A significant and essential component of any healing process is learning to feel the emotions that were shut down and stuffed away in the dark recesses of childhood long ago: The tears that were squelched under the message of “too sensitive”; the fears that were sequestered away into the cubby of “too weak”; the disappointment that was glossed over with a fresh scoop of ice cream cone or a shiny new toy.
At some point along the way, you realize that the pathway to joy must include reconnecting with the lost pain and learning how to tend to it like you would an abandoned child. Nobody wants to feel pain, and it often feels counterintuitive to move toward the places that scared you and hurt you, but when anxiety, intrusive thoughts, and panic reach a breaking point you realize that that’s exactly what you must do. As I teach repeatedly, one of the primary messages of anxiety is to tell you that there is old pain that needs attention.
Daniel Siegel in his book Mindsight explains that when we grow up emotionally impoverished we learn to “lean to the left”, by which he means we spend time in the left hemisphere of our brains where the messiness of the emotional realm can’t find us. Anxiety and intrusive thoughts are, for many children, the brilliant defense mechanism that allowed them to survive childhood. Even if your childhood wasn’t abusive or neglectful, because you were likely raised by parents who were emotionally disconnected and wounded themselves, they had no idea how to guide you through the terrifying landmine that defines the emotional realm of childhood.
We tend to think of childhood as a happy and innocent time, and to some extent it is, but there’s nothing happy about being in a small body with torrential emotions flooding through you and having no way to handle them. The wise response is to grab the rope that dangles down from the left hemisphere – the cool and safe place of thought – until you’re big enough to climb back down and begin to repair.
Yet, because we’re a culture terrified of the feeling realm, we’re offered little guidance on how to re-enter our bodies and our hearts. Even many therapist and healing modalities seek to bypass the emotional realm, likely because they haven’t ventured back into that territory and done their healing work themselves. As such, it’s not easy to find the roadmap for how to feel your feelings. This is why one of the top questions I’m asked in both sessions and on course calls is, “How do I grieve? You talk about how important it is to feel our emotions, but I don’t know what that means?”
Here’s a brief guide to grieving:
Obviously, I can’t offer a comprehensive guide to feeling your feelings in a 900-word blog post, but I can offer some basic points to help you get started.
1. Start by becoming curious about the messages you received about your emotions. What were you told, either explicitly or covertly, about emotions? How did your parents manage their big feelings? What was the message you received from other sources, including media, peers, and religion?
2. Next, ask yourself what your biggest fears are around feelings your big feelings. What are you afraid will happen if you let yourself touch into your pain and grieve?
3. When you’re ready, start to notice where pain lands in your body. If you’ve been disconnected from your body for a long time, this seemingly simply task can be challenging, so be patient with yourself.
4. Once you locate the pain, slow down to be with it. By this I mean: notice it, be curious about it, wrap your breath around it, soften into it. Ask what the pain needs. Sometimes it will need to be released in some way, like crying or moving or screaming. Know that crying is one way to grieve, but it’s not the only way. Grieving, especially in the beginning when the channels have been frozen over for years, is more of a soft noticing and gentle allowing.
Being with pain is a process best described through metaphor. And here I turn to the poet Mark Nepo in The Book of Awakening. He’s describing physical pain but the same principles apply to emotional pain:
“A most profound and helpful learning came to me when struggling with the pain of having a rib removed. For weeks I felt a corset of pain girdling each breath, But watching the winter water of a stream begin to thaw and flow, over and over, I finally saw that to make it through the pain, I had to be more like water and less like ice.
“For when the trees fell into the ice, the river shattered. But when large limbs fell into the flowing water, the river embraced the weight and flowed around it. The trees and winter water were teaching me that the pain was more pointed and hurtful when I was tense and solid as ice. Then, each breath was shattering. But when I could thaw the fear and tenseness I carried, the pain was more absorbed, and I could, like the thawing stream, move on – not pain-free, but no longer shattered.”
How can you be more like water and less like ice when tending to your emotional pain? Share in the comments below.