14 12, 2017

Feelings are always right

December 14th, 2017|emotions, Intimacy, non-monogamy, relationships|1 Comment

Intense feelings can literally be an intense pain in your gut. They’re hard to sit through on your own, and they’re often a cause of conflict and stress with others.  And even when they’re not intense, they can often be socially inappropriate, leading people to lie either verbally or with our body language.  So it’s easy to think of them as problems, pushing them away and trying to be ‘rational’.

But pushing them away causes even more buildup and problems.  And in the aftermath of #metoo, with the public acknowledgement of decades of hurt and resentment laying there for many, it is vitally important we find ways to actually work with the quagmire of built up feelings. This means going beyond venting and online shaming – many groups perhaps have a deep need for their own version of Truth and Reconciliation. This by necessity means working with what’s going on, deep in our brains and bodies, in a way that promotes actual transformation and doesn’t see them in a negative light.


We are not Spocks

Feelings are the foundation of human experiences.  No matter how ‘logical’ you think you are, when you make a choice, it’s because something about it feels good or bad.   Neuroscientists know that feelings are a requirement for choice – when you block feelings, you are actually unable to make choices.(1)One patient, Eliott, after removing part of his frontal lobe, kept all of his intelligence but was unable to feel emotions in making decisions – and as a result, he was incapable of making decisions. Source: The Decisive Moment: How the Brain Makes Up Its Mind by Jonah Lehrer (2009) So repression can seriously affect your choice making.  But in this rushed world, who actually has time to completely feel emotions?  Most of the time we ignore them until they’re screaming at us, affecting our lives until we wonder why we made that stupid decision or got in an abusive relationship.  But feelings can become good friends – no matter what they are.  It’s vitality important that they do.

Fuck the “Fuck Your Feelings” motto

Mark Manson wrote “Fuck your feelings”, saying that feelings shouldn’t be what you live your life by, that it’s up to you to control the meaning of them and your actions.  And there’s some truth to that – living an impulsive, unexamined life can be a path to addiction and misery.  Buddha’s Four Noble Truths say that those impulses of craving and aversion are the source of suffering in our lives.

But unlike Mark Manson(2)I’m not totally against Mark Manson’s philosophy, so long as it’s used to achieve short term goals. It’s more that fucking your feelings for a long time can get your life fucked, Buddha taught that the path to a life without suffering about completely welcoming what’s there, especially feelings.  Learning to feel completely, without imposing meaning or judgement.  Removing the dams blocking our internal rivers of thoughts and emotions and letting them flow naturally in the lush landscape of our bodies and community.

When this happens, feelings of connection and well-being seem to come naturally.  But all too often this doesn’t happen, with tragic results.

When feelings aren’t welcomed

I knew a woman, Claire (not her real name), who threw herself into mountain climbing and found a home with the local community, which was small enough that everyone knew each other.  She then went on a date with a guy in the community, things happened, she said no… and she was raped.  Claire was devastated: full of hurt, distrust and rage at being violated.

Hurt, distrust, and rage are uncomfortable emotions.  But they’re also right.  They are important to feel.  They’re also important to feel with someone – in the presence of someone trusted, who can be attuned, who can feel with you.  That’s what support – and compassion – is.

She, of course was in shock.  Rape victims usually are.  At first, she likely didn’t even know all she was feeling or what she needed and the jumble was visible.  But when she tried to tell others what happened and what she was experiencing, people got uncomfortable – women and men alike.  I don’t think they didn’t believe her.  They just didn’t want to feel those painful feelings – including their own about the effect on the small community.  So her friends just tried to change the subject, to avoid the emotions, which added to the quagmire in her gut, feeling dismissed, invalidated, and alone.  Claire was covertly (but unintentionally) ostracised and the guy continued to be a part of the community.  I think many wanted to support her. They just didn’t have the capacity to feel those intense, painful emotions along with her, and accept the upheaval this would cause amongst them, and so pushed the topic (and her) away.

That’s what happens when we create years of habits of pushing feelings away.  It doesn’t just hurt them.  It hurts our ability to respond appropriately to friends, to give support.

When I saw her years later, she was still affected by these events.  Her eyes showed distrust of men, and a good deal of resentment at life.  Resentment is the natural emotion when you have to disown strong emotions.

