As a psychotherapist, I often see myself as a doctor of the human heart. One of my missions as I sit in my office is to assist folks in becoming more alive to themselves, others and the world around them. One significant component in this process is teaching patients to become emotionally literate. Just as we learned to read and write as the foundational building blocks to our young lives, we also need the necessary life skill of learning to listen and express the inner workings of our deepest self. Most of us never had that lesson. In fact, most of us learned the opposite – to ignore completely what we are feeling.
How does one become emotionally connected, effective and literate? No doubt, there is a process to this difficult task of opening to one’s emotional life. Through the repetitive practice of intentional awareness over time, we awaken our self to our self. That being said, a few tips for us beginners can be helpful:
1. Bodies and feelings are interconnected. Every feeling has a physiological response. If you want to know what you are feeling, use your head to ask your body. The body is the wiser one. It houses our feelings and lets us know – sometimes gently, sometimes harshly – that we are ignoring the vital energy of our emotional life.
2. Feelings aren’t good or bad – they just are. I get that we all want to be happy. So, I always end the party when I inform patients that happiness is really over-rated. We aren’t designed to just be happy. We get to have and enjoy all our feelings. Like paints on a palette, the full range of color adds depth to life’s canvas. Learn to respect and embrace all your feelings – they have a meaning and serve a purpose.
3. We either have the capacity to feel all our feelings or to feel none at all. Emotional repression is not discriminatory. Like a water faucet, either the valves of our heart are open and emotions are flowing freely or they are blocked causing emotional numbness. In other words, if we want to feel the pleasant feelings, we have to be willing to feel the unpleasant ones.
4. We cannot control what we feel – only how we respond to our feelings. Much to our dismay, feelings just are. We can’t make ourselves feel anything or not feel anything. Once we accept that fact, then respecting our feelings and deciding what to do about them becomes the focus, rather than avoiding the feeling or shaming ourselves for having it in the first place.
5. Nobody can make us feel anything. Don’t give your power away to someone else. You pilot your own airplane. Your feelings are your feelings and thus, your responsibility to respond to with both self-care and care for your relationships.
7. We can have more than one feeling at the same time. Have you ever felt happy for a friend’s success while feeling jealous that it was not yours? Perfectly normal. At any given moment, we have at least two feelings – a self feeling and an object feeling. The self feeling is what I am feeling about me. The object feeling is what I am feeling toward you. Until we can grasp this nuance, then we miss the complexity – and sometimes the contradiction – of our emotional life. You are multi-layered and complicated. Get to know all parts of you.
8. Feeling your feelings won’t kill us. Not feeling them might. Remember principle #1 above – the one about bodies and feelings being interconnected? Repressed emotions show up in our body … and not in a good way. You don’t want that. It is hard enough to stay healthy these days – what with the prevalence of high fructose corn syrup and the fact that we all text while driving. Emotional pain is just pain. It won’t kill you. I know you feel like you are going to die, but you really won’t.
So that is my tutorial on emotional education. Assuming you are like the rest of us, you got some catching up to do in this department. Your health, your partner, your co-workers and your kids are counting on you. So get busy.