Health Blog

The Courage to Feel

I recently watched the Pixar movie Inside Out (2016). To my surprise, I cried at the ending. Perhaps even more shocking to me was my realization that, as an adult male in a culture of masculinity, I found it difficult to admit to others that I shed tears while watching a “kid’s movie.” Yet my hesitation to honestly convey this speaks, I think, to the trouble that people of all ages and genders find themselves in. Namely, we are afraid of our own feelings.

Why do we fear that which comes naturally in us? After all, we are not born to resist our emotions. For instance, children are not afraid or ashamed of feeling and expressing their feelings. Rather, they are conditioned to think that feelings are somehow “bad,” and that they “shouldn’t feel a certain way.” This is very unfortunate because this message perpetuates itself throughout all stages of life. If we are implicitly and explicitly told that we shouldn’t feel and/or express our feelings, we resort to bottling them up, denying them in ourselves, and taking our feelings out in unhealthy ways (e.g. verbal outbursts, passive-aggressive behavior, destruction of property, substance abuse).

If we deny our feelings throughout childhood and adolescence, we develop an identity around a false sense of self. This is articulated very well in John Bradshaw’s book Healing the Shame that Binds You (1988), which highlights the danger of developing shame as an identity, and living a life that is not authentic. This can result in all kinds of problems, such as: not enjoying life, low feelings of self-worth, inability to have your own opinions, and difficulty finding friends and activities that give you a sense of acceptance and belonging.

So you may ask yourself, if feelings are so important, can they ever be bad or dangerous? The short answer to that is “no.” Feelings are a natural state in us that arise from a mix of physiological sensations, unconscious thoughts and motivations, and a natural tendency for our heart to tell us what we think about something. It’s true that we can influence our feelings with mindfulness and cognitive-behavioral techniques so that we have more positive feelings, but I think the first step is to recognize that our feelings in and of themselves are never “bad.” They are bits of information that tell us something about who we really are. They also help us get our needs met and give us motivation to do something.  That may be what makes feelings so scary for someone who is in a habit of denying and/or repressing their feelings. They may wonder, “If I feel this, what does that mean about me? My relationship? My choices in life?” It takes a great deal of courage to honestly face our emotions, but there is a danger in not acknowledging and simply feeling our emotions.

The first danger is that it will cripple our ability to feel other emotions. If you enjoy feeling happy, you will never be able to fully feel happy if you don’t allow yourself to feel sad, angry, or any of your other natural emotions. The second and more troubling truth about ignoring emotions is that if we don’t let them surface naturally to our awareness, our effort to suppress and ignore them gives our emotions power and our emotions control us. How is it that feeling emotions give us control, but denying emotions give emotions control? Consider this: you get angry at home when your partner snaps at you. Rather than acknowledge this anger, you ignore it and pretend you are okay. Your actions, thoughts, and feelings will change based on your interactions with and around your partner. You may ruminate on negative thoughts about that person, feel bitter that your partner doesn’t recognize your pain, and you go out of your way to avoid him/her. In short, your life will revolve around not allowing yourself to honestly feel your emotions!

Living a healthy life involves more than just feeling emotions (e.g. being able to have a healthy, safe, and respectful conversation about emotions; coping with feelings in healthy ways; and thinking about alternative solutions), but let’s just start by naming the most basic emotions:

Joy – the state of feeling complete happiness with yourself, another person, and/or life in general. You do not let other’s opinions diminish your happiness. You have no hesitation at expressing yourself, and experiencing life in the present moment. Your mind, heart, and soul embrace your life as it is. Sometimes you may cry tears of joy. Joy also motivates you to seek that experience again in the future.

Sadness – this is a feeling that you can feel when you either don’t like what has happened, you grieve a loss, or you find happiness. When something happens and our expectations and desires are not met, we feel sad. The more important this thing/person/event was to us, the more intense the sadness will become. People cry to release these feelings, and signal to others that we are upset. People disagree as to why we sometimes cry when we are happy, but I suspect that on some level we are sad about the life changes, and that crying allows us to mourn a loss that has occurred or may occur in the future.

Fear – we experience this when something threatens our sense of self, our safety, people we love, or our understanding of the world. When we think something can cause us pain, loss of social status, or kill us, fear motivates us to be extra careful about engaging in the experience, or signals us to avoid the experience all together.

Anger – much like fear, we feel this when we feel threatened. When someone or something threatens our sense of self, security, or connection with another person, we defend our ego by feeling angry. It temporarily protects our inner self and it motivates us to do something to protect ourselves/others.