I can’t help but wonder what her life would have been like had she had at least one person to weather the storm with, who didn’t just believe her intellectually from afar, but welcomed her even more because of what she was going through.  Because that kind of support makes both people alive.

A deep look at feelings

Ok, let’s get down to semantics for clarity.

Feelings, by definition, are the bare physiological experience in a moment.  This is not an emotion, which is a reaction to something, which in turn we label for communication and understanding.  For instance, if we’re suddenly filled with adrenaline, our body tenses for action, the brain orients outward looking for threat, we might use the word “fear” to label the experience.  But what’s important is the bare experience, and allowing our body to do what’s natural – likely to run away.

Conversely, if we perceive something we know we can handle, the brain might re-orientate, puff up the body and call the experience “anger”.  Both of those words are not the experience themselves.

The problem is when we label an emotion and then stop feeling in the moment.  We lose track of the actual sensations, the present-moment aliveness.  Then the label sticks and it’s part of our identity – we say  “I’m frightened”.  Then it’s a problem to solve, because “I” don’t want to be frightened.  We try to do stuff to make ourselves better, which is usually oriented towards stopping the bare sensations.  And we get caught in the trap of suffering Buddha spoke so profoundly about.

There’s not a problem with intense reactions if they are aren’t “problems” in that way. Once I was rollerblading at high speed through a paved forest path and came across a bear and her cubs smack on the path.  Fuck I was scared.  But I managed to stop a few feet away from the cubs and the momma bear didn’t bat an eye.  My experience wasn’t conceptualised – I was terrified, reacted, and then the feeling moved on.  Nothing stuck.  I learned what Thich Naht Hahn called having “no aftertaste” of an event. I didn’t blame the bear for being there, blame forest management, or let it lessen my desire to glide through a forest in the future. It just flowed and became part of my experience.

Why is this important with others?  Because it’s at this level we form connections with others where mutual support is a natural thing that occurs without effort.  The spiritual teacher Adyashanti once pointed out that if you communicate raw experiences, conflict can never happen, because your experience is always your own.  No one can argue with you.  Conflict happens over interpretations and reasons.  Someone may disagree with why you are frightened, especially if it implies fault, but being simply visible about living in fear is more likely to evoke empathy and compassion.  We come together and even form deeper bonds when we simply share experiences, as they are.

So more about what feelings are, and are not:

Feelings are not stories

All too often when we try to communicate to someone what we’re feeling, we tell a story.  That person did this to me and I reacted, and then this happened and man they hurt me.  The events of the story are usually a mix of fact and implied causation and fault(3)Non-Violent Communication emphases learning to stick to undebatable facts and a list of non-blaming feelings to avoid conflict. Some feelings may be conveyed, but are often more in the space in between your words, the non-verbal signals, or the metaphors.  If you deliver the story in a dry, detached way, others have little idea of your bare experience in the present moment. It may even sound like you’re over it already.

A story can be an entry point into feelings. When first speaking about a painful experience, as in #metoo, we may want to hesitantly test the waters. Is my audience going to judge me or shame me based on the facts alone? Is it safe to be vulnerable with you? Once you’ve heard my story, are you open to seeing my feelings and how I’m affected now?

But simply telling your story doesn’t mean you’re necessarily feeling the feelings associated with it.

Feelings are not words

When you say “I feel angry”, you know what you mean.  But feelings are like a painting.  They’re colored by life experiences, your family’s use of the word, and all the techniques of breathing (and not breathing) you’ve learned so far.  If you ask 10 people to feel anger, they are going to have 10 different experiences.  Thinking you’ve communicated feeling by a word is like thinking you’ve conveyed the beauty of the Mona Lisa with a 1000 word essay.  It can’t be done.

Some feelings don’t have words – yet

When we’re still processing an intense experience, all too often we don’t even know what we’re feeling.  It’s a raw experience, still unprocessed.  The linear brain is great at making up labels and explanations (which are almost always wrong or incomplete) but not at feeling things out, letting your body speak.  It’s unfortunately that socially there can be so much pressure to find words instead of just being where you are.

Feelings are *always* right

Last week, I indulged some addictive tendencies (video games) in retrospect because there was something I didn’t know how to feel.  I tried, but it all felt so uncomfortable and nothing flowed, so I went back to the game as a temporary pleasure – though like any addiction, it made me feel worse in the long run.  My partner was there, so I asked “can we sit together and breathe?”  And we did, with full attention on each other.  And given that attention, support and compassion, more awareness of my body came, I let myself move and show things on my face.  Eventually tears came – and last of all, I could put words to it.  Words often come last.

