My last post, “How are you today?” focused on the importance of feeling and expressing our emotions. Today we will look at the “how to” behind this. How do we become more emotionally aware? How do we make peace with our feelings and express them in healthy ways?
Let me begin by saying that my household during childhood was not a hotbed of healthy emotional expression. Intellect reigned supreme in our family, and feelings, given their illogical nature, were not given much importance nor space to be voiced or acknowledged. As a result, I was pretty bottled up throughout my youth, growing more and more cerebral and dissociated as the years passed.
This way of moving through the world created a host of problems for me in the realm of self-esteem, health, interpersonal relationships, and spiritual connection. As time passed, out of necessity, I became more aware of my own and other people’s emotions. I began discriminating between feelings, labeling them, and using emotional information to guide my thinking and behavior. I make no claim on being an expert in the world of feelings, but will share with you some simple approaches that have helped me make peace with my emotional world.
The starting place for me is meditation. The two most important aspects of meditation for exploring emotions are the willingness to stop and the ability to soften. Stop what? Stop trying to control, stop trying to change experience, stop trying to manipulate feelings. This is not a stopping in the sense of digging the heels in and refusing to budge, but more of a willingness to flow. An analogy that helps me in this regard is the notion of floating in a stream. Rather than fighting to stay in one place, I allow myself to float along with the current of feelings. I stop resisting. This is where softening comes into play. Instead of pushing against an unpleasant emotion, I notice what it feels like to soften into that emotion and trust that I am safe amidst whatever arises. Without this softening, meditation becomes cold and mechanical and further distances me from my feelings.
During meditation, when I stop compulsively trying to improve, fix, and resolve, I find myself face to face with the reality of the present moment. Upon stopping, my experience is often initially uncomfortable, and the impulse to go back into doing may arise. But, when I fully accept what appears in my field of awareness without judging it as good or bad, something profound happens. A gateway opens to a different way of being that is beyond description. This experience is not beyond description in the magical fairyland sense, but simply beyond description because it is devoid of content… it is empty, so there are no words to describe it. When I meditate, I abide in this emptiness, without placing any demands on the quality of my experience. When I meditate, I ask, “What is it like to fully embrace this moment without having any idea of how to do it and without any attachment to what I discover?”
In addition to formal meditation, here are a few practices that I have found valuable in connecting to my emotions. The first involves music. Because music is so emotionally expressive, listening to it can encourage feelings to rise to the surface. It is as if the vibrations of the music resonate with the dormant or repressed emotions, thus activating them. This practice is very simple. Begin by choosing music that conveys the emotion with which you are having difficulty connecting. For example, if you are feeling like you need to cry because of unexpressed grief, you might put on something like Symphony 3, by Gorecki.
To start, lie comfortably on your back, place your hands on your heart and close your eyes. Allow your body to soften and be permeated by the vibrations of the music. Allow whatever feelings that emerge to express themselves. Journaling after this exercise can be helpful in that it forms a narrative to make sense of the experience. However, sometimes it is more useful to simply allow oneself to feel and then let it go.
Another helpful exercise in emotional exploration is to share one’s feelings with a trusted listener. In the past, I often kept my feelings to myself because I didn’t want to hear, “Buck up, camper” or be given advice. I just wanted to be heard. Having someone to simply listen and to witness our experience can be deeply healing. As I mentioned in the first part of this article, emotions are healed by being held, not by being explained away or fixed. In other words, simply witnessing emotions from a place of neutrality has a miraculous way of engendering peace. Nothing need be done.
To begin, ask someone whom you trust to simply listen to you without interjecting his or her advice or opinion about what you say. Before beginning, decide how long you will share. Also, how will you close? Will you hug or perhaps bow to one another? While there are all kinds of ways to actively listen and reflect back what a person is saying and while these techniques can be helpful, they are not necessary for this exercise. If the listener feels compelled to say something, s/he may at most say, “I am here with you.” Notice that I use the word “with,” rather that saying “I am here for you.” Implicit in the latter expression is the idea that there is something for the listener to do, whereas being “with” you conveys more of a quality of empathy rather than sympathy.
Some argue that all this dredging up of emotions is simply a rehearsal of negativity. However, my experience has been that, when I allow myself to fully feel some emotion that has been lingering under the surface, I become more present and less irritable. Anger and irritability are often surface feelings that serve as a defense mechanism to prevent the deeper lying more vulnerable emotions from surfacing. Once I allow myself to feel that which lies deeper, although I may sometimes feel a bit drained, I invariably feel lighter and more connected.
However, there is a caveat to heed when embarking on this journey: In order to prevent retraumatization, it is imperative to contain the experience of sensing into emotions and to create a feeling of safety. Deep seated fears, rage and grief can emerge when we delve into what we feel in our body, and if not tended to appropriately, what is referred to as a trauma vortex may be activated. We may be flooded with emotion and be debilitated by the intensity. In such instances, it is best to work with a professional who is trained to help resolve the underlying trauma that generates these intense emotions. One effective modality for trauma resolution is Somatic Experiencing.
Something else to consider as it relates to these practices is that they are not a cure for negative feelings! As long as we are alive we will experience unpleasant emotions. It’s part of being human. However, although we cannot control how we feel, we can control the actions we take in response to our feelings. Recurrent strong emotions can be debilitating and interfere with our ability to function in daily life. The healthiest response to recurring overwhelming feelings may at times be to simply move back into the flow of life’s responsibilities. Although I am a strong proponent of allowing space to feel, we must also acknowledge that life marches on, we have obligations to meet in life and can’t spend all of our time immersed in emotional exploration.
This suggestion to just “get on with it” may seem to contradict what I have written thus far, but sometimes the mundane aspects of daily life can in and of themselves be healing. Here’s how. Our daily activities move us out of our circular thinking and behavior, and often provide the missing piece of the puzzle that would never appear on the meditation cushion. A balance must be struck between allowing space to process our experiences and the willingness to dive into life despite our internal difficulties. This is not a compromise, but rather an interdependent system: introspection and feeling into our emotions gives us the poise and insight to respond in our outer life, while stepping into action provides the rich human experiences that inform our inner life.
For example, I have found that acts of service can act as the antidote to self-pity. Being overly focused upon how I feel and my internal experience can lead to self-absorption. Offering help to another not only benefits her or him, but also shifts me out of self, thereby creating a healthy energy flow and a boost in my sense of self-worth, as I recognize that I have the ability to offer something of value to someone else. Since low self-esteem feeds self-pity, moving into service breaks that cycle and creates a positive outcome for all. When we act in this capacity, we are again reminded that we are not alone in the difficult emotions we face. This realization makes us more compassionate and loving as we recognize these experiences to be a universal part of the human condition.
Speaking of shared experiences, something else that we all have in common is our mortality. To this end (see what I did there?), the ability to not take ourselves so seriously goes a long way in coping with our emotions. This ride through life is a short one, and laughter is a potent medicine to ease our difficulties and give us perspective on whatever challenges we may face.
While the above tools can serve as a valuable part of an overall program to find emotional well-being, myriad other factors impact our emotional health. Hormonal or neurological imbalances, nutritional deficiencies, inadequate or inappropriate exercise, unresolved trauma, gaps in our social support network as well as many other circumstances influence our emotional state and must be addressed appropriately. Fortunately, we live in a place where resources abound to help us find our way. I invite you to reach out to me if you would like a referral to some of these resources, or if you would like to address your concerns with the modalities we offer at L.A. Wellness.