How to Feel Your Feelings
In case you haven’t yet read Part One of this two-part Blog series about feeling better by getting better at feeling our emotions (read here), let’s recap: We are feeling beings for a reason. Emotions are hardwired into our body-brain to provide us with information about our Self, our relationship with others and our experience in the world. They cue us to meaning – what really matters to us, and what we best attend to, to meet our needs and longings for contentment, peace and know our purpose. They can be a useful guide in knowing when we’re aligned with our True Self and when we’re not in alignment with our purpose path.
However, because our cultural and social conditioning is infused with Emotion-Phobia, and our attitudinal inheritance is the notion that we should be able to ‘control’ all our emotions, most people do not understand what their emotions are, let alone how to be with their emotions, decipher them and process them in healthy ways. For instance, did you know that there are 3 different types of emotions? Most people don’t. In fact, even many therapists don’t have this foundational understanding. Without a healthy and skillful understanding of how to be with one’s emotions, the common and automatic response tends to be dismissing them, ignoring them and suppressing them. Over time, this creates an accumulative effect and can literally make us physical ill and/or mentally unwell.
My passion is to help people learn about their emotions so that they can tune in and listen to them with greater understanding. Learning the language of our emotions means building the skills to decipher the messages inherent in emotion about where we are in our life and in our relationships, and how we’re doing on the path of our soul’s purpose. Without needing to run from or ignore our emotions, we can lean into the ones that are connected with an unmet need for action, tending to the need to make use of the information to find greater happiness and peace. Being emotionally literate also means being able to let go of less adaptive and ‘secondary’ (more defensive) emotions that are best managed by seeing them with mindful awareness and letting them arise and fall away rather than acting unconsciously from them.
Our emotions tell us what we need, and when we can understand their language, we are better able to connect with our True Self and live our life from this core of clarity and purpose.
In my mission to help people become emotionally literate, I developed a meditation practice that guides people to attend to their emotions and be with them with a sense of balance, curiosity, acceptance and insight. The steps are outlined in the acronym RESTING. This practice is useful for emotions within a small or mid-range of intensity. For guidance on skills to practice when more intense, deep or overwhelming emotions arise (e.g., such as those from trauma) see further below in the blog.
The acronym RESTING is an easy-to-remember tool for practicing Mindfulness and Compassion of our emotional energies:
R: REST in this moment - Pause
E: EXPLORE what is present in thoughts, feelings, sensations
S: SPECIFY what emotion(s) are present
T: TUNE into where they're experienced in the body
I: INDULGE the emotion(s) as valid - without judging it, let it be
N: Ask the emotion what it NEEDS
G: GIVE a gesture of compassion and acceptance*
REST: Stop and rest in the moment. We need to find some space to inquire into our inner world, to not miss out on the information that is arising in response to our reality.
EXPLORE: Turn inward and with a curious and open attitude, observe and explore into sensations and experiences ‘on the inside’ (thoughts, feelings, sensations in the body), seeing what's there.
SPECIFY: Name what emotion(s) are present in the moment; it could be one clear emotion, such as fear or anger, or a symphony of feelings, memories and sensations. The idea here is supported by research which shows that 'To Name It is to Tame It’.
TUNE IN: Focus into the felt sensations in the body (e.g., throat tense or lumpy, chest tight…etc.). Breathe into these areas in the body where the emotion lives. Notice with curiosity and interest again, without judgment how the sensations live in the body - do they move and flow?
INDULGE: Give the benefit of the doubt to the emotion without judgment and consider it as valid – allow it the space to be and notice its transformation through acceptance of its reality. Validate and allow. See if you can follow the emotion to a core, deeper emotion. Is there something more vulnerable underneath the initial anger, fear, or sadness?
NEED: Focusing on the strongest/most felt emotion (if there’s more than one) and where you feel it in the body (e.g., chest, belly, throat, etc.), ask: "What do you need?" Then listen. If nothing arises – that’s perfectly OK. It’s very common when we first start turning inward and exploring our inner emotions that we cannot yet decipher what is there. We may feel ‘numb’ or ‘neutral’ from years of shutting down emotions. Keep practicing the above steps and checking in with your inner world. Regularly asking yourself, "What am I feeling...What do I need?" Eventually, an answer will come. It might come in words, sensations, colors, an urge for an action (e.g., hug), images or memories. Or it might be an intuitive ‘knowing’. There is no right, wrong, or one way to hear our inner whispers of emotion.
GIVE: Offer the words or imagined comfort that arose out of the answer from the emotion itself – e.g., if it’s words, say the words (e.g., "It's OK, I'm here...I hear you"). Offer affectionate touch to the Self (place your hand on heart space, face or cheek). If you notice an urge to offer a hug or hold a vulnerable part of self/child, offer this to that vulnerable part of Self/Emotion in your mind’s eye.
[If you’d like to receive a guided audio of the RESTING Meditation, sign up to my website here.]
Feeling our feelings is not always easy and sometimes, if we’ve experienced trauma or have been suppressing our emotions our entire lives, it can feel incredibly difficult, if not “Too much”. This is normal and understandable. When approaching awareness of and processing our emotions, it’s helpful to know about a concept coined by psychologist Daniel Siegel, an expert in mind-body brain functioning: The Window of Tolerance (WOT).
