Why do we have feelings? What is their purpose?
People can often feel hostage to their feelings: overwhelmed, not in control, not even certain how to interpret their feelings. Many of us cannot name more than a few basic feelings that we experience on a daily basis. Yet we feel all day long! This leads us to distrust or distance ourselves from our feelings, or at least certain feelings. While most people are happy to have the “good” feelings like love, joy, happiness and pleasure, we tend to hide from or swallow down the “bad” feelings like sadness, anger, resentment and fear. The truth is feelings are neither good nor bad—they simply are. Feelings give us information about how life is and has been for us. How willing we are to engage with our feelings and how we feel about our feelings dictates how much suffering or joy we feel in our lives.
We often live in a black and white world of good and bad, right and wrong, success and failure. This model is mind-made. We apply this mind-made logic to our feelings, which keeps us away from having to actually feel. We can look at our feelings, examine them, poke them and prod them. This can cause vulnerable feelings—the ones we aren’t comfortable with or see as “bad”—to hide behind fortified defences and prickly attacks. We become vigilant, looking out for anything or anyone that will trigger a vulnerable feeling. We manage our behaviour to avoid or minimize contact with that vulnerable feeling. This begins benignly enough, but over time it becomes a rigid wall that keeps us from intimacy with ourselves and with others, often ending by causing us to feel lonely and unseen for who we are.
What is the hardware we use to feel our lives? We feel through our bodies. We interact with the world through our bodies. Every aspect of our awareness is felt in our bodies: emotions, thoughts and well-being. We all know what anxiety feels like: a nervous tightness in the stomach, often making it difficult to breathe. Happiness makes the body feel fluid and relaxed, and the breath deep and smooth. The body registers every feeling, even if we do not mentally acknowledge them all. Feelings can be seen in the way our brains process information, our posture, our blood pressure, our skin tone and colour, our libido—even in our wrinkles! How we take care of our bodies can tell us volumes about how we feel. Do we run from feelings, eat our words, or numb our pain?
At any one time, numerous feelings are at play within us. Some are primary emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, love. Some are social emotions: embarrassment, jealousy, pride, guilt. And, some are background emotions: well-being, malaise, calm, tension, pleasure, pain. We respond to our feelings predominately from two parts of the brain: the amygdala (the primal, automatic part) and the prefrontal cortex (the more conscious part that guides higher thinking). People who are unable to connect what they feel to the understanding in the brain are often left in personal chaos, unable to make effective decisions regarding their own lives. They can feel powerless, indecisive, disconnected and emotionally unstable, or, conversely, emotionally numb. This is made worse in uncertain or new situations and is often why people struggle with change in their lives. This neglected area of our understanding of feelings is the root of many people’s suffering. We have not been taught that cognitive and reasoning abilities are useless without emotions. Emotional intelligence is critical to well-being, happiness, health and social cohesion. We must be able to recognize feelings in ourselves in order to empathise with others, and to engage with our feelings constructively.
It can be very scary to start acknowledging feelings that have long been suppressed or hidden. It can feel like they are going to come roaring out and disrupt your entire life. But ask yourself, aren’t these feelings disrupting your life already? They manifest in discomfort, tiredness, illness, anxiety, confusion, depression and dissatisfying relationships. It is important to make the distinction between emotion and feeling. An emotion is a feeling that has been held and built up, which leads to reactions and going around in circles. A feeling moves and flows, bringing you information about what you need in your life and points you to what needs attention. Often, when we begin the process of acknowledging our feelings, there can be a backlog of emotion that needs to be addressed before we can start moving forward in a new way.
Grow Your Awareness of Feeling and Thinking
Begin to notice how you feel without trying to fix the feeling. Notice the four aspects of self:
Physically: How does the body feel? Tired, tight, low energy, heavy, relaxed, no pain, light?
Emotionally: Can you name your feelings? How do you feel about your emotions? Is there any discomfort or holding back? Are you fluid with your feelings?
Mentally: Are you open mentally, or do you hold tight until you have things worked out? Do you over-analyze? Do you override or criticize yourself?
Spiritually: What is your relationship like with spirituality? What do you feel your place or purpose is in the world? Do you think it’s all up to you?
Try to be open and curious about what you do not know about yourself and others. Be aware of the assumptions you make daily.
Finally, give yourself permission to have the feeling. No one likes to feel badly, but if you override how you really feel, either with yourself or with others, you will not be able to understand what the feeling knows it needs.
Above all, remember we are designed to feel. From the tips of our toes to the tops of our heads, we feel. The question is: are you going to go with the flow in the river of feelings, acknowledging and accepting what you feel? Or will your cling to the rock in the middle of the river until your fingers bleed, denying there is any current at all?
By Jen Lancaster