We frequently speak of our feelings as if we are them. You hear it in our patterns of speech: “I am angry,” as if to say, “I am anger.” However, feelings naturally arise as passing states of awareness and are not part of us. Rather, they give feedback and then expire.
Think of it as similar to how a thermometer measures our internal body temperature at 9:00 a.m. at a healthy 98.6 and, three hours later when we are getting the flu, it registers 101.5. The feedback that we have a fever allows us to make an informed decision about whether to take fever-reducing meds, call the doctor, or go to bed and wait it out. A feverish reading is temporary and will change. In the same way, our emotional temperature fluctuates depending on external and internal events and our reaction to them.
The origin of the word emotion is the 1570‒80 Middle French word esmotion from movoir or motion; thus, esmovoir means “to set in motion or move the feelings.” The essential function of feelings is to provide feedback and pass through us organically like water flows in a river. In the same way water moves through the atmosphere, in and out of oceans, over and under land, human feelings continuously precipitate, go underground, rise to the surface, and evaporate through our awareness.
Resistance and Avoidance Create An Emotional Dam
Trying to control our feelings through resistance and avoidance is like damming a river to stop the flow. An emotional dam pools feelings. This reservoir of avoided emotion remains in the body until we release it. In other words, the feelings we tried to avoid get held inside us instead. We hold on to what we are trying to avoid.
What emotional dams do you have in place? Distrust after a divorce? Shutting down emotionally after a job loss? Doubting yourself after a personal or professional rejection? Obsessing about safety after an accident?
Life constantly challenges us; it’s not personal, just the natural process of growth and evolution. Many times the process of building emotional dams happens without us realizing it—until a symptom or illness gets our attention.
Whether you dam up your feelings or allow them to run freely is your choice. But make no mistake: how you manage the flow has consequences. When you learn to recognize and understand the nature of your undesirable feelings, you can allow their safe expiration and devise floodgates to discharge intense ones in safe ways that prevent emotional flooding.
Our Three Primal Feelings: Curiosity, Comfort, and Discomfort
We are born with three primal emotional states: curiosity, comfort, and discomfort. You can easily observe them in infants even though they cannot understand or verbalize their internal experience or thoughts. We come programmed with these neurological receptors.
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Take curiosity, for example. Researcher Hildy Ross at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, found that a group of twelvemonth-olds consistently preferred new toys to familiar ones and spent more time manipulating the complex array of toys rather than the simple ones. If you have spent any time observing infants and toddlers, their curiosity is obvious—hence the large array of baby-proofing gadgets available to us.
Similarly, you do not have to be a researcher to know when an alert baby is comfortable. They have the curious glint in the eyes, the smile that tugs at your heart, and the sounds of squealing, gurgling, and laughing that create sympathetic delight in your body. You can sense an infant’s spontaneous happiness without words.
Although infants cannot tell us about their discomfort in words like older children, they give clues through their bodies. Although each infant responds individually and may be inconsistent, there are certain behaviors like fussing, crying, furrowed brow, squeezed-shut eyes, and a quivering chin that reflect discomfort.
Discomfort is a visceral or physiological experience even when the source is emotional. Neuroanatomist A. D. Craig suggests the definition of human emotion to be both a subjective feeling and a body experience. He points out that, given this insight, emotions are not simply occasional events, but ongoing and continuous, even when they go unnoticed as unconscious human emotional acts. In other words, our feelings are constantly changing and creating different body experiences even when we are oblivious to them.
Although you may not remember your very early experiences, you too were born with the three spontaneous states of curiosity, comfort, and discomfort. Through the years you have evolved more complex feelings, but these primal emotions still strongly motivate behavior. As a growing baby, then child, you organically sought intuitive ways to maintain comfort. It all happened through your body, not your head, because your intellectual mind was immature.
The Most Commonly Dammed or “Damned” Feelings
As adults, our central motivators continue to be maintaining comfort and avoiding discomfort. It is no surprise, then, that emotions that get dammed up consciously and unconsciously are related to discomfort. They are those we consider “negative,” such as fear, anger, sadness/grief, and envy. These are the emotions we often avoid, forget, resist, ignore, bury, and control because they are uncomfortable.
