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
20 02, 2016

Before you commit – bond

February 20th, 2016|Intimacy, relationships|1 Comment

He’s just afraid to commit

How many times have you heard that kind of proclamation over your lifetime?  If you’re like me, you’ve probably heard it hundreds of times, and believed it for at least the first hundred.   I’ve also heard much about the “hook up culture” and with so many options, some people never want to have any commitment,  such as written in the blog post “This is How We Date Now”.

I’ve committed in a relationship (to monogamy and time) many times, most of the time because it just felt like ‘this is just how it’s done”.   This has been labelled the relationship escalator, where you unthinkingly take what you think is the natural next step.  I had little idea at the time of what makes a real, supportive, long lasting connection that involved deep intimacy, and so I just followed what I thought was the model that led to it (commitment), at least until I felt something wasn’t working.  Then I would often blame myself, thinking I was doing something wrong, trying to behave ‘better’ and trying to work with my emotions and act in a loving manner.  Needless to say, that didn’t work, and resentment inevitably built because of all the suppression I ended up doing.  

Looking back, I didn’t really know or specify wcommitmenthat I was committing to.  It usually worked out to: monogamy, spending my free time with my partner as a high priority, not acting (or feeling) other attractions, planning a future with them, vulnerability, unconditional trust, always valuing their thoughts and impulses, and behaving like they fulfilled all my needs.

Some of those commitments, of course were completely out of my control.  No one has complete control over what they feel.  Trust can be built, but committing to vulnerability no matter what is more of a set up to hurt – and possibly abuse.   Planning a future sounds great, but it only works out great if there is a common purpose agreed on and a continually developing connection.  And like I wrote describing how my current relationship developedsometimes intimacy is developed by being honest about ‘negative’ things such as distrust and what we don’t appreciate, at least in a confessional, non-accusatory manner.  We’re human and we share the full human experience in a relationship.

What commitment often strives for – and paradoxically masks when forced – is the desire for that deep, uncompromising interconnection that we wouldn’t want to cut away.  When we have a real family, it lasts through thick and thin.  It doesn’t matter when there are highs or lows, appreciation or angers, pain or joy – there’s an inner knowingness that the connection is solid.  I call this bonding.   

Commitment vs. Bonding

Humans are naturally bonding animals.  We live in a social network and require it.  Left in complete isolation with nothing to form relationships to, as some prisoners are subjected to, humans can go insane.  Stable connections are absolutely necessary for our emotional regulation and well-being.  We bond to family, to friends, to pets, and even at times (sad, I know!) to our computers and cell phones.  It’s an organic process that can’t be rushed, because inside our brains it is a bottom-up process.  Our conscious, logical mind doesn’t say “hey, it’s time to commit to my mother” when we’re growing up.  It’s a fundamental process that is pre-conscious and instinctive.  Our adult needs for attachments aren’t precisely the same as a child’s, but they’re still there and almost as important.

Bonding is that slow, unrushed process of building trust and getting attached, so that person becomes not just a part of your life, but a part of your being.  It is there or it isn’t; you can’t consciously decide it.  Forcing it blocks it or makes it slower.  When you have a strong bond, you know it.  Your body relaxes in their presence, no matter what is going on.  You feel more and are more yourself, not less, because it’s a dynamic of trust and space, not a kind of relationship agreement with subtle rewards and punishments.  If they stop being in your life, you grieve profusely.  They are a part of you and you are a part of them.

Trying to commit before a solid bond exist is often a recipe for disaster.  It creates a fantasy bond instead of a real one.  I’ve done this a couple of times, mostly because I had no idea what a real bond was.  Our movies don’t know it and my family didn’t give any healthy examples.  I thought I was afraid to commit and thought that I should dive into it instead of running away.  Needless to say, this involved some lying to myself and hurt feelings when I couldn’t pretend anymore.

From Attachment Theory in psychology we know that there are many people in this society that are also in this boat, who didn’t have a reliable supportive bond in childhood.  Even those that did often had conditions attached, such as to “behave” and not get too angry.  Families make their own rules of taboo topics and emotions to keep stability, and this impacts our ability to make bonds, because a deep bond includes every bit of one’s self.  When we hide parts of ourselves away, we also say to the other “if you bring out that part of you, I may not stick around”.  Feelings cannot be felt selectively – it’s all or nothing.  Similarly, when you love and bond and wish it to be deep, it has to be all-inclusive.

How do I recognize a bond or one growing?

A healthy bond helps all involved.  It is the antithesis of a power relationship, where good behavior is rewarded and bad behavior is punished.  In fact, reward and punishment dynamics are one sign of an unhealthy connection, because they are a sign of pervasive distrust.  Bonding is all about trust.

So here are some qualities I’ve learned to watch for.

