Feelings are what make each day in our lives a rich journey rather than a to do list. Feelings are the ever changing colors of our hours, the hues that define each unique experience even if we might have been somewhere, done something or been with someone many times. Feelings give us valuable information about what need and desire.
Taking responsibility for our feelings and healing in our lifetime is a gift to our children and future generations. When we model that feelings are welcome and it is okay to feel them, our children are healthier and have the opportunity to be more adaptive, resilient and free.
I surveyed people about what has made it worthwhile for them to be with themselves in all sorts of emotions- pain, joy, grief and confusion, rather than distracting themselves or denying what was there. One woman I spoke with said she reminds herself right away of how feeling the feelings is actually more bearable than the feeling of avoiding them. While protecting ourselves from danger can build trust and safety, having to constantly avoid certain people, places, colors or smells can have us feel trapped and isolated. With enough support, choosing to feel rather than organizing our lives to avoid feelings gives us increased agency and choice, therefore increasing our self-esteem. Another friend shared that “really feeling and staying with somatic sensations lessens the fear and leads to taking my power back! I can respond by taking care of myself whether that’s self-nurturing, having a needed conversation with someone or setting a boundary.”
One man that spoke with me said that he was taught that if he does or has certain things he would be happy, but the process itself brought confusion, pain, frustration and resentment anyway. He said he found that when he learned to follow his own inner responses and inner knowing rather than a prescriptive life, he didn’t “find happiness” but instead found an authentic fulfilling life.
Another friend added that “the knowledge of eventual transcendence is motivation to stay with difficult emotions…and there is a richness in being present with what is that I find particularly life affirming.” Another therapist noticed how amazing it is that certain somatic pain, once we know ourselves enough, can be a direct signal to an emotional need. One woman said how she’s clear that “if my back hurts, I need to continue grieving my father.”
You Get Your Joy Back
One person I surveyed remembered how she was “so numb that I wasn’t feeling real joy or happiness either.” One of the most compelling reasons to embrace your feelings is you can’t choose which ones you want with the exclusion of others. If we avoid sadness we get less of our joy. When we protect against feeling our bodies contract. Therefor we will affect our capacity to experience all of our feelings, not just the ones we don’t want to feel. Numbing ourselves through tightening our chests, eyes, jaw, pelvis or through addictive behaviors creates armor between ourselves and our aliveness.
Surprisingly, being with positive emotions can be just as uncomfortable and challenging. A friend shared how “when I’m happy I feel like I’m bursting and that can be uncomfortable as well.” Another person I talked with discussed the difficulty feeling joy and connection due to wanting to protect from more loss. This is a common impact of early or repeated trauma. We might find ourselves running away from people that want to connect with us, frozen when we want to move forward, appeasing those who are not respecting us, fighting with ourselves and loved ones, or feeling “checked out” even when life is offering pleasure. This person described how they were “trying to keep myself disconnected as an ineffective attempt to make it hurt less later…like when I think about how much I love my cat and how happy I am to have her as a companion for so long, I almost always immediately think about her inevitable death.”
We can’t feel the excitement and pleasure of life until we can have enough support to feel the pain. Somatic practices can help us change over time. Feeling the support of the ground and gravity or allowing yourself to take up more space side to side to tolerate the charge and energy of joy is a useful over time. The more energy we can hold and be with in ourselves, the less we need to give it away, project it onto others and drain ourselves to find homeostasis.
What is Anger Good For?
Dossie Easton, a therapist in the queer community, shared a wonderful exercise about anger with me that really made me think. She has a writing prompt that asks “what is anger good for?” For example, anger lets us know when someone is not honoring our dignity and treating us with the basic respect we all deserve. Anger is a lot of energy that, when harnessed, can be used to make a change or fuel courage to stand up for ourselves when something such as a relationship, job or family dynamic is not acceptable.
Emotions, like storms, can be hard to stop once they start yet are totally temporary. Some studies say that a pure feeling lasts about 90 seconds. Feelings can even be beautiful if we have the shelter we need. We would never try to stop a storm because we know it’s impossible. We may, however, go indoors, put on a raincoat or get an umbrella, or cuddle up with a friend and watch with curiosity and awe.
The Importance of Support
One of the gifts of getting to know ourselves more intimately is that we get to learn how to take care of ourselves more and more fully, in ways that partners, friends and parents might not always be available or competent enough to offer. Make a list of the top 10 ways you can offer yourself comfort when you feel overwhelmed with feelings. The more we can offer ourselves support the less we’ll need to rely completely others who will inevitably disappoint us. When others do have care to offer we’ll be able to know and communicate what we need more clearly. We cannot take away all the stress and unpredictability in life, but we can learn how to swim through it and love ourselves better in the process.
It’s true that our emotions can lead to damage if we don’t take cover or ask for support. We might find ourselves isolating from other people, over or under eating, spending hours online, overspending money or focusing on someone else when it’s us that needs care. There are hundreds of ways to get away. The cost is that the feelings will find a way to become known even if it means they are stored in our bodies as illness or physical pain.
Supporting with positive emotions may come in the form of celebrating alone or with others, taking time to really acknowledge a positive change, accomplishment or transition before moving on. Sometimes we need the support of a therapist, especially if we’ve survived significant trauma in our lives. The good news is that we can truly learn to be with our feelings and let them move on.
Through somatic and expressive arts therapies, Phillippe’s clients heal once useful, yet ultimately limiting, patterns of protection from trauma and social inequality. Philipe supports people to access more choices, creativity, and skills for personal wellness and collective liberation.
Thanks to Mar Ruggeri, Sabeen Shaiq, LCSW, Andrea del Moral, Sarah Jones, ourania n. tserotas, Debra St. John and Tuesday Feral for your contributions to this article.