How to Feel Your Feelings Without Becoming Overwhelmed

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How to Feel Your Feelings Without Becoming Overwhelmed
Episode 28

Podcast Opening over Theme Music:

Hello and welcome. This is Kate's Nuggets, the podcast where I share bite-size nuggets of wisdom about self-leadership. I am your host, Kate Arms. I invite you to listen lightly, let these ideas wash over you. Take what you take and let the rest go. You can always come back and listen again.

Kate Arms:
Hello, today I am going to talk about how we can feel our feelings, even our intense and our uncomfortable feelings, without being overwhelmed.

This is important because if we are afraid of being overwhelmed by our feelings, we avoid feeling them at great cost to our mental health and to our effectiveness in our relationships, whether those are at work or at home. If we're not in the habit of feeling our feelings all the way to completion and letting them pass through us, they get stuck in our bodies. And these unreleased, unprocessed feelings create a sense of pressure within us. And then, when we start to feel some of our feelings, that pressure can push past feelings out in great waves of emotion.

So, if you have been not letting yourself feel all your feelings and you start turning your attention towards your feelings, it can feel like you're opening floodgates, and that can make it more difficult to even start the process.

The other thing that's really important is that if we're afraid of not being able to contain our expressions of our emotions, we resist feeling them at all. And so we also need tools for being with our emotions, but not being reactive to our emotions, so that we can feel our feelings and act in a way that is informed by but not compelled by our feelings.

Being able to feel our feelings all the way through to completion is not only really powerful for our mental health, and our physical health, and for our relationships. It also is really powerful in breaking the cycles of adrenaline rush, crash, rush, crash that many of us feel a craving for when we don't feel our feelings.

If we are in the habit of letting our feelings wash through us, we feel in our bodies alive because these waves of emotion are our aliveness. They are our sense of being present in our lives. And all of us as human beings want that sense of being present and alive, energized in our lives. If we are numb to our emotional feelings, we have to find other ways of stimulating that sense of aliveness.

And the easiest way to stimulate the sense of aliveness, if we are not feeling our emotional messages, is to get on an adrenaline cycle, to look for extreme pain and extreme pleasure, thrill-seeking that overrides ourself numbing.

When we put ourselves in those places of fear where our adrenaline and cortisol rush to make us active in terms of getting out of that dangerous situation, we feel alive. And if we don't feel alive, because we are in touch with the waves of ordinary emotions, we need to create drama in our lives in order to feel alive.

One of the most amazing things happens with long-term meditators. Long-time meditators choose to simplify their lives. They choose not to ingest intoxicants, not because there's shame around them or compulsion, but because it numbs them to the aliveness that they are letting themselves live into through simply being present in all of the moments of their lives and lives that look from the outside like they might feel boring, in fact, reports of long-term meditators consistently say they're more delightful, more joyous, more alive because the reds are so red, and the blues are so blue, and the softs are so soft, and the sharps are so sharps, and the sour is so tangy.

The aliveness is there without the extra drama.

But many people are not comfortable feeling their feelings and do not let themselves feel their feelings all the way to completion, to the extent that we are capable of numbing ourselves to our uncomfortable feelings. We numb ourselves to all our feelings. It's just not possible in the human being to numb ourselves to only the unpleasant feelings.

So, if you know that you don't feel all your feelings and you would like to have greater access to your feelings, what can you do? Be gentle with yourself and compassionate with yourself and know that human beings naturally avoid pain.

And one of the tools at our disposal for avoiding pain is numbing ourselves to uncomfortable feelings. This is normal. In fact, it seems to me that there's a developmental trajectory from being open to the whole world as an infant and then having painful experiences of varying degrees of pain and learning to turn away from those painful experiences. Then, we develop the habits that are in our behaviors and our minds and the way that we think that how we turned away from those painful experiences.

And they wired into us, they wire into us as the assumptions that we have about the world. And for some period of time, they really serve us. And then at some point, we realize that there's something that we want that we cannot have because we have numbed ourselves to these feelings and we have chosen our behaviors to avoid feeling these feelings.