It is so important to give space and time for those wordless states.  Our body doesn’t want to be interrupted in its processing.  And attention, without trying to find words, is often the best thing.

Which brings me to the next point.

Feeling is a collaborative act

You’ve probably experienced being with a person in a group where you know in your body some uncomfortable emotion (e.g., anger) will not be accepted – so you don’t feel it.  It is pushed out of  your conscious awareness, because we are incredibly social and interdependent creatures.

On the other hand, there are times I’ve come in the presence of a friend, settled down, and then found emotions I hadn’t been feeling for the whole day.

There are some emotions that are impossible for a person to feel alone.  Sometimes it’s too much to bear, a literal weight in our gut.  It’s at those times we need support to feel with us.  Someone to give space, to breathe with, who is able to give attunement while not getting overwhelmed themselves.  Compassion.

I hope Claire finds that.

In the age of #MeToo

I’ve honestly been trying to back away from the outrage across social media, but one thing is clear from it: there is an incredible amount of hurt out there.  There are the victims of rape and sexual assault, but on the other hand there are all the men who are victims of childhoods where their tender emotions were dismissed and mocked, who have been compensating their whole lives.  There are intense feelings on all sides.  And so many people want to be heard and validated.

This is when it’s important to act from a place that feelings are always right.  Feeling incredibly hurt and distrustful is right.  Feeling suspicious and afraid is right – and remember there are men living lives like that too.  What we need are to feel and get support being exactly where we are.

Let’s be clear: the call out culture makes sure no one feels safe enough to be that vulnerable, to be visible with what’s there in the present moment – or even be in a state to offer real support.  We also need to let go of any idea that healing involves state justice – the courtroom process is incredibly traumatic for victims.  As Judith Levine writes, “The more we entrust the state to mete out justice for sexual infractions, including harassment, the more we collude in the manner in which it administers “justice.”  We know how violent that is.  It affects us all.  Every online spectacle in some way acts in a little voice that you too could be next.

I’m not here to condemn anyone for online violence such as shaming.  That in its own way would be perpetuating violence.  What I want is to encourage healing, reconciliation, the ability for everyone to feel safe being where they are, feeling what’s going on.  That’s getting to the truth of what’s going on in a moment and finding connections from there.  I want to encourage these mini “Truth and Reconciliation” meetings around the world, starting from where are are.

Going Full Circle

Reconciliation and building trust requires the basic understanding that feelings are always right.  Sometimes that’s distrust and rage.  Sometime’s it’s a congealed mix of sensations, a maelstrom of contradictory signals. Sometimes it’s a strange joy at being heard, unexplained and mystical, like getting out of a cave and seeing starlight after being underground for hours.  These are raw experiences, part of being beautifully human.

It’s funny how so many of us really want to know that fundamentally, deep down, we’re good.  And that can only come in each moment.  Knowing that whatever is going on now is good.  It’s right – wherever we are.

To give a personal example, in the last year, there were some breaks of trust with my partner because the polyamory situation that developed was not what she desired.  There was covert violence (e.g., emotional violence in NVC terms) on both sides – not intentionally, but as human reactions to stress (the rest of her life was chaotic too) and feeling pushed.  We might have broken up – distrust was heavy. However, after some time and communication, both of us were able to just be in that state of distrust with each other, without blame.  It was a raw experience with many subtleties I can’t describe in words.  Once that started, other states came to the surface – and those moments of simply being ourselves with all that shit were, in retrospect, moments of love.  When we relaxed into the sense that our feelings were right, the other’s feeling was right, then there was the sense that we were right – and good.  And we still loved each other.  A different kind of trust started to grow.

It’s funny how so many of us really want to know that fundamentally, deep down, we’re good.  And that can only come in each moment.  Knowing that whatever is going on now is good.  Our experience is right – wherever we are.  And when we communicate in our words, in our tone, in our body language, and in our eyes to another person that we see their experience and it is right, that is a moment of connection – and perhaps the beginning of a true reconciliation.

