this pain - in our nation, in our communities, in our families, and ultimately in ourselves.
And how could we have done anything about this pain, when so few of us ever learned what to do with tough stuff?
I am a highly sensitive person; in a lot of ways the world can be overstimulating to me. I have an extremely high level of empathy and compassion, actually feeling others’ feelings in my own body. As a result, as a child I tended towards a higher level of emotionality. In the 70’s and 80’s, no one knew what to do with that except to try to make it go away. So I learned to stuff it. I was able to do it relatively well, but always felt like I was floating through the world, not really myself but I didn’t know why. Until I fell apart in my mid-20s. All of those repressed emotions found their way to the surface with such an intensity it nearly broke me. As I found my way into a therapist’s office I realized for the first time how horribly unhappy I was, that I had lost myself.
Thankfully, I had met someone who knew what to do, who could guide the way, who introduced me to my inner world and taught me how to work with feelings. Now, 23 years later I find myself with a deeper awareness, an ability to hear my own inner voice, and no longer scared of feelings or pain I see them as part of life that invites us to grow. It’s this perspective that helped me survive and actually enjoy life after what I thought was unsurvivable happened - the premature and unexpected death of my mother in 2019.
Between my own work and work in the field of mental health for 20+ years, I’ve learned some things about feelings - how to frame them, what to do with them, and more. Here’s what I know:
(1) Notice: Notice and acknowledge your feelings. You might notice a feeling coming up by how your body feelings, certain body sensations, the way your thoughts are, and/or through your behavior.
(2) Name: It is helpful to give your emotions a name; are you feeling anger, sadness, joy, disappointment, frustration, embarrassed, or something else? This can help you start to figure out what the issue at hand and perhaps the underlying issues are.
(3) Validate: This is one most of us forget or never learned to do. Yet we need to validate our feelings. Validating feelings doesn’t necessarily mean we like the feeling, agree with it, or want to prolong it. It just means we can understand how we got there, that a part of us is struggling with something that needs our attention.
(4) Sit with and feel your feelings: This is tough and something very few of us were taught how to do. As such, it can often be the hardest (even the scariest) part. If you have never sat with your feelings, it may be wise to have a supportive friend or loved one on hand or to work with a therapist to learn more about how to do this (especially if you have significant trauma in your history).
So how does one sit with and feel feelings? Well, it depends on the person. I like to write, just writing down whatever comes into my mind without attention to grammar or punctuation. As I do that and I notice the feelings surfacing, I allow myself to pause and just feel the feelings, noticing, naming, and validating my experience. If I get stuck I return to writing or sometimes go for a walk.Some other options for feeling feelings including being in nature, movement (dancing, walking, hiking, running, working out, etc.), painting, drawing, or doing other art. It’s not important what you choose, just that you find something that helps you feel the feelings.
(5) Problem Solve: Once you have felt and worked through your feelings, you can then shift into problem solving. For example, let’s say you are upset after something your coworker said to you. After working with the feelings, you might try to determine your next steps in addressing the situation. Do you need to clarify what your coworker meant? Do you need to (and is it emotionally safe to) share your feelings and thoughts about what happened? Do you need to set a boundary? Or is there something else that you need or would like to do? Consider the benefits and downsides of the different options and take action. Note that sometimes taking action can be deciding not to take action, if that it was is truly the best next step.
There is so much to learn and know about working with our emotions, our nervous systems, our bodies. This is just a start. Be gentle with yourself as you work through your feelings, remembering everything is so much more intense right now with all of the global and national events surrounding us.
Stay strong. Stay real. And may life find you well.
* For information epigenetics, how our generational trauma shows up in our genes, check out Krista Tippett’s interview of Rachel Yehuda in the OnBeing podcast. https://onbeing.org/programs/rachel-yehuda-how-trauma-and-resilience-cross-generations-nov2017/
** A note on complex trauma: If you have a history of complex trauma and are bumping into long held beliefs related to past traumatic experiences, know that this can be a start or something to try. However, you may also benefit from work with a psychotherapist who specializes in complex trauma to help you resolve past trauma and release past limiting beliefs.
This blog is for information only. Reading this blog or interacting with it is not medical advice and does not constitute a therapeutic relationship. This blog is not a substitute for mental health care. Please be sure to seek out mental health care as needed.