And at that point, when we realize that we want this other thing, which in many cases is a feeling of aliveness without drama, and then we have the motivation to learn the skills of being with those uncomfortable emotions, when I talk about uncomfortable feelings, for many of us, joy is a deeply uncomfortable feeling.

Many of us have in our body memories of being shamed for being delighted in things as children, whether we were delighted in things at an inappropriate time as far as our parents or teachers were concerned or some adults are not comfortable with joy and the wild abandonment to enthusiastic enjoyment that children have can be very uncomfortable for the adults around them who are not comfortable being with their own joy.

So, what can we do when we want to turn towards our feelings? The first thing that we can do is to learn a little bit about what feelings are and how they work so that we are prepared in our journey towards our feelings with some understanding. So, what are feelings and emotions?

Feelings and emotions are embodied messages that guide our beings towards and away from things. Our bodies get data from our senses. We see things, we feel things, we hear things, we taste them, we smell them. We get this data through a whole-body experience. We sometimes forget that our skin is our largest organ. It's our largest sense organ. We have so many nerve endings in our skin, particularly in places you might not expect them like the bottoms of our feet.

The bottoms of our feet are full of nerve endings. Because if we are looking around us and not looking where we are going, getting an embodied sense from our feet about what the ground that we are treading on is like actually keeps us upright and moving and not tripping on whatever terrain we're on. We also have interception and proprioception.

We have feelings inside our body that tell us where in space our body is and how our inner organs are doing, whether we're hungry or thirsty. Those come from internal sense organs. There are sensory nerves in our organs that pass on information about how we're feeling. And so, when we talk about having a gut feeling, or tingling under my skin, or openness in my heart, sometimes those are metaphors, but often they're actual literal descriptions of what our inner experience is.

And the purpose in our lives of these inner felt experiences is they are messages about the circumstances in our environment that we are being asked to take consideration of as we decide what to do in the future. These messages that we get through our emotions are designed to be constantly updating. We get a message, we clear the cache, we get a new message. We have to do this.

We have to reload new messages through our emotional systems all the time because our circumstances change. If we feel one feeling and hold onto it, we're feeling that feeling with our whole body, there's no room for a new message to come in. So if you are angry at something or someone and then they change their behavior but you're holding onto that anger, you don't have room in your body to get the new message that tells you things have changed. Maybe you can let the anger go.

Feeling of feeling through to completion means letting it arise within you, noticing it and letting it die down. And it typically is about 90 seconds that a feeling arises and is in your presence and fades. Sometimes, the next feeling that comes up is the same.

Most of the time, the next feeling that comes up, however, is slightly different. There's a little bit different information in the system and the fluctuations in those emotions give our brains information about what's changing so that we can map patterns, and trends, and project into the future, "Oh, this has been happening over the last five feelings. What's likely to happen next?"

So, emotions are messengers, they last for about 90 seconds. We feel them in our body.

Any thoughts that we think are judgments and interpretations. There are five main emotions, anger, sadness, fear, joy, and sexual feelings. Anger is a feeling that there's a boundary that needs to be set, there's a boundary that's been violated, something is wrong that needs to have action taken. Anger is usually felt in the jaw, the back, the shoulders, the back of the neck, the periphery, like your toes might curl and your fingers might curl.

Sadness means there's something that needs to be let go of, something that needs to be grieved. And sadness is usually felt in the throat, the upper chest, the eyes. Fear is a message that there's something that needs to be learned, something that needs to be paid attention to. There's uncertainty. Every time you try something new, your body's going to send you a message that says, "Hey, this is new."

Joy is a reminder to celebrate something. It's a message that like, "Here's a successful moment." People who are used to feeling like there's always another task often don't celebrate enough. They often don't let themselves feel the joy of accomplishment. They've been taught that pride is a sin. They've been taught that you can't rest on your laurels, that there's always another problem. So finish this and get onto the next one because the world is never going to be fixed. And our bodies feel pride and an accomplishment and joy and delight, and if we don't let those feelings through us, we only have accessible excitement in the thrill-seeking variety available to us for feeling positive aliveness.