I hope it’s clear this kind of experience can’t happen on the internet (though it can be used to share invitations or inspirations) – or even in crowded, rushed circumstances.  It takes creating a safe container – physically, emotionally and mentally.  A place to be.  Those containers are important, and I hope you take time to create and maintain your own, whatever it looks like.

And I hope you send messages to those you care about: your feelings are always right.  For you.


References   [ + ]

1. One patient, Eliott, after removing part of his frontal lobe, kept all of his intelligence but was unable to feel emotions in making decisions – and as a result, he was incapable of making decisions. Source: The Decisive Moment: How the Brain Makes Up Its Mind by Jonah Lehrer (2009
2. I’m not totally against Mark Manson’s philosophy, so long as it’s used to achieve short term goals. It’s more that fucking your feelings for a long time can get your life fucked
3. Non-Violent Communication emphases learning to stick to undebatable facts and a list of non-blaming feelings to avoid conflict
5 10, 2013

Working with Shame

October 5th, 2013|dealing with life, emotions, love|2 Comments

Shame is something that permeates our culture. Advertising preys on shame of one’s body. Dr. Gabor Mate, who works with the heavily addicted, says shame is the “one constant among addicts of all types“. It fuels much avoidant behavior such as procrastination and can be the prime impetus behind relationship breakups and lack of intimacy.

This year I have looked into my own shame and doing my best to directly experience it. By that I don’t mean jump into “healing”, which is often the attempt to get rid of it. Years ago, when I wrote and said thousands of daily affirmations of my worth and inner beauty, I ended up feeling worse about myself. To me, that kind of healing leads to feeling ashamed of one’s own shame, a feedback loop, which is unfortunately pervasive given the prevalence of pop psychology and the “quick fix”.

But what is shame? Joseph Burgo defines same as the sense of internal damage. I define shame as the following:

Shame is the feeling or body memory that you cannot be connected with others, or yourself, so long as a part of you is present. It’s the sense of a split within one’s self, the feeling that a part of you shouldn’t be there.

Say you grew up, as I did, in an emotionally repressed family where there was a heavy reaction to an expression of anger or a “go away” message. If I rejected my mother, either by saying I didn’t like something she did to me or that I didn’t want to talk now, she would react by pushing me away violently, even implying the relationship might end. Even showing this emotion on my face without vocalizing it provoked a reaction. This was her own hurt, but of course as a young child I didn’t know this – I internalized it. It became part of my body and brain.

There are times I find it hard to even feel that energy; it ended up being blocked from my consciousness, with sometimes severe internal reactions and symptoms as a result. Connection with my family was more important than self-connection, and this created pathways in the brain short-circuiting that energy. Though I’ve done much work with myself, I still feel shame regarding this; my body believes people will cut me out of their lives if I let it be visible.

This can happen in shame-1251333-1280x960work too: a friend of mine was talking about procrastination in learning a new skill for a client. There was a deadline for getting a project done and she needed to become adept in a new software utility that she hadn’t used before. For years she had been used to being highly skilled in what she did; the sense of not being an expert already was very uncomfortable to her, and it was far too easy to avoid that discomfort by procrastinating. Even when she devoted time to acquire the new skills, the learning was slower than when she had been a student. Upon talking about it, saw the basis of this behavior was the sense that she needed to be an expert to be worthy of the connection with the client. Not knowing everything, being less than perfect, was not acceptable – the client might drop her. The connection wouldn’t be there. There was no quick ability to not feel this, so the easiest thing to do in the moment was to focus attention anywhere else, rather than wade through the emotional quagmire of shame.

Sexual attraction is another magnet for shame. It’s something that easily cross-reacts with inadequacies of beauty or worth. I still have feelings that my partner may cut off from me and end the relationship if I fully admit, beyond an intellectual confession, that I feel a serious attraction to someone. So in the past, rather than admit it fully, I have intellectualized it or numbed that part of me, which led to distance and lack of trust. Another option for me that many do (and I’m glad I haven’t) would be to act it out – rather than admitting or feeling the shame, I could try to act on the attraction and start something while not showing it to my partner, thus trying in an unconscious and unhealthy way to not numb a part of myself while still remaining connected to her. It’s the shadow side of trying to resolve shame. If anything happened, I would likely feel more disconnected from her because I would have to hide more and more parts of my life. If I confessed it after time, the anger she would feel upon discovery, mostly based on the deceit, would be tied to the original shame and add to it. Thus shame grows.