Disgust – we feel this when something could cause us physical harm and/or diminishment in social standing. Rotten food, human fluids, and poisonous insects are examples of things that we find disgusting because they could hurt us. Humans also evolved to maximize in-group kinship to protect themselves from competing groups. Unfortunately, humans have yet to evolve past this in our contemporary environment, so xenophobia manifests itself in cultural beliefs such as: racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia, and religious intolerance. The good news is that these beliefs are learned, and you can teach yourself to learn respect for people’s differences, and keep a healthy vigilance for strangers who could potentially cause harm.

Shame – occurs when we do something that other people do not like, and they let us know it. For instance, if you say something and other people say it was offensive, you may naturally feel ashamed about this. This feeling motivates you to avoid doing things that hurt other people. Bradshaw (1988) points out that shame is healthy when it motivates us to change our behavior. However, it becomes toxic when we make an identity around shame. If we do not allow our self to be ourselves because a few people don’t like us, then shame is part of our identity.

Guilt – this occurs when we do something that goes against our own moral code. It gives us an internal sense of feeling bad, and directly tells us not to do that behavior. This usually subsides when we make amends for the behavior, or we learn from our mistakes and try not to repeat them. Bradshaw (1988) states that guilt becomes toxic when we form an identity around trying to be perfect and never making mistakes. Humans are imperfect and we will make mistakes. Understanding and accepting this allows us to feel guilt in a healthy way.

Hurt – this happens when we are physically or emotionally injured by someone or something. According to Friel & Friel (1988), a healthy person can acknowledge this pain and take safe actions to heal from this pain and protect his/her self. An unhealthy person may react aggressively and try to hurt the person/thing that caused them pain, or use passive-aggressive ways to try and manipulate someone. Hurt motivates you to attend to your emotional and physical wounds, ask for help, and let others know you were hurt so that you can protect yourself in the future.

Lonely – this feeling surfaces when we feel like we do not have enough human connection. According to Friel & Friel (1988), it gives us insight to possibly making changes in our life. You may wonder: “Is my spouse spending too much time at work? Am I being too dependent on my spouse for company? Does this loneliness bring up old memories of being alone when my needs weren’t met?” Feeling alone will allow you to think about why those feelings are surfacing, and make a decision as to what to do.

Whether this is your first attempt at trying to feel all of your emotions, or you have been doing this awhile, there are some tips to keep in mind when allowing ourselves to feel:

Practice. Some emotions may not come easy, especially if you are in the habit of ignoring them. Try journaling about something that you think will invoke emotions you want to feel. You can also listen to music, watch a movie, or do an activity that may evoke the desired feelings. Allow yourself time to fully experience these emotions.

Stay safe. Some people are not comfortable with their own emotions. These people may either not know how to give us the support we need when disclosing our feelings, or they may attempt to use our emotions to hurt us. To paraphrase Brené Brown’s (2010) TED Talk on vulnerability, find someone who is safe to disclose your emotions to. Let them know that you just need to vent, and you want them to hear you out. Ask them not to tell you what “you should feel,” but ask that they support you as you talk openly and honestly about what you feel. Once you get it out, you can explore how your feelings are impacting you, and what you want to do about them. Remember that you have a right to feel, and that no one can take that away from you!

Honesty: Sometimes people mask their feelings. For instance, if a person is sad and the person doesn’t want others to see his/her sadness, he/she may pretend to be happy. This may result in the person constantly trying to pretend that he/she is happy. This will be an exhausting task that becomes more difficult to stop over time, and will prevent the person from expressing his/her true feelings and getting his/her needs met.

Avoid reacting. Emotions tend to happen fast, and sometimes we want to act the moment we feel something. Take some time to breath, relax, let your emotions come, and then examine your emotions without quickly dismissing them or devaluing them.

Take a break. It’s helpful to feel, but we don’t want to feel every second we are alive. We need a break to relax, do activities, and have fun. If we feel sad forever, it will be as dysfunctional as if we never felt sad (i.e. our emotions would control our life).

Ask for help. Some people struggle with feeling because their brain chemistry feels too often, or doesn’t feel much at all. They may need medication and/or guidance to help them regulate their emotions. This is nothing to be embarrassed about because we cannot control what brain we were born with. A medical doctor and/or a therapist can help you learn to manage your emotions in a safe way.

Tony Schnotala
MSW Intern
Leonard Street Counseling Center

Citations:
Bradshaw, John. Healing the Shame that Binds You. Deerfield Beach, Fla: Health Communications, 1988.
Brené Brown: The power of vulnerability (Jun 2010). TED. TED Conferences, LLC. Web. 24 April 2016.
Friel, John C., and Linda D. Friel. Adult Children: The Secrets of Dysfunctional Families. Pompano Beach, Fla: Health Communications, 1988.