feeling your feelings

To feel is human;
to allow yourself to feel, divine.

by Nicole Matusow

Feelings. Such a lame word. And when it comes to feelings, no word is more triggering than triggering. Don’t even get me started on validate. I’m a therapist, and even I cringe having to use clichéd, therapist-y terms. Ick. But, similar to moist, some words are perfectly succinct and sum things up no matter how much we shudder at the sound of them. So if you’re skittish about feelings that are being validated, let this sentence serve as your trigger warning.

For the rest of you who haven’t gouged your eyes out, I encourage you to read on and do your best to tolerate these terms, because you’re going to need practice with tolerance if you want to have healthy relationships with people.

Out of curiosity, I searched various dictionaries for a definition of emotions. I was surprised to discover that there really isn’t an operational definition to be found. One definition contradicted the next. Are they instinctive? Conscious? Unconscious? It’s just a big old mess. But then again, so are emotions. For the sake of this blog, let’s define emotions as reflexive sensations in the body that can’t be avoided and can’t be argued away. Therefore, saying things like Stop crying or Don’t be angry or You don’t have to feel guilty to yourself or someone else amounts to wasted breath.

The common and pervasive emotions that people seem to have trouble tolerating are anger, sadness, grief, fear, guilt, and shame. Of course joy is an emotion too, but I don’t find that many people seek therapy for issues with joy. It’s the negative emotions that we want to will away. But why? Well, they’re clearly enigmatic, they make us do things we regret, they’re uncomfortable, they hurt. Oh, and they’re inescapable. Whether they’re bubbling up in our own bodies or in the bodies of those close to us, we want to either quickly fix them or run as far away from them as possible. Simply put: They suck.

Unfortunately, though, they’re a part of the human experience. They instinctively send us signals about people, experiences, situations that we need in order to know how to respond. Sometimes our emotions are seemingly felt out of proportion to the particular situation at hand, which can mean you have some amount of trauma directly related to the situation. But that’s a conversation best suited for your therapist. No matter what: In the moment you feel what you feel, and there’s not much you can do about it. I mean, yes, you can definitely suppress it, or throw a dish across the room, but neither are productive since the feeling needs to be resolved in order to ultimately dissipate.

Ugh, but it’s so uncomfortable, right? Right. And what about collateral emotions, i.e., the feelings that emerge when our feelings cause someone else to have their own feelings? Yes, they’re uncomfortable too. And after the reflex to have an emotion kicks in, the counter-action to get rid of it is on deck. For instance, here’s a common theme that has emerged in the past few years: One member of a couple expresses his disappointment to his partner that she has been glued to her phone all night. She feels guilt/shame, which quickly turns into anger, that is, in turn, expressed back to him. He regrets having said anything and silently feels uncared for. There was no space for each of them to just feel and for that to be ok. Plus, now he feels reluctant to communicate his emotional experience. Oh, and she clearly doesn’t feel comfortable enough to express her guilt or shame and regret. Any hope of productive communication gets bottled up with the feelings.

You know how you feel sore after strenuous exercise? It hurts, but you embrace it, thinking that must’ve been a good workout! And then you put space between that workout and the next to let your muscles heal, right? The same can be done with emotions. If we don’t allow ourselves or those close to us to feel and/or express our feelings through words, healing doesn’t get to take place. Whereas, if we tolerate the soreness and vulnerability of our hurt, and if our loved ones can tolerate the guilt or shame for their role in the hurt, we and our relationships get stronger...just like our muscles.

If this sounds awfully touchy-feely, it’s because it absolutely is. But if we ignore the fact that our feelings of anger, sadness, fear, and shame are as present and necessary in our lives as our thoughts are, we’ll have a hell of a hard time living in our own skin. And, we’ll find relationships to be SO.MUCH.WORK. Instead, seize the moment. The next time you have a feeling, acknowledge it and tolerate it. It’s not lame. It’s valid. Welcome to the human experience...

You might also like: Do you express your feelings or keep them in a bottle on your night table?

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