Connected to our mind-body circuitry and its intricate and complex nervous systems, the WOT refers to our capacity to experience a degree of arousal that is helpful and ‘productive’. In the WOT, we can ‘tolerate’ and be with our emotions in such a way that we can regulate our emotions and our experiencing – not becoming too overwhelmed or too shut down. Without deep diving into a neuroanatomical explanation (both for you and for me), in a nutshell, our mind-body is organized to process information and experience. Our ‘systems’ activate automatically (i.e. fight-flee or freeze) and allow us to adapt to our environment in such a way that our species has been able to survive and evolve. This ‘threat-sensitive’ system is automatic and innate – we do not consciously choose to fight, flee or freeze. This capability of our body-brain readies us for action to ensure safety. When in a traumatic situation, for example, our brains shut down what is not able to be processed in the moment, sometimes repressing emotions and memories only to have them intrude at a later time (as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder).
As such, it is important to trust the inherent intelligence of our mind-body and to respect it. To not push ourselves into a state that could be re-traumatizing. Experiencing and processing certain emotions can be uncomfortable and undoubtedly not ‘easy breezy’. While discomfort feeling deep sorrow, loneliness, or fear is natural and normal, we do not want to be overwhelmed or pushed into a state of distress. We all have a range, a window, in which we are able to productively access and process emotions.
Siegel (2010) suggests thinking about the WOT as a body of water running between two riverbanks, where on the upper end emotions are experienced as chaos (it feels turbulent and out of control). The lower end of the bank is a state of rigidity wherein emotions are over-regulated, leaving you to feel stagnant and stuck. The ideal state is one of integration wherein a balance between the two states of chaos and rigidity is maintained – where a sense of harmony and equanimity is the predominant experience. When we’re flowing with our feelings within our WOT “we’re more equipped to tolerate the full range of our experience” (Treleaven), to move with the ebb and flow of life in a state of openness, alertness and relaxation, ease and resilience to engage with our emotions.
RIVER OF INTEGRATION
Signs you are Dysregulated and out of your WOT:
Your muscles feel either slack or tighten/rigid
You are hyperventilating
You experience an ‘exaggerated startle response’ (super on edge; vigilant and hyper aware of every sound/movement around you)
Sweating or temperature change in the body (hot, cold)
Dissociating (feeling out of your body in your awareness)
Emotions feel too intense to handle (e.g., rage, terror, excessive crying – feeling as though the emotion is having you, rather than you having the emotion)
In these cases, the most important step or approach to tend to yourself is to do what helps you establish a greater sense of stability and safety. Grounding yourself to the present moment is key.
The breath can be a valuable anchor for your attention. Intentional slow and deep in-breaths and slow and extended out-breaths can help your nervous system return to a state of calm (homeostasis) and relaxation. Using the five senses to bring your awareness back to the present can also help. You might label/note what you see around you, touch an object with intention to really notice the sensation of contact/touch, listen to sounds (music might help here), focus on the smell of something that feels pleasant (fresh air/candle/aromatherapy).
Inner talk such as a short mantra that reminds your Scared Child Self you are safe, and OK, that you are “Here” for yourself can also create a sense of soothing and comfort. Alternatively, imagining an important and caring person in your life (alive or dead) can also help – imagine your best friend there beside you, holding your hand, or your loving grandmother embracing you with comfort and care. It might be a pet from your childhood that helped you feel safe – imagine them on your lap. This is where the power of the mind can be used to serve repair and self-soothing. It is a powerful strategy to feel more resourced and to help you return to a state of calm and safety when you feel outside your WOT and in a state of chaos and hyperarousal.
At times, doing things like going for a walk, spending time with a trusted friend, watching a movie or having a cup of tea…reading or taking a shower might be better for you than moving more deeply into the emotion. Feeling resourced is essential if processing our emotions is to be productive and helpful – thus, moving into the emotion when it feels manageable (not necessarily comfortable), and moving out when it feels too big or too much is wise. This process (referred to as Titrating), is helpful to remember, as each time you move into the sea of emotion and out again, you strengthen your WOT and build your capacity to be with these inner energies, eventually being able to feel them through to resolve and healing. This builds strength and capacity to be fully with all that life brings for you – a fearless heart, open and ready for anything.
Of course, in circumstances of past trauma, typically working with a therapist, Emotion Coach, spiritual healer or someone skilled to serve you as a guide is necessary.
Healing our emotional pain is a process that requires respect, patience and practice. It’s not a one shot, as you’ve likely pushed down many emotions over the years. To believe that you can ‘get it over with’ to be ‘fully healed’ in a short sprint is unrealistic and lacking compassion for yourself (but common in our ‘quick-fix’ culture!). Longing for wellness and healing is completely understandable and human. Practicing patience with yourself and your process is imperative, wise and compassionate.
Learning to become emotional literate is a pathway to a life with greater ease, well-being and resilience to brace the challenges that life inevitably brings. It is also the path that aligns you with your True Self - Who You Really Are and What You're Here to Do.
It’s not easy to brave the storms of emotions long buried – but with patience, Mindfulness and Self-Compassion it is possible.
Having come through this path myself, I can attest that the rewards are abundant and ever-rewarding. If it were not for the healing and processing of the emotional wounds from my childhood (which included trauma), I would not be able to help my clients, parent my children or partner my husband the way I can today. It’s an on-going effort – unlike baking a cake, we’re not completely ‘Done’. I’m continually challenged and I lean on practices regularly to cultivate balance, Presence and to stay, as best as I can, in alignment with my True Self.
Being able to feel our feelings means we can embrace all of life – all of what touches our heart. We no longer need to hide from or feel at war with our Self. In fact, learning to listen to our emotions – to read their cues and follow their wisdom, means coming home to our True Self – to who we really are. For me, there’s no journey more important than that.
May this be helpful for you on Your Path.
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