Riding Your Emotions
We are so afraid of our emotions.
Afraid to feel them.
Granted, for many, there are good reasons for resisting ‘feeling the feelings’. For example, feeling and emoting usually resulted in punishment or negative consequences in our past and most likely, did not change the circumstances.
I remember my partner recounting about his childhood that was full of adversity and trauma, and he learned very young that crying or feeling the pain did not change the circumstances, it made the pain worse. He continued to report that he ‘stopped feeling the feelings’. It has taken him close to 40 years to learn how to feel again.
Feeling emotions=unsafe=more pain
With such an equation it makes sense why a person would shut down their capacity to feel period. Why would anyone want to encourage feeling the ‘feelings’ as a form of healing when past experiences tell you that feeling anything is too painful?
We may have learned very young that if I feel what I am feeling in my body I might die or go crazy; I might explode in pain or be met with more pain. Considering the fact that our biological system’s primary motivation is to keep us safe, the system thus shuts down the capacity to feel as a form of protection.
Few of us were taught how to ‘be with’ the feelings and sensations arising in the body.
Further, few of us were shown how to move the emotions through our system without becoming attached to them.
And finally, few of us were met with presence, attuned attention, and caring connection from our primary caregivers to help us integrate, tolerate, and understand what we were feeling.
As infants and children we need caregivers who can help us make sense out of huge emotional charges felt in our bodies, and teach us how to move that energy without causing harm to self or others. In order for this to occur, the caregiver must know themselves what to do with highly charged emotional information in their own systems.
This requires a kind of awakening on their part.
Therefore, a huge part of therapy and healing is focused on tolerating big sensations and uncomfortable emotions within each person’s system. Taking into account that a large proportion of people do not like to feel painful emotions like grief, sadness, anger, remorse, terror, and fear.
We are living in a confusing time because on one hand, we are encouraged to feel, but on the other hand, we are told that if we feel too much that there is something wrong with us.
We are told to feel more, and yet, we are not taught how to be with the emotions as they arise.
How do we change this perspective and build trust in the process of feeling?
Trauma therapy emphasizes the need for safety; physical and emotional safety. There is a lot of consideration and time invested in helping the client learn how to shift states – move out of discomfort – and build capacity to tolerate more discomfort without feeling out of control. Dan Siegel calls this your Window of Tolerance. The capacity that you have to tolerate stressful information in the form of thoughts, sensations, feelings, and images.
The idea is that we are born with a set window of tolerance that was informed in utero. And childhood experiences and environment either strengthen or weaken this system. It is suggested that we can expand or widen our window of tolerance to be able to hold more stressful information without becoming dysregulated.
One of the main tools that helps with this is integrating a mindful awareness practice into your daily life.
Foundationally, we need to re-program the system (i.e., body and mind) that it is safe and normal to feel. And that the system can handle emotional stress without causing damage.
If we have no map for feeling, how do we expect to open to feeling the emotions?
If the current reality is such that any activated felt sensation in the body, any uncomfortable emotion or any dysregulation equals danger, then it will be difficult to shift out of your current struggles. We effort to block, shut down, or dissociate for relief and comfort.
You know the term comfortably numb; this is familiar for many.
From this perspective feeling is perceived as harmful and outside of one’s control. This is the key statement – perceived as outside of your control. Many think that emotions are happening to them, without their control or permission. Therefore, if they have no control over their feelings and emotions, how are they supposed to change anything or do anything about it.
This perception lends to learned helplessness; victims to our emotional reality. As if emotions are wild fires in our system, ignited out of no where and running wild.
The only control we perceive is to stop it before it happens or block it. Otherwise, we are perceiving our experience as totally outside of our control – a run away freight train.
This perception keeps us stuck in a fear response:
Perceived fear = constriction and tension = pain = panic
Thus, the habitual answer is to feel less, not more.
Is it any wonder why we do everything in our power to numb out?
The problem is that eventually remaining comfortably numb wreaks havoc on our mood and relationships. We feel lifeless, depressed, uneasy, discouraged, distant, distracted, disoriented, empty. Some of us feel the opposite too jacked up, hypervigilant, overly controlling, anxious, always on the go, critical, and striving for perfection. Beneath both of these examples exists a deep dissatisfaction in life and a chronic insecurity that if felt, is terrifying and destabilizing.
Again I pose the question: Why would anyone want to feel this core insecurity?
Did you know that both ecstasy and fear generate the same hormonal chemicals? The difference is the perception. Both produce adrenaline followed by endorphins. One is for pleasure and one is to mitigate feeling pain.
The new possibility and antedote is to feel more.
But what if feeling more leads to dysregulation and harm?
What is dysregulation? And why are we (therapists) so focused on it?
Simply stated, dysregulation is the body’s way of indicating that it has popped out of its ‘window of tolerance’. In other words, it is your body’s way of communicating with you that it is not handling the stressful information very well; it is alerting you as a warning signal. How much stressful information we can handle before we move into a dysregulated state, is unique to each individual.
We all experience dysregulation of our energy and emotional system. The key is to recognize the signs and symptoms of such and note that it is information first and foremost.
The brain is a meaning making machine and seeks to make sense out moment-moment experiences, which is both a blessing and hindrance. Often, without conscious awareness, humans impose meaning (make up a narrative) onto the felt sensations of dysregulation. For example: These feelings mean I am unsafe; This sensation means I am about to have a panic attack; These body feelings mean danger.
When we do this without conscious awareness, we move away from the felt sensation and emotional expression and attune our attention on the narrative or thought. Thus, we get carried away with the perception of what is happening in our bodies and what it means, and find ourselves now in a state of more discomfort (see chart below that explains what happens when we are triggered by either external information or internal perceptions).
Thus, we need to learn or re-learn how to feel.
We need to learn what to do with the emotional information that we experience in the body.
We need to trust that our body can handle highly charged emotional information and can process it, without exploding or going crazy.
I invite you to consider a new belief: You are bigger, more powerful, greater than your emotions, your body, and your past.