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.
|↑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|