Why Should I Learn How to Feel?
Feelings signal something important to us. We will feel fear if our emotional or physical safety is threatened, sadness with the loss of someone or something significant to us. We feel anger in the face of injustice or mistreatment, guilt when we harm others. If we reflexively move away from these primary feelings which reflect actual danger, harm, loss, transgression—we will miss something meaningful that needs attending to. Primary feelings (reflect what’s actually happening), secondary emotions (often related to distorted interpretations), mixed together with all of our avoidance behaviors (our reactive struggle against all of the feelings). We have to develop the muscle and courage to stay with this uncomfortable welter of emotions in order to unpack what is important and meaningful. Think of our initial emotional reactions as the “surface waves” of an ocean. We need to ride these choppy waves, while holding our thoughts and interpretations lightly, in order to slowly drop into deeper emotional waters where the felt-sense of our values reside. Only then can we distinguish our primary feelings (and the values they reflect) from all the secondary noise.
Willingness to feel enables new learning by engaging in new experiences that generate new feelings to transform old, unhelpful beliefs at an emotional level, and grow in new ways. Willingness to stay with our feelings helps us access our values at a deeper emotional level and enables us to pause, resist reactive moves to alleviate negative feelings. Therefore opening up the possibility to choose an action in the service of our values and long-term goals. It’s critical to see that this skill must be developed in order to overcome our nature-nurture wiring. As Victor Frankl famously wrote: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Join us for Part 3 next Friday!
Did you know that our emotions serve to drive rapid behavior?
"Positive" emotions (excitement, joy, attraction, pride, amusement) motivate approach behaviors, are rewarding, and reinforce behaviors. "Negative" or threat-related emotions (fear, anxiety, guilt, shame, disgust, hurt, anger, jealousy, sadness) are part of the body’s alarm system and arise when our brain perceives a threat to our fundamental goals or needs or the well-being of loved ones. "Negative" feelings also mobilize the body for action, but they motivate avoidance behavior: efforts aimed at escaping, reducing, fighting, or controlling the threat and the associated feelings.
We are actually socialized to AVOID our feelings!
“Look on the bright side!” (don’t be sad)
“You need to be strong!” (don’t cry)
“Stop, you're making me feel guilty!” (don’t be upset with me)
Different cultures and social groups (including families) have implicit and explicit “rules” about which feelings are acceptable, and which ones are not. Suppressing negative emotions is often associated with strength, while expressing them is often equated with weakness.
What's Wrong With Avoiding?
If you don’t know how to stay with uncomfortable emotions and therefore must give in to that short-term drive toward or away, there is no opportunity to consider how you want to act in a situation. You won’t have that emotion-muscle to move toward meaningful goals in the face of difficult feelings. The resistance takes up much of our attention and energy, while the core issues remain. As we say in the trade: what you resist persists. Another problem is that our initial feelings are based on our quick interpretation of the situation, which isn’t very reliable. If you simply obey the feeling, you may be acting on faulty information.
So now what?
Stay tuned for Part 2 next Friday!