The movie “Shame” made in 2011 with Michael Fassbender depicts the shame underlying sexual addiction amazingly well.

The dark side of the growth of psychology and this culture’s lack of time and space for just feeling things as they are is that we want the quick fix. Feeling any shame that’s there doesn’t make it immediately better.  Culturally there’s an incredible discomfort around it, which can lead to a subtle ostracising.  Rather than being present with shame and giving space, we ask loved ones to “see someone about it”, to find a solution by thinking positive thoughts, or make more rules so as not to bring it up. But since the source of shame is from feeling disconnected, what we deeply need is the experience of being connected while feeling shame and the original source.

What brings on this feeling of connection and working with shame? From my experience, we need to first truly feel the shame and whatever is bringing on the shame, without intellectualizing or compartmentalizing it. It has to be brought to the surface, in our bodies, face, voice and breath. This means going beyond any kind of sit-down therapy structure. Then, someone needs to be there and be open for a connection without any kind of attempt to resolve the source of the shame. There needs to be space for the emotion, thoughts or impulses with no action to change them, while truly being there and available. This is itself a form of meditation.

A couple months ago, while in a very emotional state (I won’t go into the trigger here), I called my girlfriend Kirsten for help. It was an agonizing decision for me, as I grew up feeling I should be the one supporting others, but at the time I truly felt lost and knew I couldn’t move anything alone. She dropped everything and came. As soon as she was next to me, I started bawling. I confessed how ashamed I was of asking for support, and then how ashamed I was of feeling shame, like I needed to do something to make it better so I could be a healthy person. She was simply present with me. I confessed I felt like there was always a price for support. Inside, I was feeling that I needed to please others in order to be worth getting any kind of love, and sex had been a major part of that with women, giving them pleasure when I didn’t necessarily feel into it. I told her I didn’t want sex now, and felt so much shame at admitting that, continuing my bawling. She simply listened. She backed away physically when I wanted it, and held me close when that felt good to me. She was absolutely wonderful at remaining connected without any price. I didn’t need to heal, say the right thing or make it worth her while to be there for me. She was a friend. She wasn’t even playing a role of “healer”, breathing the right way or watching what she said. All she did was show that mattered to her – me, not the role I played in her life.

This was a pivotal shift for me. As it turns out, I didn’t want sex for close to a month afterwards while I processed the internal shifts – which related to past sexual abuse, being treated like a “thing”. That in itself was very unusual for me. It made it easier for her that we are in an open relationship and she could, if she wanted, fulfil needs elsewhere – another dynamic which has helped me work with shame. But that, along with other experiences, brought the body knowledge that I could still be connected while revealing shame without having to play a role of strength, humour, health or comforting others. This has led to a huge foundation of trust and friendship. It’s amazing how many sexual relationships don’t have that.

I’ve also had dyads with a number of people. This is where you sit in a meditational manner facing each other, being present for 10 minutes or so before talking, connecting to one’s breath and body, and each person taking turns asking a simple question and listening. When it’s your turn, you speak slowly and with self-connection about your experience and insights while the other listens and is present in their own self. One of the questions asked was about the “sense of self in relationships”. That’s a prime question related to shame – when do you lose that sense of self-connection, where you’re not hiding or altering anything inside? When do you feel you’re walking on eggshells, controlling everything coming out because you feel it would harm the relationship? And it was wonderful just practicing revealing myself without guile, showing how “imperfect” I am and getting to a place that this is just fine. It doesn’t need to change.

It’s also led to a different place in being there for others. Largely arising from my narcissistic mother, I had felt that I needed to be playing a role when giving support to others. Internally I had the belief that had to suppress my own issues, not feel anything “unsupportive” like anger or resentment from my past (even if unrelated to them), in order to be helpful. This made me far from present and created a tense feeling; because I was not relaxed, I couldn’t help friends be relaxed. Not being in a state of allowing with my own emotions at the time, I could never truly convey that their emotions were just fine as they are. I was saying the “right things”, which probably made them feel like they had to say the “right things” in response. While I don’t have any scientific data, I think this is what the vast majority of therapeutic sit-down relationships are like this. So many healing achievers!

The lessening of shame has led me to more feelings of joy because by not disconnecting from myself, there’s more wholeness. I can joke around with it more, even bring some clownishness. What a feeling of freedom that is. And I’m just getting started.