Joy is often felt in the interior of our bodies as along our spine or in our core, something that's deep within us. Joy is often felt in that interior sense. Sexual feelings, of course, have a responsiveness to intimacy and connection and to physical attraction. They also often arise in moments of creativity and metaphorical generation, ideas being born. A huge percentage of us have deep shame that has been instilled in us around our sexual feelings. So those are the five categories of feeling. Those are our body's messaging systems.

A couple of words on what feelings are not. There are some words that we use when we say, "I feel," that are not feelings or emotions at all. They are about interpretations of a situation that has an emotional component. So if you say, "I feel judged, I feel abandoned, I feel ignored, I feel rejected, I feel betrayed," those are not embodied messages from our system. Those are interpretations from our mind that are casting blame on somebody. Prior to the judgment and the blame, there's actually an emotional reaction. There's anger, sadness, or fear almost certainly, underlying all of those places where we use feeling language. I feel to blame somebody else for our experience.

When we blame somebody else for our experience, we are almost certainly blaming them for anger, sadness, or fear. So, that's the sort of cognitive world of emotions.

What are the tools that you can use for looking at your own feelings? If you are afraid of going to look at your emotions, you're afraid of being overwhelmed, afraid of having emotional expression, well up through you that you are overwhelmed by and not able to do work that you have to get done later on in the day or that sort of thing.

It can be very, very powerful to set aside a time and place that is dedicated to, "I'm going to feel as many of my feelings as I can in this period of time, and then I have permission to put them all back in the closet and not look at them or feel them until the next time I set aside time and space.

Some people find that this is enough if they do it by themselves. Many people find it easier to do this if they actually have an appointment with someone whose job, whether they're paid or volunteering in that moment, is to hold that time and place as a place where all feelings are welcome. That can be a friend who is just like, "Yeah, give me a call this evening and just tell me what's going on." Or it could be a therapist or a coach.

So, for instance recently, in light of the COVID pandemic, many of my clients have needed some time during our sessions where I just let them and in fact invite them to notice what their feelings are, fear, anger, sadness. We've all had all of them. And many of them have been feeling guilty about the joys that they have been having simultaneously with all of the worries that they have.

So you may want to create a container for yourself, a space, a time, a place, and then the invitation is to notice whatever it is you notice in your body. Emotions are embodied experiences. They are sensations in the body. And if we're not used to paying attention to the sensations in our body, we need to practice our attention.

One way of practicing is to simply sit quietly and notice what sensations in your body catch your attention. "Oh, there's a tingling in my foot. There's a ringing in my ear. There's something a little itchy on my neck. There's warmth in my belly. Ooh, there's a little bit of a churning feeling in my belly and a little tightness at the back of my right shoulder. That's a check-in. That starts to build your access to your emotions, and that can be safer than going directly for the feeling.

Then you want to check in with your gut and your heart about your feelings, not so much with your brain, your mind. Now, the reason that I actually use these language of heart, and gut, and mind is actually there are nervous system centers in your pelvis and in your chest. And if you use your consciousness to check in with your heart, what your consciousness actually does is bring to attention the sensations that are in that part of your body.

So, sadness and joy often live in the center of your torso. Your upper chest is often sadness, and there's often in your spine and your core, joy. So if you check in with your heart, you might find those feelings there.

Your gut, on the other hand, is where you're likely to check in and find sexual feelings or fear. Anger is often a tightness or constriction in your shoulders, hands, feet. If you just start asking, "What's happening in the back of my neck? What's happening in my jaw? What's happening in my gut? What's happening in my chest," you'll start becoming aware of the sensations of your emotions. And then you can observe those sensations.

Because the trick is to bring them to consciousness with a bit of a sense of your witness so that you can feel your feelings and let them pass through you without being reactive and acting immediately out of them.

If you want more about your inner witness, I suggest that you go back and listen to the last episode of Kate's Nuggets, which was dedicated entirely to that inner witness quality.

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Kate's Nuggets is a Signal Fire Coaching production. The music is adapted under license from Heroic Age by Kevin McLeod.

How to Feel Your Feelings Without Becoming Overwhelmed
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