Feeling our emotions: A simple concept in theory, but something that in practice can be quite challenging. How many of you have felt overwhelmed, or even afraid to experience your emotions fully? Are you unsure of what it means to actually feel emotions in your body? Do you hold beliefs or judgments about certain emotions?
Just a few years ago, I would have said “yes” to all the above.
When I was 11, I experienced a traumatic event that left me with PTSD symptoms and a big middle finger to healthily feeling my emotions. You can read more about my full journey with mental health here, but the important takeaway for this blog is that I felt very out of control. My nervous system was an extremely hot mess, very dysregulated, and when I experienced strong emotions like anger or fear, it was a terrifying experience for me. I didn’t know 1) how to name what was happening in my body and brain and 2) how to regulate my nervous system enough to let any emotions move through me. It took many years and lots of therapy to learn how to identify when I was feeling something, name what that emotion was, and regulate myself enough to feel it in a healthy way.
While writing, I realized that I had so much to say about this topic, it couldn’t just be one blog. So this will be the first installment in a series about emotions and how to work with them in your life. In part one, we’ll discuss what emotions are and a practice for identifying them when they arise.
SO, WHAT ARE EMOTIONS?
Google defines emotions as “a natural instinctive state of mind deriving from one's circumstances, mood, or relationships with others.” I think this is a good starting place in defining what emotions are, and I want to encourage you, as you learn more about them and how they arise in yourself, not to hold onto definitions too much. Emotions are complex, and there is a lot of research out there on them. They are perhaps a combination of many aspects, and maybe in trying to define them we limit their possibilities. I personally view emotions as a tool. They are a vast and interesting language that we can use to learn more about ourselves and our experience in the world. Each time an emotion arises, it is a message from the deep-held wisdom of our soul.
Some common emotions are sadness, joy, grief, anger, guilt, fear, jealousy, happiness, envy, terror- and the list goes on.
(image courtesy of the Junto Institute)
The natural state of emotions is flow. They want to move through us and be expressed in some way. Emotions are energy and as I mentioned, when they arise, they have a message for us. It is our duty to practice getting curious about the emotion arising, listen to that message, and determine when and where the appropriate time to let that emotion flow through us is.
This might feel overwhelming or difficult if you are not used to identifying your emotions when they arise. And that’s ok! When I first started consistently going to therapy, about 4.5 years ago, my therapist would ask me every session: how are you feeling? How did XYZ situation make you feel? And I would get so frustrated with her because, well, I didn’t know!
I decided to make identifying my feelings a practice, and not just when they felt really strong or powerful. Early in my therapy days, I gave myself a visual. I wrote out dozens of emotions on Post-It notes and stuck them onto my wall in a giant square of little squares, something I could look at every day. On my mirror, I put a Post-It that said “today I feel.” Each morning, I would meditate: get still, clear my mind, and ask myself how I was feeling that day. I would put the Post-It with that feeling on my mirror under “today I feel.” It was very helpful for me to practice identifying how I feel every single day. Some days, I would have multiple check-ins because my emotions would shift and change. I let it be a fluid and flowing practice for myself, and over time, I got better at naming what I was feeling at any particular moment.
In the summer of 2019, I ended things with the person I was dating at the time. We had been through 10ish months of a relationship that was not meant to work out, but when I ended things, I was still shattered. It was one of the biggest moments of growth in my life, that relationship, and after he left that night, I wailed. I grieved that relationship in that moment and felt it very strongly in my body. It rushed through me, brought me to my knees, and I felt like I wasn’t just crying about the end of a relationship, I was grieving for all women who had ever felt like I had. I was fortunate to have a safe, uninterrupted space and was able to let myself weep, mourning this little death. I really let myself feel the end of that relationship and it helped my overall healing and movement forward process. I felt my emotions, they flowed through me, and I was able to open myself up to healing and a deeper, truer love in the months following.
Important to note: For folks who have experienced trauma in their lives, it may take time to feel comfortable dropping into your body to feel and identify your emotions when they arise. More often than not, the answer to the question “how do I feel” might be “I don’t know.” I want to normalize that. We don’t always know what we are feeling, especially in the early days of practicing to name and identify emotions. It is ok if what you are feeling is, “I don’t know” or “nothing.” Alternatively, there may be periods of deep grief, sadness, or depression where you feel very much the same every day. All of this is part of the human experience, and I urge you to have compassion for yourself as you move through times that feel heavy or stagnant. If it would make you feel safer, please seek the assistance of someone you deeply trust, or a therapist.
I have found that getting into a practice of naming what I am feeling at all sorts of different times helps the really strong emotions not feel so overwhelming. I am used to turning inward and checking out what’s going on, so when something stronger arises, that already is my first instinct- to get curious and tune in.
This week, each morning, I invite you to find a quiet space to tune in. Take a seat, or lie down. Take 3-5 belly breaths, in through your nose and out your mouth. Drop into your body in a way that feels safe. Ask yourself, “what feelings are here? All are welcome- what feelings are here?” See what arises.
Let me know if you integrate this into your day! Parts 2 and 3 coming soon.
P.S. Here is a list of great books that have helped me in my emotion(al) journey:
The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk
The Language of Emotions, Karla McLaren
Rage Becomes Her, Soraya Chemaly