In my late twenties, I began seeing a counselor. After several sessions of trust-building, one day I complained about something in my life. My counselor asked: “How do you feel about that?” His question opened up a world of learning for someone who had been taught that negative feelings were sinful, shameful and should never be expressed.
Today I believe that feelings – all of them – are a part of God’s design, a part of what it means to be created in God’s image. When we cut them out or cut them off, we lose something important about what it means to be human, and the fully human life is then not as available to us.
Forty years after learning some of those lessons, I was talking to a coaching client. He talked about three relationships in his life -an employee, his wife, and his son. My client was unhappy with how each of these relationships was going, and as he explored his internal experience, I asked the question I was asked forty years ago. In that moment, he was able to name the common denominator.
“In each relationship, I am angry – at myself and at the other person.”
“What do you do with that anger?” I asked.
He replied, “I don’t know. I’m just now recognizing that the anger is there. I grew up in a family where anger was not allowed. So, I generally shut my feelings down.”
We sat in a pregnant silence. Then he said, “When my relationships get tense – when I feel the slightest sense of anger – I run. I shut the conversation down – sometimes by becoming silent; sometimes by changing the subject; sometimes by leaving the room.”
We sat for a few moments as that reality sank in for him. Then, I asked, “And what is the impact of that behavior on you and on your relationships?“
Another long silence. I could tell he was doing the work. Finally, he said, “Distance. A lack of understanding. The absence of intimacy, of connection.”
This client gave clear voice to the ongoing experience in key relationships of not feeling fully alive. Learning to experience and appropriately express your feelings is essential learning for those who want to be fully human, fully alive.
So, if you have a set of habits that shut you off from your feelings – especially the negative ones – how can you reverse that process and develop a different set of habits? Changing these habits is, in many ways, like changing any deeply held habit. Have you ever tried to lose weight, stop procrastinating, or add a spiritual practice into your daily routine? If so, you know how challenging that can be. Making the changes takes time, requires commitment and needs support, accountability and self-compassion.
Let me be clear. I don’t believe you can change these habits by getting information. This is an organic process that requires engagement with other people. Information can guide your practice, but practice is essential. A coach can be a good, safe starting place to practice before you begin practicing in your most important relationships.
First, you must choose to change.
All of us can make significant change to deeply engrained habits, but the beginning place is to go to that place deep inside where we choose to pay the price that will be required. Counting the cost is where I begin.
Next, start the practice of naming your feelings.
Years ago, when I was asked what I felt, my first answer was usually, “I don’t know.” The only categories I had at the time was “This feels good” or “This feels bad.” When I learned that the primary colors of feelings are mad, sad, glad, scared, guilt and shame, that gave me some handles with which I could work. At this stage in the journey, it was like walking through a maze. Carefully, I would explore. “Well, I know I’m not glad so we can rule that out. I don’t think I’m sad. Maybe I’m angry.”
“That’s a good start. Let’s explore that. Can you be curious and say what you might be angry about?”
Then I would poke around on my internal experience and talk out loud or journal about what might actually be going on. It was in the exploratory phase that I learned how powerful shame is and how deeply the message was in me that negative feelings are shameful. But with the help of a calm and safe guide, I stayed in the practice and over numerous conversations grew my capacity to name my feelings.
It’s important to note that at this stage of the process, I was thinking about my feelings. While that is an important step, the goal is to feel your feelings. For most of us who have shut feelings down, engaging painful feelings can be really scary. So, once again you have to choose. Will I go here? Is the promise of connection important enough to me to risk the pain of feeling my feelings? With encouragement and support from a trusted guide, will I do this work?
Pay attention to your body.
As you get better at naming your feelings, you can add the practice of noticing your body. Feelings are essentially bodily energy working to be released. They show up as burning chest, a knot in your stomach, tightened shoulders, sweating palms or pits, flushed cheeks, racing thoughts – these are a few of the bodily indicators of the energy that we call feelings.
Most of us have strategies for ignoring this energy. We distract ourselves; we medicate ourselves with alcohol or non-prescribed meds; we soothe ourselves by eating or shopping. These are a few strategies for ignoring or pushing the energy away. Noticing these strategies give you access to disrupting them, and it will take time and practice to disrupt them.
Say what you are feeling to another human being.
You’ve chosen to change. You’ve practiced naming your feelings. You’ve developed the capacity to notice what is happening in your body. Now, take the risk of turning off the censors and saying what you are experiencing. Here there is no magic bullet…no internal switch that you flip. For some simply having a safe place is enough. For others it’s a slow process like dipping your toe in the water and slowing easing into the pool over time. Some get stuck in thinking about their thoughts and then a movie or a song or an unsolicited memory arises and the feelings come pouring out. It’s a learning process that can be painful and liberating, and it generally takes time.
Be compassionate with yourself.
You are fearfully and wonderfully made, and this is a learning process that involves risk and vulnerability and curiosity. You are not a machine that can be given a computer code that magically works this out for you. It is a very human journey that increases your capacity for intimacy and connection with yourself, with others, and with God, and I believe it is a journey worth taking.
In part two of this article, we’ll explore the question, “How do you want to show up in relationships as you managing your negative feelings?” We’ll also look at what your negative feelings might be attempting to communicate to you that can help you be connect more deeply to yourself, to others and to God.