  • Relaxation and Comfort.  This is again, a bottom-up relaxation, where it’s your body itself communicating that being near your partner makes the world safer.  Sitting around doing nothing with your partner feels comfortable.
  • Freedom of Impulses: I’m using “impulses” as a generalized term for expression and action.  In other words, you feel free to allow any impulse of speech to just come out without controlling it much first.  Suddenly jumping into weird interpretive dance moves might be strange, but fine.  Expressing raw anger is also safe, because it’s not like shooting ammo.  There’s consideration and curiosity.  In other words, there’s a sense of play in the relationship.  Relaxation naturally flows into curiosity, exploration and expression.
  • Feeling more, not less: Being alive – fully alive and brimming with vitality – requires a good connection with the body and all its signals.  This is where emotional intelligence comes from.  A healthy bond creates more resources to be comfortable with a more varied emotional life, with greater tolerance of overall arousal in the body/mind system.  This can mean greater ease in dealing with the results of external challenges, such as entrepreneurship, but it can also mean the stability to look into unresolved past issues or traumas.  Thus a bond doesn’t always mean feeling good, but it does mean heading in an overall good direction.  This is particularly applicable to those with insecure styles of attachment.
  • A Stronger Core Sense of Self:   A good bond will always help you over time become more you.  Not the you that you think you ‘should’ be, but someone living authentically, with your inner world and outer persona in harmony.  This arises because when there is trust, freedom, and connection, a sense of spiritual curiosity arises too, akin to Maslow’s concept of self-actualization. There is no limit to the discoveries of who your partner is or who you are.  When there’s mutual curiosity in exploring the connection and a willingness to go together into anxieties and past influences, self awareness is the result.  
  • Play:  Ok, this really is saying “free impulses” again.  But it’s so damn important it’s worth mentioning again.  If you can’t have playful interactions on a regular basis, then something likely doesn’t feel safe.   Play is part of how we learn, how we connect, and what makes us happy.  The particulars of what play looks like is different for everyone, but it damn well better be there if you want a happy, intimate, stable relationship that lets you grow together.  

It shouldn’t be surprising that all these signs are also signs of a healthy child.  After all, if you can never act like a child within a relationship, you’re watching yourself all the time.  What fun is that?  

Cultivating qualities like the above I’ve always found grows incrementally, in little steps.  It’s also paired with the freedom to be honest about not being there yet.  After three years, I’m far from living the above ideals all the time.  I might say “My body isn’t yet totally relaxed around you” or “I’m cautious about showing pain around you now”.  Pain and anger are often tough to develop trust and listening around, which for me is  the sense that neither venting nor taking it personally will occur on either side.  I might suggest going to an Improv class together if there’s not enough silliness.  But the open discussions in a non-blaming way around what qualities are not present is of absolute importance in developing free communication.    How can you completely relax in someone’s arms if you can’t trust them to listen when you tell them to piss off with a gentle smile?

Wait for bonding before committing

Sometimes bonding takes time.  Years – especially in our stressed society with little unplanned meetings and play.  Mistakes need to be made and repaired.  There can be a great deal of social pressure to make commitments before a real bond is formed.  Even the introducing someone to a boyfriend or girlfriend has certain commitments implied.  It takes courage to be honest about wanting to be sure and admitting what the actual bond is like instead of pretending a Hollywood story.

But commitment isn’t always the big “C” Commitment.  There are many small commitments that can build trust, respect, and set the stage for real bonding to grow.  Gentle honesty about all emotions can be a good one.  Consciously not trying to pressure the other into any decision, and apologizing if it happens unconsciously, can be another.  These kind of commitments can be soft, not hard.  In other words, they’re a statement of intention and not an excuse to jump into distrust, incrimination and feelings of betrayal when someone doesn’t live up to the ideal.   Little commitments grow into bigger ones as the foundation of trust they’ve built becomes solid. 

Here are some of the commitments I’ve made with my partner:

  • I will be open with you about everything in my life that affects you significantly, while maintaining some healthy privacy.
  • I will do my best to never repress anything in myself to smooth things over or tell white lies to you.  [Note:  this includes not repressing honestly felt attraction to others or when feel frustration or distrust]
  • If one of us notices that some habits could be arising from fear (e.g., the terror of losing the other), we’ll bring it up instead of starting any walking-on-eggshell behavior.  Regular time speaking in a meditative, unrushed fashion helps.
  • I will always try to consider what the effect of my actions will be on you and have that affect, but not control, my decision.  
  • If I notice habits of interaction growing between us, like a rut that could remove spice in our relationship, I will do something strange to shake things up a bit while doing my best to be kind.    
  • I will actively be curious about you, listen to verbal and non-verbal signals, and try and give space for you to be more you.  But I will also be clear when I’m unable to do that in a moment.  Nothing should be forced.
  • I will make sure there is a good amount of quality, unrushed time with you each week, while making sure I’m also getting enough alone time.  I want to spend time with you because I want to spend time with you, not because it’s a habit or an obligation.

This list grew over time, with introspection, and with little overt pressure from either side.  Bonding and trust grew incrementally, not magically, and took years.    Little commitments like these are more support for a real bond and a recognition of the bond that has grown.  The bond has grown precisely because I have been honest and not repressed any major part of myself to fit in the relationship, even the parts of myself that hate being tied down.  I would not have had this level of bonding without the freedom to explore that most standard commitments imply.  

No relationship ever looks the same, but I believe for everyone that trust and bonding is built over time, organically, and every time it is forced it starts to die in that moment.  The human spirit is ever desirous of deep connections, but also loathes cages of any kind.  Too often we think to have a deep connection we need the cage, and thus our society’s version of early commitment was born.   It takes a trust in human nature, including one’s own, to go beyond this.  The desire for freedom, expressing truth, and non-suppression is not anathema to a long soul connection, it is fuel for it.   For how can you bond deeply with another without bringing every last bit of your soul, even the parts that fly free?