Whenever old feelings show up, no matter how old, you have an opportunity to dissolve previously dammed emotion. Instead of thinking you ought to be done with those feelings or that something must be wrong, treat them as dams that you are now strong enough to remove. They offer a door to deeper healing and greater emotional freedom and intelligence.
Feelings about Feelings
What is your conditioned take on feelings? Did your family embrace feelings or judge them? Did you learn to share your feelings openly or were you shamed for feeling anger, sadness, and envy? Were you celebrated for your successes or cautioned to remain humble or silent?
It’s possible to free yourself of these emotions. However, it requires you to look honestly at feelings you have judged as ugly and undesirable.
In nursing school, we learned the “dead man’s test” for developing effective patient goals. If a dead man can do it, it doesn’t support growth and improvement. For example, a dead man can easily accomplish the goal of not feeling angry. This phrase “if a dead man can do it” is a powerful statement emphasizing how feeling is a sign of life and not feeling is a sign of death. To allow uncomfortable feelings rather than avoid them is to be fully alive. Otherwise, we shut off the emotional faucet that also supplies joy and excitement.
We think we can turn off bad feelings and continuously be in good feelings; however, the body keeps score and buried feelings eventually show up in numbness or as emotional or physical symptoms. It’s interesting to notice the love-hate relationship we have with emotion. We crave the highs that enliven us and hate the lows that make us feel bad. It’s no surprise we seek pleasure to avoid pain.
On the other hand, we can allow the continuous, dynamic river of feelings to flow safely regardless of how terrible they seem. There are many techniques to keep our emotional waters moving safely and evaporating naturally. Let’s look at a few for you to practice.
Feelings into Words and Thoughts
When you name your feelings, it’s like pouring water from a pitcher. Feelings are the water, and we are the pitchers. By expressing our deepest emotions verbally, on paper, or through movement, we pour out the feelings, see them as external to us, and regain a sense of internal spaciousness and capacity to welcome new experience. Feelings do not have to be shared with the person with whom we are upset.
In fact, spilling uncensored feelings in an imagined way is often the most beneficial initial action. Once the intense agitation has been drained off, we can become clear about whether we need to have a real conversation. I’ve witnessed that most of the time it’s unnecessary. Sometimes, the person with whom we are upset is elusive or unavailable. Yet we’re not stuck being a victim because they aren’t listening. Quite the contrary, the process happens within us, for us.
You may remember times when you were feeling uptight, but didn’t really know why until you started expressing. As your mind formulates the words, you hear yourself and gain insight. When you speak, write, or move (e.g., jogging or yoga) relative to an issue, you gain clarity and a feeling of freedom. There is no need to know the answers, to be stoic, or to control yourself— merely translate the inner experience into words as best as you can, letting go of any desire to edit.
On the other hand, the intellectual and constant retelling of a victim story becomes a broken record. Rather than releasing emotions, it deepens the groove of helplessness in the nervous system. It’s easy to hear when listening to someone’s story. We easily discern the tonal difference between personal release and repeating victimhood.
©2016 by Deborah Sandella. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Conari Press,
an imprint of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC. www.redwheelweiser.com.
Goodbye, Hurt & Pain: 7 Simple Steps for Health, Love, and Success
by Deborah Sandella PhD RN.
Deborah Sandella uses cutting-edge neuroscience research and her revolutionary Regenerating Images in Memory (RIM) technique to show how blocked feelings prevent us from getting what we want, and she introduces a process that bypasses logic and thinking to activate our own emotional “self-cleaning oven.”
About the Author
Dr. Deborah Sandella has been helping thousands of people find themselves for 40 years as an award-winning psychotherapist, university professor, and originator of the groundbreaking RIM Method. She has been acknowledged with numerous professional awards including Outstanding Clinical Specialist, Research Excellence, and an EVVY Best Personal Growth Book Award. She is the co-author with Jack Canfield of Awakening Power. Photo credit: Doug Ellis. For more info, visit Author's Website.