Strong Feelings: Really Feeling Them Makes You Stronger
March 01, 2023 - 4 Comments
March 1, 2023
Vancouver BC Canada
Really Feeling Them
Makes You Stronger
Field Note Audio:
This Field Note is about educating and expanding intimacy in relationship and, by extension, your very sense of being: being alive, being real, being authentic, and being present. I will underline the importance of developing our capacity for feeling strong feelings, expressing them in a coherent and clear way, to be able to hear the strong feelings of others and understand them, and to enjoy the liberation into empowerment and wellbeing that such ability provides.
It seems to be very human to avoid, and to want to avoid, what is felt as painful. Such avoidance is, we could say, built into us, and therefore, instinctual. Hence, I acknowledge that wanting to avoid strong feelings associated with past traumatic events and suffering is instinct-based and perhaps even natural. However, ‘instinctual’ does not mean that we cannot work with what is instinctual to create different, more generative, and creative, responses to life situations. We can study, work with, and learn from what is painful, rather than the automaticity of all manner and forms of avoidance. As a result, we can expand our horizons of perception, action, and being. The ability to engage with and integrate strong feelings facilitates clarity of seeing reality in the moment, as well as having a strong sense of the overall context of our intimate relationships and their ongoing creation.
From my many decades of personal and professional experience, I can say with some confidence that most all relationships are based on seeing what is in one’s own mind rather than what is actually happening in the other and the world, and not knowing that one’s consciousness is operating in this way. This results in having limited ability to change and grow from one’s experience. Patterns of one’s experience are to a large extent based on childhood conditions and conditioning that includes those of our family of origin along with societal norms and values. Until we pay attention to how these patterns of conditioning that repetitively play out in our relational interactions and facilitate the change process of patterns that are relationally counter to our most authentic nature, we will simply further repeat the pattern. I might also say that our ways of avoiding reality are an outcome of our existence in an existential world that is unfathomable for us, and that has, we hope, a core meaning and that we cannot quite uncover or discover.
Consequences of Avoiding
As many of you are aware, we have been born into a world that is aimed predominantly at comfort and is often against strong feelings and challenges in the inner world, particularly to what is readily referred to as ‘negative’ feelings. Strangely enough, we have the same case for ‘positive’ feelings! In fact, it turns out our ability to feel any feeling, positive or negative, in its fullest dimensions is compromised by our ‘strategies’ to effectively shut down or mute the feelings, both emotional and physical.
Now, I love comfort and being comfortable. But is there a problem with being comfortable and wanting to be comfortable? Yes, when we are compulsively, inexorably, and reactively drawn into whatever will provide this comfort, and by the same token, avoiding what is not comfortable. What this pattern does over time is limit our capacity to experience life, our life, fully within the purview of being human. This has negative implications for living a full and robust life, overall and in the moment.
As well, having limited capacity to experience implies underdevelopment of emotional life. For instance, we do not have a clear sense of distinction between feeling emotions and acting out these emotions to get rid of them. Consider acts of violence: they result from our inability to feel anger fully and contain such feelings: anger gone amuck. Acts of violence are indicative of a profound inability to feel the strong feelings. Strong feelings are so unbearable that we are compelled to discharge them through acting out that is potentially harmful to others, and to ourselves.
The ability to know the difference between emotion and physical sensation is mostly lacking. I would maintain that our culture is built on a bedrock that strongly reinforces that these distinctions remain deep in the shadows of our consciousness. I would further suggest that there is a rare beauty in feeling the depth and breadth of any strong feeling.
The earliest signal of any feeling is contained in our bodily sensations, as no emotion can exist separate from a body sensation. Perhaps you already know this. If this is a new idea to you, just recall a recent emotion you have experienced and notice the associated physical sensations just at the mere recall of the experience.
There are many things to learn about your body sensations, emotions, the connection between these, and the life force energy that is the potential rocket fuel for your optimal felt sense of aliveness. In the present Field Note, I will go into some detail about the important components of these experiences, how they fit together, how you can become more conscious of them, how to liberate yourself from being controlled by them, and how you can be properly in charge. Let us continue this learning journey. And, by the way, this is for sure a lengthy even lifelong journey of learning, comprehending, and understanding.
This is the part of you that is aware of what is happening in each moment, even down to the microsecond. However, this capacity and ability to be so finely aware is not a given but has to be cultivated. How do we cultivate this? I will repeat here a simple exercise that I have described previously. I learned this exercise in my training experience in Gestalt therapy. (For your information, Gestalt therapy that was developed by Fritz Perls) The method is known as the awareness continuum.
