We Need Our Feelings


BY KALI MUNRO, M.Ed., Psychotherapist, 2003

Do you struggle with knowing and accepting how you feel? If you do, you are not alone. It may be the most common problem there is, and yet the single most important thing to learn. Our feelings are important because they help us to know ourselves, to be real, and to connect deeply with other people. Almost every psychological problem relies on some distortion or denial of feelings.

For example, people who struggle with intimacy in relationships are often afraid of feeling vulnerable with another person — it scares or overwhelms them. People who have substance abuse problems may be using drugs or alcohol to numb their feelings and painful experiences. People who self-injure are often trying to numb or push away intense feelings. Most problems involve denying, avoiding, and hiding feelings and the solution always involves accepting feelings.

The problem with denying, avoiding, and hiding one’s feelings is evident everywhere, from the boy who won’t let himself cry for fear of being called a “sissy”, so he punches someone instead, to the girl who’s afraid to express her anger clearly and directly for fear she’ll be seen as being “like a boy” so she instead gossips cruelly about her peers, or turns her anger on herself. We can see it in the man who’s afraid of saying how he feels for fear of sounding “gay, so instead buries himself in his work and neglects his partner, and in the woman who can’t say “no” because she fears conflict, so she ends up resenting her friends. We even see it in our heads of states who don’t acknowledge their vulnerability and fears, and instead act aggressively and violently. We live in a world that is intolerant of authentic feelings, and this hurts us all.

People who do show their feelings are often put down and told they are “too sensitive,” “over- reacting,” “emotional,” and not “objective,” while people who hide their emotions are viewed as “strong,” “confident,” “logical,” and “objective.” While these differences can be expressed along gender lines, women are increasingly expected to hide or deny their emotions, and many men experience a lack of acceptance when they do express their vulnerability.

When people are put down for expressing their feelings, they may find that their feelings heighten or escalate because they feel invalidated and unheard; there’s a natural tendency to feel more emotional when you haven’t been heard. They may also learn to suppress and deny their feelings by distancing and numbing themselves. When people are rewarded for masking their emotions, they often end up feeling unseen, alienated, angry, and depressed without knowing why; their lives may look good but they feel empty or unfulfilled because they are cut off from their emotions.

You can get to know your feelings simply by sitting quietly with your eyes closed or looking downward, and tuning inward. Shifting your attention inward helps you to sense what is going on inside of you. We can get so caught up in what we’re doing, what we’re talking about, or what other people are doing, that we forget to notice ourselves.

If, when you tune inward, you don’t notice anything, try doing a body scan. Lie down comfortably and take the time to notice how you feel in different areas of your body. Start with your head, and work your way down to your toes, or focus on the areas that most draw your attention. Notice how you feel physically in each area of your body. Do you notice any tension, cramping, numbness, or anything else?

Notice what, if anything, comes to your mind when you focus on each area of your body. For example, does a memory come to mind, a thought, an image, an emotion? Just notice what comes to you without judging or thinking about it, and then move on to the next area of your body. Try not to analyze what comes up, because that will take you out of your body and your emotions.

Some people find that by noticing the natural rhythm of their breath, they feel more tuned into their body and emotions, and some people find that doing this triggers panic and fear. If it’s comfortable for you, notice how your body rises and falls with your breath. Observing your breath can not only help you to tune inward, but can also help you to unwind.

Taking time to tune into yourself every day goes a long way toward helping you to know how you feel. You can do this almost anywhere, including sitting on the bus, waiting for the light to turn green, sitting in a traffic jam, sitting on the toilet, and so on.

Sometimes when people first learn to identify how they feel, they don’t know how to accept or stay with those feelings. They seek out other people to hear and respond to their feelings, rather than do that themselves. Some people get confused by this, because they think that they should be able to express their feelings whenever they want to. There is no doubt that, at some point, we all need to express our feelings and to be heard and accepted. Yet it is also true that not everyone can hear our feelings, or wants to. Even when people want to listen they may want to decide when and how much they can listen to at any one time. This can be hard to deal with, especially if you’ve recently learned that it’s good to talk about your feelings. You may feel silenced or controlled by not being able to talk about your feelings — and the other person can also feel controlled by being expected, or having to listen to them.

Accepting and staying with your feelings means listening to yourself, hearing how you feel, and being empathic with yourself as you would with a friend. It means acknowledging your feelings, whatever they may be, and asking yourself whether there is anything you need. Do you need to write about it, listen to music, sit quietly doing something soothing, take a break from what you’re doing, go for a walk, lie down, have a nap, or something else?

Sometimes it helps to simply close your eyes, notice how you feel and just sit with that feeling, doing nothing with it; just feel it and notice it without judgement.

Sometimes you need to step back from your feelings. Maybe they’re too difficult to feel right now, or too overwhelming. You may need to do something that requires your full attention, or you may just need a break from feeling so much. It’s possible to step back from your feelings – to be aware of them and acknowledge them, but to not be in them quite so much. This technique can be hard to do, but with practice it gets easier.

You start the same way: close your eyes or look downward. Tune into your feelings, only this time, focus on noticing them and stepping back from them. This can be accomplished in different ways. You can name the feelings, for example, “sadness” and then remind yourself to step back. You can think “I am stepping back”. Notice the feeling without going into it deeply or fully. You may want to imagine an image, real or abstract, to represent your feelings, and then observe that image. You are witnessing your emotions by acknowledging that they are there without going into them. You may or may not need to feel that feeling later. Sometimes simply noticing and acknowledging your feelings helps them to shift.

Talking about how you feel can help you in many ways. It can help you deepen your connection with yourself, while deepening your connection with the person you are speaking with (unless you are talking *at* the person, or are not present as you speak).

Talking can help you to process, express, and let go of your feelings (as can writing, drawing, sculpting, reflecting, and listening inside). It can deepen your understanding of yourself by helping you to stay with your feelings, and to go deeper. And it can help you to feel heard and accepted, and help the other person feel trusted and let in.

Talking about your feelings means you are being vulnerable with another person, and that both creates and deepens intimacy. Taking the risk to say things that are hard can be liberating for both of you.

People are often surprised to discover that not everyone reacts to the same events with similar emotions. Something that might scare one person will anger another. How you feel is rooted in many things, such as, how you perceive the event, what it means to you, whether you’ve experienced something similar or not, what your history is, what your emotional temperament is, and so on.

Some people always feel intensely; others rarely do. Some people experience the world through their thoughts and reflections, while others experience events through their emotions — they feel their way through situations while the former think their way through situations. (The Myers Briggs topology offers some helpful information about how people respond to the world differently in terms of feeling, thinking, judging, sensing, perceiving, intuiting, etc.) People who lean more toward feelings are often confused and irritated by those who lean more toward thinking, and vice versa. Conflicts can arise out of these differences. It’s important to remember that people are different; they feel what they feel, and they think what they think, and there is no one way or right way to feel or think. Just as we need to accept our own feelings, we need to accept others’ as well, including — and especially — when they don’t match up with our own.

Feelings are an essential part of our humanity – we need to listen to our feelings. When we don’t sensitively tune in to our and to other people’s feelings, all kinds of psychological and social problems develop. Taking an allow-it-to-be-there, appreciative, open, or welcoming attitude toward feelings has a lightening effect on everyone. Allow your feelings to be there without trying to get rid of them or to keep them, and you will find that many problems will lessen.

By being open to your feelings, you’ll discover that they will guide and teach you, warn and protect you, and delight and entertain you. So give yourself a break by taking a little bit of time every day to tune into how you are feeling — you’ll soon discover the benefits.

Copyright © KALI MUNRO. All rights reserved.