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What Does it Really Mean to Feel Your Feelings?

You have likely heard the instruction to feel your feelings or be with your feelings.  If you are like most folks, you don't quite know what to do with this not so do-able request.  But before we go there, let's examine the process from the beginning.  

The choice to not feel your feelings starts with an amoeba like impulse, namely to move away from pain and toward pleasure.  This has an adaptive function in the evolutionary sense.  It's helpful, for example, to move away from a hot forest fire, and toward a cool lake.  However, in a nuanced emotional world of relationships, following your amoeba like impulses can create some serious difficulty.  

In the context of an intimate interaction, unconsciously moving away from pain and grasping at pleasure often results in these destructive behaviors:  criticizing, justifying, convincing, rationalizing, belittling, minimizing, making others wrong, anger, hatred, and numbing out through addictions.  In working with couples, the most common of these I see are criticizing and convincing.  Criticizing usually involves a subtle way of demonstrating how the other is wrong and flawed in their thinking, feeling, or behavior.  Convincing consists of making a case for why a particular point of view is more valid than another.  Making a case might mean comparing your current relationship to previous relationships or others' relationships, citing respected authorities, and/or bringing up particular memories that support that point.

You likely recognize all these behaviors and just how they play out in your relationship.  If you've done even the smallest bit of reflection you know that these behaviors initially escalate an argument and ultimately result in resentment and disconnect.  If you delve further in reflection, you will notice three essential things about these behaviors.

One, these behaviors operate under the delusion that if only you can control the other person perfectly, then you will be happy.  Two, these behaviors are the amoeba like impulse to immediate move away from any painful feeling.  Three, these behaviors result in more pain and suffering for you and the other person.  

A first step to change here is to see these three things clearly, not just intellectually, but know them in your body and in your heart.  This kind of seeing/knowing requires reflecting on your inner experience, behavior, and the results of your behavior many times over.

A second step to change is to feel your feelings.  If we break this down into a more concrete and do-able instruction, it might sound like this:

  • Set the intention to pause internally and in your conversation the moment you notice a painful feeling arise.

  • Put your attention on that feeling and seek to know it more fully.  You might ask yourself the following:  What kind of painful feeling is this (e.g., hurt, fear, sadness, despair, etc.)?  In what part of my body do I feel this feeling?  Is it on the surface of my body or does it reside more deeply?  Is there a shape to this feeling?  Is there an image or memory that is coming up with this feeling?

  • Name for yourself the exact nature of the impulse to move away from the feeling.  That is, you might name which of the behaviors listed in paragraph three above you an impulse toward.

  • Choose not to follow that impulse to move away.

  • Direct your attention back to the feeling either gently noticing it or engaging in the reflection questions listed in bullet two.

When you have a sense of stability, that is, you are confident that you will not be taken over by the impulse to move reflexively away from painful feelings and grasp at pleasurable ones, you are able to move to these two next steps:

  • Identify the need or value that is connected to the painful feeling.span class="Apple-tab-span" style="white-space:pre;">

  • Decide upon an action to meet the need or move into alignment with the value.  Sometimes the action of stating out loud to yourself what the need or value is, is enough.

Of course, the purpose of feeling your feelings is not to simply have the experience of a painful feeling.  That would not be a very inspiring notion.  The true purpose is to become free.  Each time you choose to notice your experience in any aspect without following the impulse to move reflexively away from painful feelings and grasp at pleasurable ones, you open the door to freedom a little wider.  You become more and more free to live a life equanimity that is most deeply aligned with your values.

Take a moment now to choose one of the behaviors from paragraph three that you would like to interrupt. Set the intention to watch for this behavior in the coming week. Each time you notice the behavior make a note of it and take at least ten minutes to reflect on that behavior when you can be in a quiet uninterrupted space.

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1 Response

  1. Aug 28, 2015

    Thanks LaShelle for this inspiring gem. Practice I Will! I appreciate your ability to name so clearly the thought patterns and behaviors that come up in trying to convince someone else to change to avoid our own pain. Much gratitude for your wisdom <3

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