As humans in an uncertain world, we seek certainty in a variety of ways. We ask questions that are fundamentally unanswerable. We ruminate and obsess on a single thought (otherwise known as intrusive thoughts). We Google and text and seek reassurance in a variety of increasingly technologically oriented ways. When I see someone falling into these common mental habits, the first question I encourage them to ask themselves is, “What are these thoughts/actions protecting me from feeling?”
We’re so identified with spending thousands of hours in the realm of thought that oftentimes this question doesn’t make any sense. What do you mean “protecting” me from feeling? What I mean is that somewhere along the road of growing up, somewhere between the innately healthy relationship that babies have to their emotional life and the disconnected relationship that most adults have, we learned that one way to manage the messy, amorphous, confusing, and sometimes scary realm of feelings was to travel up into the realm of thought. It’s so much more manageable up there, thinks the young mind that doesn’t have capable others modeling what it looks like to feel one’s feelings. It’s so much cleaner and cooler.
Feelings are hot. They’re wild and messy and alive and sometimes loud. They erupt out of nowhere and take over completely, filling mind and body with their high-intensity heat. Before the prefrontal cortex is fully developed and engaged, children have no control over the frustration and rage that often bites in a nanosecond. How many millions of children have been shamed for the “temper tantrums” over which they have no control? “Control yourself!” screams a frustrated mother. “Calm down!” yells an embarrassed father. And herein lies one of the great hypocrisies of parenthood: To scream “Stop yelling!” while you yourself are yelling! Every parent has been there. And hopefully we can see the hypocrisy then apologize to our children and say something like, “I guess I haven’t really learned how to handle my anger well, either.”
And where would we have learned how to handle our anger well? From parents who either denied and squashed down their anger or let it fly off their lips in fits of rage? No. In school where arithmetic is deemed far more important than emotional literacy? No. Where would we have learned that anger is a secondary line of defense that covers over the softer and more vulnerable feelings of frustration, sadness, loneliness, and powerlessness? Nowhere. Emotionally-disabled parents lead the next generation to create a long chain of emotional illiteracy. But I believe that it’s this generation, with our increased understanding of how the brain and heart work and our rush of energy toward self-healing, that will be able to teach the next generation how to feel their feelings. This new legacy begins with us.
Without emotional training and modeling, we naturally fall into the path of least resistance, which is the realm of ego: that small-minded part of our psyches that is motivated by fear and deeply attached to trying to keep life safe and in control. The ego-mind loves definite answers, and the quest for the answer is one of its favorite tactics for sidelining feelings. I’m always amazed by how often my kids ask something like, “Why did they hurt the bear who kept coming into the city?” It took me a while to realize that when they ask “why” repeatedly about a subject that is ripe with emotion what they’re really doing is trying to avoid the feelings. Now when I hear them asking “why” over and over again I ask, “Are you feeling sad about that?” and they invariably say yes (and stop asking the same question; yay). The ego-mind believes that securing an answer will take away the pain. It doesn’t work that way. Not only are most of these questions unanswerable, but there is no avoiding pain. It’s part of life. And feeling the pain of life is what brings us into the present moment, connects us to our bodies, and makes us feel alive.
“If I feel my feelings does that mean I’ll be depressed all the time?” I’m often asked. It’s a valid question, and it stems from the belief that the realm of feelings is a dangerous place to dwell. It stems from the fact that very few people received the manual on how to feel one’s feelings because of course it’s not a manual at all but an internalized roadmap that stems from seeing trusted and beloved others attend to their feelings with compassion and gentleness. How can we know something that we’ve never seen modeled? We can’t. But we can learn it later in life. Because deep inside everyone is the original, untouched roadmap for living life with more grace and ease.
I’m thinking about women birthing babies. The Western, mainstream model posits that women don’t know how to birth and are often (not always) treated like there’s something wrong with their bodies that needs to be fixed. The premise of the midwifery model, on the other hand, is that, just like women’s bodies know how to grow a placenta and then an entire human and milk to boot, so women’s bodies know how to birth the baby. We don’t teach our bodies how to grow and birth a baby and produce milk. All we have to do is be the vessel and the process happens beautifully and naturally.
So it is with feeling our feelings. We know how to do this; it’s a matter of unlearning the unhelpful habits then relearning what we already intrinsically know. I’m not saying it’s an easy process. In fact, coming into more direct and regular contact with our emotional life may be one of the most challenging aspects of healing. But I do know that it’s an essential element toward developing inner wellness.
Feeling your feelings is the gateway to your aliveness, and when you send a taproot of willingness into your body – which is the temple where feelings dwell – you come into the present moment. We hear so much about the value of being in the now and that this moment is all we have. But how do we get there? There is a secret passageway: We have to be willing to feel our pain. We have to be willing to climb down out of the cool chamber of thought and enter the messiness of the heart, where all uncertainties and vulnerabilities dwell. We have to develop a tolerance for the gray zone and accept that most questions in life don’t have answers. We have to widen our narrow places, which means being willing to feel the disappointment that follows shattered hope, the grief that follows a broken heart, the loss that accompanies loving. This is how we widen the metaphoric muscle of our heart until it’s as big as the moon and from there, from that vast place of being, we learn how to bring the world inside and bring ourselves into the world.