The continuum exercise is very simple to describe and seemingly very simple to do. Simply try the following: say to yourself, “Now I am aware…” Fill in the dots with your current awareness, which may take the form of a thought, a body sensation, an emotion, memory of a recent or past event, an image, memory of sense data such as smell, taste, etc., and so on. (Many of you may note that what I am describing here has a strong connection to the process offered in mindfulness meditation.)
After each awareness say again, “Now I am aware…” Continue to say this and to fill in your awareness in the moment. Do this for a little while. You are very likely to feel a little different and to be experiencing the world a little differently, too. Perhaps you can feel more fully alive in the moment. Most importantly, this is practice for learning to pay attention to that which leads up to your emotions and body sensations that you have perhaps learned to chronically avoid. The deeper work is to notice that which takes you out of the moment and follow the bread crumbs to your earliest and your most formative experiences and understand how they have shaped you into the form you have that is not your most authentic self.
In my personal experience, what I have discovered is that attempting to use this continuum practice as an aspirin like activity to ‘fix’ a current pain is, in the end, counterproductive. While it may work temporarily, it does not and will not resolve the deeper hunger that emanates from the wounds-within (call it a ‘soul wound’) that, if not identified and resolved, will continue to eat at the core of our being and our ability to live as fully as possible. Unaddressed, it will certainly guarantee the repetition of the uncomfortable and eventually undesirable way of being.
While undertaking the above-described continuum exercise, you may have noticed how your attention to what arises wanders off and you find yourself “daydreaming”: or, as I prefer to put it, having wandering attention in relation to what arises. I suggest that your aim in this exercise is not to put the brakes on such wandering: rather, it is to learn about the process itself, wandering or otherwise. This concerns particularly feelings that exist in our personal Shadow and on what we might name as the margins (and beyond) of consciousness. As I described just above, those feelings that we generally label as ‘negative’ are the ones to mine for gold, as this exploration will yield many unknowns about our own being and ways of being.
Notice your first reaction to unpleasant and painful feelings, which is likely to be something like: “How do I get out of this? How can I feel better? I don’t like this feeling at all!” Allow me to repeat: our aim in this exercise is to learn to stay with the feeling and to study it. Out of this study will emerge how this feeling exists in your body and in your consciousness. You may discover thoughts, body sensations, emotions, actions/reactions, the emergence of memory from the past, eventually, patterns of experience, the roots of these patterns, and eventually the dreaming/dreamed up possibilities that are nascent in the depths of these roots. As well, you may begin to see how your reaction is very consistent with the cultural conditioning to which we have all been subject: avoiding discomfort and pain.
Let us reflect. If we tend to avoid all strong emotions, then what is left? Neutral, lukewarm, bland feelings: even so, not a lot of them? Do you want to live most of your life in a bath that is body temperature, and while waiting for the shock of an event that changes the bathwater temperature rapidly and at a level that cannot be ignored?
Knowing the Difference Between Feelings and Actions
Learning to be with strong feelings and to even invite them out into consciousness in yourself or in another as part of a self and/or other relational moment is a very challenging task. However, when this learning is persistently and effectively undertaken, it will empower you through contributing to self-knowledge and knowledge of others in the relational field. The learning process that needs to take place in your quest for self-empowerment and wellbeing is this deep knowing and getting a handle on your own reactivity. Again, this learning can be a very difficult task, given that the situations presented to you may involve knowing the difference between feelings and actions when all we see is that threatening events are taking place. Allow me to illustrate what I am saying with a personal example.
I used to work in a residential treatment centre for severely disturbed adolescents. One day a young boy at the centre became very upset and had identified me as the cause. He began cursing, shouting at me, and uttering threats of what he was going to do to me. I could feel my heartbeat increasing along with my alertness. I had the presence of mind to stand still. I did not move towards him, and I did not move away from him.
However, I did turn slightly sideways for two reasons. First, just in case he initiated a physical attack, I didn’t want to give him a good target, although knowing him I was pretty sure that he was not going to do anything physical even though he was threatening such. Secondly, I understood that facing sideways sent a message that I was neither going to attack him nor run away from him. This last was to convey a message that I was there with him, and that I was not going to abandon him.
This was an important message, given his troubled family background that was the opposite of what would produce security in a child: he experienced repeated incidences of neglect and abuse; the ‘perfect’ formula for creating a fear-ridden child who will eventually grow into a fearful adult; one who continually withdraws, one who is repeatedly aggressive, or combinations of both ways of ‘coping.’.
