Have you ever felt so overwhelmed that you don’t even know what or how you’re feeling? Or maybe you just feel numb. Or could it be that you’ve gotten really good at acting out your emotions (lashing out angrily, spending your day fearfully preparing for worst-case scenarios, or becoming tearful over seemingly small things) but have no idea what you’re actually upset about?
Emotions are complicated and uncomfortable and it makes sense that we spend a lot of our time trying to avoid them. But our emotions are important and research shows us that avoiding our emotions actually just makes our experience of them worse.
Think about it. To properly avoid our emotions, we’d also have to avoid experiences that may trigger those emotions. So we end up missing out on a lot of life and a lot of growth because we’re afraid to feel uncomfortable or vulnerable. Sometimes we avoid actually feeling our emotions by becoming self-critical or blaming others, which only leaves us feeling more disconnected, confused, and yep, uncomfortable.
We expend so much effort on avoiding our emotions that we forget emotions are like waves. They come and go and if we just feel them and accept them for what they are, they will eventually pass. But if we try to swim against them, we’ll exhaust ourselves and eventually get pulled under.
You may also try to numb feelings with busy-ness, binge-ing mindless television, scrolling through social media, shopping, gambling, or abusing alcohol and drugs. Another way to numb emotions is to deny your needs. We think if we’re tough enough and have as few needs as possible, we won’t have to feel sadness, fear, or anger that our needs aren’t being met.
Emotions are a vital part of our human experience because they’re intrinsically tied to our thoughts and behaviors. The way we feel affects the way we think, which affects the way we act. So if we numb or avoid our feelings, it makes sense that many other aspects of our life will also be suspended or hurt in the process.
Emotions reveal our values and needs, help us better understand ourselves and others, build connections, make decisions, and take action. Emotional intelligence is the ability to notice and name emotions and not feel overwhelmed by them. Even the practice of just naming our emotions can be regulating and help us to not feel overwhelmed by them.
So what’s the key to becoming excellent feelers? Curiosity without judgment.
First, ask yourself how you feel about your feelings. Explore why you’re avoiding them and what it’s costing you. If you don’t see some aspect of naming and accepting your emotions as valuable, you’ll never be motivated enough to actually do the work. Think of a personal goal you have to better understand and tolerate your emotions and be specific.
Next, get curious about your stressors. If you’re really good at avoiding your emotions, they may only come in flashes before you’ve tuned them back out. Next time you feel something flash in your mind or body, pause and consider what triggered it and what your most immediate thought or feeling was. It doesn’t have to be negative. It’s just as helpful to be in touch with your pleasurable emotions and to know what enhances your life.
Then, peel back your feeling layers. Often, if we’re trying to protect ourselves from feeling too vulnerable, we notice our anger, annoyance, and confusion first. It can be helpful here to ask yourself directly, is it possible that I also feel some embarrassment, disappointment, shame, sadness, or fear?
Don’t rush through it and describe each feeling or thought that comes up in detail. Observe what your instincts are for what to do next to manage the emotion. Remind yourself that even though you feel this way, you get to choose how you act next.
Notice if you feel any tension, activity, pain, or heaviness in your body and make room for them. Notice your desire to push away the difficult feeling, hide, or to move on to something you feel may be more relevant. Observe the sensations curiously and remind yourself that your feeling is like a wave. If you let yourself float and breathe through it, it will pass.
Practice this process daily until it feels natural to be this curious and accepting about your emotions. If it still feels difficult, work through these steps with someone you trust as it can be helpful to have more than one perspective.