How are you feeling?
Fine, you say? Cool. I’m good with that. I am too. Mentally. Physically.
But “feeling” is a homonym – a single word with multiple meanings. At least it is in my life. I feel physical sensations, but I don’t feel my feelings; I just express them. That’s unfortunate. I wish “thoughtful” or “optimistic” or “irritated” were as obvious as “hungry” and “sleepy” and “cold”. Maybe, with practice, they can be. Honestly, I think I’d feel a lot better if my feelings make me feel something.
What if I accepted what I felt emotionally as readily as I accept what physically? I try to cover my depression so it doesn’t bother anyone else, but I’m willing to inconvenience everyone in the car when I need to poop, “Can we pull over at the next exit that has a restroom?”
I try to muffle my anger, but I don’t feel shame when I’m cold. I just acknowledge it and deal with it. I might…
- Put a sweater on or turn on the heater (alleviate the problem myself)
- stave off the cold with a warm drink (mitigate the problem)
- sit there and shivering, acknowledging that it’s there and that it’s inconvenient (wait for it to pass without minimizing it)
- excuse myself if it became unbearable, “I’m sorry. I need to go inside.” (move to a better environment)
- ask to borrow a blanket or a jacket (ask others for help)
But those are all conscious decisions. If I did not acknowledge my coldness, to myself or others; if I felt my coldness was a symptom of immorality, a lack of character, or a sin in and of itself, I truly would act like a freak. I would suddenly, inexplicably, leave the conversation and sprint inside. Or I would douse myself with my warm drink, actually making my situation worse in the long run. I might, in a sudden subconscious panic, tear the blanket out of someone’s hands or rip the sweater off their back. I might find myself snuggled uncomfortably close to a new acquaintance.
Others might think me a freak, unless they recognized my acting out as a normal expression of un-felt feelings, “Dude, it’s okay, but maybe just tell us when you’re cold next time.”
Or, if I’m extremely moral, I might power through with the strength of my character, unmoved by the cold that turned to numbness that turned to frostbite and then to gangrene, festering wounds, and death.
But at least I would my eulogy would include several uses of the words “character”, “integrity” and “righteous”. I could die knowing I had done the right thing, my God was proud of me, my peers looked up to me. I hadn’t made a fool of myself by letting on that I was cold.
As an adult, coldness is basically synonymous with the actual problem. I almost simultaneously feel the cold and resolve the cold, in a single fluid experience. The coldness itself and my purposeful reaction to it are the same motion. I say, “Brrrrrr…I’m cold,” as I wrap a blanket around me, still realizing the cold for the first time and resolving it in the same moment.
In fact, it takes some mental work to pull the two apart…until I think about my kids. Then I realize how integrated I’ve become. Their feeling of coldness and the problem of coldness are as separate as could be. Integrating the subconscious manifestation of cold with a reasonable solution is a progression that requires training:
- The smallest ones just sit there, shivering. I have to make the connection between their manifestation and their feeling, “Hey, sugar – are you cold?” The youngest ones are somehow self-unaware enough to actually answer, “No.”
- Eventually they can look at their own shivering and realize they must be cold, and answer back, “Yeah,” before sitting there and not solving their problem. This is the phase where I fight them to solve their problem, forcing a sweatshirt over their head while they scream, “I don’t want it on!!!!” They don’t realize that the real reason they’re so irritable is not the sweatshirt, but the cold that the sweatshirt will gradually alleviate. It’s going to take them a while to warm up, and even if I can pacify them long enough to fix their problem, they’re just as likely to tear it off the next second and start recreating the cold that made them miserable in the first place.
- The next step is accepting the long-term solution to the problem. It’s all the same steps but without the fighting, and with just a touch of long-term thinking.
- Then, for months or years, they pass through the phase where they come to the realization on their own. “Papa, I’m cold.” If I sit silently, the complaint will just grow louder, “Papa! I’m cold!” At some point I have to point out the obvious, “Well then why don’t you put on that sweatshirt that’s on the bench next to you?”
- Things can sometime get more complicated. “That one is dirty,” they might respond. So I have to point out the slightly less obvious solutions, “Then why don’t you wear the one tied around your waist? Or move a little closer to the fire? Or ask your brother if you can share his blanket? Or come sit on my lap? Or have some more of your hot cocoa – it’s probably cool enough to drink now. Or you can go inside if you want. Or get the blanket off your bed and bring it out.”
From this perspective, I look at animals that find shelter at night and realize a deeper meaning of the word “instinct”. They are not doing the same thing as me when I find shelter. They are pushed around by their physical feelings as subconsciously as I am pushed around by my emotions. We’re both just trying to huddle in whatever space has the least amount of suffering at the moment.
When we find a space that is comfortable enough, we return there again and again, without even realizing why we’re there. It’s not a choice we’ve evaluated. As an outsider, I can see that the sunset trigger their trek back to their favorite cave. But it seems entirely possible that their causes and effects are just as obscured to them as mine are to me.
After all, I don’t think I’m thinking about the unexpected car repair bill, twelve hours later when I molest that bag of Cheetos. And pizza. And spoonful of peanut butter. Followed by half of a day-old chicken nugget left out on the counter. I was just hungry. What’s the big deal?
A Sweatshirt for My Anger
But what if I could practice experiencing, recognizing, and handling my emotions as fluidly as I experience, recognize and handle my physical sensations, and with the same lack of shame?
I’m willing to admit to some unpleasant emotions. I’ll tell my friends, “I’m…
But some of my most shameful emotions are
What if those expressions were just as acceptable as, “I think I’m getting a cold,” or “I’m sore from my workout yesterday,” or “I’m starving! I haven’t eaten since breakfast!”?
Pete Walker says, in Complex PTSD, that anger is almost always an indication of the feeling of unfairness. So now, when I can sense anger, I aspire to gratefully acknowledge it by name with curiosity, “I think I’m angry,” and then pivot off of my rant and on to a more profitable exploration, “What is happening that feels unfair to me?”
Sometimes the answer is unrelated to my rant. Anger escapes his beaker like a baking soda and vinegar experiment. Just because I first found him in the “wife” container doesn’t mean he started there. He might have overflowed from the work or kids or finances beakers. When I find where he’s coming from, I can choose what to do about it.
And now for my kids…it’s time to recalibrate the rules: What is an appropriate expression of their anger? Should I stop them when they’re punching their siblings? Throwing things? Yelling? Stomping their feet? Growling? Making an angry face? Crossing their arms? Refusing to speak? Running to their room for alone time? Not wanting to participate in the family game I think they should be playing?
How are they allowed to express their anger and am I shaping their behavior because their actions are unacceptable? Or just uncomfortable?
I guess I’ll have to check back in when I’ve figured it all out and have all the answers.
**The graphic is from Marc Brackett’s book Permission to Feel. Also helpful in this direction have been “Complex PTSD” and “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality” and “Keep Your Love On“, among many, many others.
At least that’s what I’m thinking about feeling at the moment. What’s your experience?