I paid very close attention to the boy in a way that even in his agitated state he could probably notice. I also began nodding my head as if I was agreeing with him, but the real unstated message was “I am here with you.” At some point, he began to slow down a little, and at that point, I said to him, “Go ahead. I want to hear everything that you have to say, and I want you to say every feeling, no matter what it is, and every thought, no matter how bad you may think it is.” I was exercising my ability to be in the presence of strong feelings even if the other person was doing their best to get out of feeling them, which he was.
The boy began to soften ever so slightly in his body, and eventually he slumped over and started to cry. At that point, I said to him, “May I come a little closer to you?” He said nothing but gave an ever so slight nod that I noticed, and as I moved closer his body became increasingly softer. We are now within about a metre of each other. He began to sob, and he moved quietly towards me. I reached out and took him in my arms, and he collapsed holding on to me.
I had drawn upon the relationship that was pre-existing and that I knew was important to him. If you think about it, most every conflict with people we know, including our closest intimates, while hopefully not quite as extreme as in this story, has the same quality. Imagine being in a position of sufficient calmness yourself and awareness to invite the other to feel free to say whatever it is that they have to say and however they want to say it.
Our task is to realize—again, this is no easy task—that almost everything that is said may contain grains of truth and that it being said at this level shows that it is a lot more to do with the other’s personal history than with our own or any circumstance that led to the blow-up.
How the situation was handled in the story is something that we may aspire to realize. I am certainly not always this calm and clear in situations that are challenging. The learning and realization process may take some time, but determination, patience, and persistency of practice will make that possible. Below, I present a scenario that illustrates what we might call a more common form of reactivity.
I will use the same storyline, albeit briefly, as above, but with a different approach and outcome:
I feel a strong jolt of fear in my chest and my body seems to seize up. I say things to him that have no effect, “Calm down. Stop that. You’re going to be in great trouble.” I start to back up. He starts to move towards me at an accelerated pace with fists clenched. As I back up, I trip and fall. He is now standing over me with eyes glazed. I am now in a state of some terror. I am very fearful about the beating that I anticipate from him, pain, and perhaps injury or worse.
This brief description that I have constructed above is fortunately beyond what most of us are faced with when we are the recipient of strong feelings or expressions of anger. That said, the important point that I am keen to make is that what we feel within and see in others as ‘anger’ is more about our great inability to feel it fully and stay with it, without reacting to it.
Because we feel so uncomfortable and even unable to bear the feelings, we attempt to discharge what we feel, and when we do that, we tend to accompany our experience with a justificatory story in inner thoughts that are barely articulate but involve something like: “I will teach this bastard a lesson that he won’t forget!” Or perhaps, “I am going to be seriously damaged. I am trying to survive however I can.” For most of us, we do have experiences like this when in conflict with others. And we can be on either end of the exchange. What is clear is that in fact neither party is really feeling their feelings; rather they are trying to get rid of the feelings. Personally speaking, the proverbial fire to sit in and go through in this process for me is the ongoing process of learning to be with my own strong feelings, as well as the secondary strong feelings of resisting the original strong feelings.
I want to be very clear that I am making an important distinction between authentic felt and clear enough expression and attempts to discharge a very uncomfortable feeling that is associated with an abundance of rationalizing thoughts that seem eminently reasonable. This is a failed attempt to connect in a meaningful way and represents the current endpoint of a history of non-connection, unsafety, fear, and loneliness. I suggest that you look for these very experiences in your life and life history, and work with them. This is the way of taking charge, increasingly, of your life.
While I have mostly focused on what we commonly call negative feelings, truthfully many of us are also uncomfortable with the expression of so-called positive feelings. We are uncomfortable saying these things to people in a meaningful way and really feeling the associated feelings. As well, we are uncomfortable being the recipient of such feelings.
I suggest you give some thought to the language and the associated feelings that were predominant in your home when you were a child. If you are uncertain about your memories about this, just observe your closest family members now. They may very well be not much different from who they were many years ago. Or for that matter, just observe yourself and the words you use and the feelings that accompany them. This may very well provide significant insight as to what you don’t say and the feelings that are missing in whatever words you do say.
I hope that this Field Note about strong feelings, and the two practices that I have described will open you up to the full aliveness that familiarity with and intimate knowing of strong feelings within your inner world can bring.
Many thanks to the indomitable Heesoon for her great support with this Field Note.