As a sensitive person, I am often caught up in the rip-tide of my feelings. They sweep me up. They leave me gasping for air. They throw me on the shore, battered and bruised.
Because they can be overwhelming, I have been wanting to get to the heart of my emotional life. Why do I relate to my feelings the way I do? How can I express them in a healthy way? How can I emotionally self-regulate?
Maybe, you, like me, are in this place as well. After all, it’s natural that in a world like ours, where we are never taught about emotions, we often end up with only about half the tools we need.
As I have worked to better relate to my emotions, I have learnt some things that might help you as well. They might give you some missing pieces for your own puzzle.
Here are some clues to help decipher what your emotions are trying, so desperately, to convey to you.
The Clues In Emotions
Every emotion has a function, even the so-called negative ones.
Many of us have been exposed to a harmful unleashing of powerful emotions. Think back to how anger was modeled for you. It’s very likely that it only showed up in its destructive form.
Because we bore witness to this destruction, we might have started avoiding anger altogether. But all emotions, even the so-called negative ones, come bearing important messages.
Karla McLaren talks about this eloquently in her wonderful book The Language of Emotions. She tells us how deep-seated beliefs about “negative emotions” make us lose touch with the very power that could liberate us.
Since many of us avoid anger at all costs, we forget about the critical role that anger can play. Without it, we wouldn’t know when our boundaries had been invaded. Without it, our personal space would be compromised.
Standing sentry to our treasures is the true function for anger, and if we can understand this, we can re-form our relationship with anger. McLaren tells us that when we feel anger rising, we need to ask ourselves “What must be protected? What must be restored?”
Emotions Provide Important Questions
If we don’t ask these questions or allow ourselves to feel our anger, we leave ourselves vulnerable and undefended. For many years, I was so invested in being nice that I dropped my anger as soon as it came up. I couldn’t quite see the direct relationship between my escalating fear and my pushed-down anger.
How could I not feel shaky and insecure when I had effectively banished the protective energies of anger? I was opening myself to more and more harm, and the fear rose up to show me that I was, indeed, in unprotected territory.
If you have lose touch with anger, you might not know where you end and someone else begins. You might let things and people that are harmful into your space and your life.
Without it, you can’t defend your choices and ward off interferences.
Think about how healthy anger protects you. If you are like me, what would dropping a belief like “A good person never gets angry” do for you? Would it mean that you might sense, in the enveloping darkness, all those places where you have given up too much of yourself?
Wouldn’t that lead to change and to setting better boundaries to protect your most precious self?
Just like anger plays a very important role, fear, another so-called negative emotion, serves a crucial role. In its healthy state, fear is our intuition. It cautions us to check our environment for potential threats. It helps protect us from danger. It keeps us safe from harm.
Handling Stuck Emotions
Sometimes, though, we might get stuck in a loop where we are either always fearful or always angry. This can happen if we have experienced trauma that has locked some feeling response in place.
If you have suffered through some form of abuse, for example, you might be perpetually fearful and hyper-vigilant. Then, fear can become the default feeling and make you lose touch with the broader context of your emotional life.
If this is the case, then we need professional help to release traumatic material and unfreeze our feelings. We can’t do this on our own.
But in the course of our normal lives, feelings like anger, fear and sadness are all normal and valid. We can learn how to express them in a healthy way. They are as necessary to our well-being as feelings of joy and happiness.
If we cut them off, thinking we “shouldn’t” feel them, we are cutting ourselves off from many of our emotional truths. We are throwing ourselves off balance. We are taking up less and less space in our own authentic lives.
Embrace The Nuances In Emotions
Expanding our emotional vocabulary can help us know what emotional action to take.
Like many of us, I didn’t grow up knowing that emotions can show up in different forms and guises. Because the feeling remained unnamed, it remained out of reach, bubbling and frothing underneath. I couldn’t quite find my way through it.
Did you know that indifference can be a form of anger? So can coldness, apathy and impatience. Did you know that fear can show up in forms as different as curiosity and worry?
Karla McLaren takes us right into the heart of these differences. She tells us that all emotions can show up in diffuse or intense forms. For example, in its diffuse form, fear can be experienced as caution, instinct and disorientation. In its mood state, it is visible as nervousness, shakiness, suspicion and worry.
Intense fear takes the form of phobias or a feeling of utter paralysis. Intense anger shows up as ranting and hatred.
If we can see that these different nuanced feelings are expressions of the same core emotions, then we can get to the next level of learning to manage them. If we are feeling resentful, for example, we know that this is a less intense form of anger. We can start setting boundaries today, so that our feelings don’t snowball into a more intense form of anger.
In this way, we can check our emotional pulses. We can honor the truth of the feeling and learn to channel it in a healthy way.
A New Way To Release Emotions
There is a third way to release pent-up emotions.
Many of us have seen only two ways of responding to feelings. Either you vent them, or you repress them. Many times, when feelings that feel dangerous start coming up, we push them down so they don’t create havoc in our relationships. And yet, we know that we can’t quite wish our feelings away. They lie underneath, and if they are not spilling out, they are festering inside and poisoning our own well.
This can often feel like a Catch 22. It’s no wonder that many of us try to avoid making this impossible choice at all. We fall back on automatic behavior. Maybe, in our families, we saw feelings being repressed, and so we unconsciously follow that model. Maybe, we saw them being expressed dramatically, and think that’s the only option available to us.
But there can be a third way, an alternative way that can help us safely discharge our feelings without venting or pushing them underneath. If we are feeling angry, one way to safely release that pent-up energy is to hit pillows for five or ten minutes.
Another practice for anger is suggested by Karla McLaren and is called conscious complaining. We all have so many things we are angry about, that we feel are unfair. We can give voice to these feelings by just sitting alone and complaining aloud. We can go through all our hurts, frustrations and complaints.
What we are trying to do is feel and experience our anger and move it out of our system. We are letting the steam off.
When we have done this, we can move to a clear-headed space and find solutions to address our complaints.
If it is fear that we want to release, we can mimic its shaky energy, put on some music and shake our bodies and shake the fear right out of us. Consciously feeling and releasing our feelings helps take their load off.
Again, if we have traumatic memories from the past — a history of abuse or a life-changing illness, for example — we need professional help to go deeper into our psyches and process and integrate our feelings. We don’t want to overwhelm ourselves, or go too deep, too fast.
But for feelings that come up as part of our normal lives, we can use these different tools to consciously express our feelings. This doesn’t come easy, of course. It takes effort. But this process can be very rewarding and help us listen to our feelings without getting swept up by them or feeling the need to shove them into some corner of our psyches.
I am learning how to do this. I know that when I haven’t listened to my feelings, I have willfully ignored important messages. Now, I know that my feelings have valuable things to tell me. They keep me safe. They tell me what my limits are.
They open the door to a conversation with my true self.
Sometimes, I step inside. Sometimes, I don’t. When I do though, I come back with greater awareness and feeling more in touch with me.
Maybe, like me, you will find this process rewarding too.
Your feelings can become your allies. They can guide you as you steer your life in new directions. They can point the way to new horizons.
Here’s to a wonderful new adventure!