emotion regulation

Don’t Always Listen to Your Feelings

 "But shouldn't I go with my gut?" The woman sitting in front of me asks.

"I'm not sure that's a great idea," I say, "honestly, it could just be a bad case of indigestion."

She laughed. And then she started to cry a little bit.  "The thing is," she says quietly, "Everyone says 'trust your feelings,' but MY feelings are saying horrible things...I'm not sure I CAN trust them...I think I'd be dead if I did."

This is the scene I recently came from. A lovely young woman who has attempted to take her own life multiple times, beyond all the occasions of self harm that stopped just short of suicide. What she's telling me is that her feelings are informing her what to do, and that every time she acts on those feelings she really gets hurt.

Of course this may sound extreme, but I see it every day.  People in the same boat. Addicted to following their feelings wherever they may lead them. Told by a culture that bows to the altar of human emotion, that "being true to themselves" is the same as obeying their instincts.

I'll be honest. It's always a bad idea. Here's why.

What are Feelings Anyway?

From an organic perspective, feelings are a part of a complex web of functioning which we are constantly involved in. The truth is that our emotions are sort of like the taste buds of the psychological processing that happens in our minds. When working properly our feelings relay messages about what we're currently engaged with or just experienced. They're apart of a feed back loop.  If I'm involved in something tragic, I FEEL sad. If someone hurts me, I may FEEL angry. If I win a million buck, I'll end up FEELING happy.  Notice, the feeling FOLLOWS the phenomena.  The danger though, is when we reverse the order, and start allowing our feelings to do the leading, constructing our life around our emotions. For one, it's putting the cart before the horse, for another, it's risky business.

Because feelings are a part of a feedback loop, they're constantly in process. Again, my analogy about taste buds works.  It's like a piece of candy that has multiple waves of flavor attached, and changes as you keep it in your mouth. Feeling really operates the same. If we stick with an occurrence or event, our emotions are liable to fluctuate greatly to reflect what's really going on.  And that's exactly how they SHOULD work.  Because they're tiny reporters of experience.  Emotions are meant to be DESCRIPTIVE, not PRE-SCRIPTIVE.

I spend time with people who are starving, and report to me they don't eat because they don't FEEL like it. Yet it's essential for life. Without it, they'll die.

Or people who are isolated, lonely, and empty--but who don't spend time cultivating relationships because they don't FEEL like it.

You name it... when people follow their feelings around, they're literally trading their higher functioning for an un-evolved reptilian mind.

The truth is that emotions are VERY important. Being connected to our emotions, being in touch with what is going on, is part of what gives us information--raw data we need for living. But following them around...well...that means being controlled by our emotions, rather than having control.

I tell a story about watching wild dogs occasionally run by the park my house sits in front of. Strays, passing by my window. And at the point I have a choice. I can either follow the wild dog, chase it down and let it lead me around town. Or, I can notice it, observe it, appreciate it, and let it pass. The choice is mine. I don't have to be victim to my feelings. They don't have to control me.

I am increasingly convinced that the will is simply the spirit in physical form.

So if not feelings, then what?

Spirit, essence, or "wise-mind" (as we call it in my clinical practice as a therapist) is that part of us which connects to not only the "more-ness" of the universe, but also to the "more-ness" of our own beings.  There's something intangible and ineffable about Spirit. It lies shrouded in a realm of mystery. We simply sense that it exists and is at both the center and circumference.  I suppose there's no evidence I can offer to support this claim...except perhaps this thing called "the will."

We act on that which is essential to us.  Air, food, drink, relationships...these are somehow absolute needs--and so we act, automatically.  Breath, which shares the same word in Hebrew as spirit, is the most basic expression of being alive.  So too, the will, the ability to form intention, choice, and action, is the absolute core of humanity.  As breath is what enables us to live, so too our ability to make choice, take a stand for that decision, and bear the consequences, is what enables us to be most human.  This is why I say that will is simply our essence, or spirit, in physical manifestation.

I can tell you the spiritual maturity, or nature, of someone based on their ability to intend and carry through.  It speaks of our willingness to allow our convictions to come forward and play out.

Our culture worships feelings, and praises the passions.  We value that which is automatic and undecided.  The medicines and healing we pray for is something BEYOND our control...We wish for a miracle, or to be fixed, put back together by hands larger than ours.  We cede control to governments, representatives, and agents who will know better than us...  We wish to be in relationships, where the other makes the decisions for us--to stay or to go. We read endless books and websites to gain more information in order to convince ourselves, and be swayed.  We want a person to blame beyond ourselves.

We lack will, culturally.

It is the thing we must regain, if we are ever to resurrect deadened spirits.

And that brings me back to feelings.

Being in wise-mind or in spirit, doesn't invalidate our feelings--doesn't shame or punish us for having feelings. Instead, it listens to them. It appreciates them. It observes them, and honors them. But it also doesn't let them dictate the course of our actions. Getting out of bed in the morning doesn't rise or fall on how I feel about it...because the truth is--I rarely feel like it. I have to depend on another criteria. I also incorporate reason, and intuition to make a decision.

People who consistently "go with their gut" often assume they're being "AUTHENTIC."  I hear that so much. But, I have to comment here that in fact being authentic to their "feelings" or emotional mind is only one part of being real... I practice deep-democracy, where I honor not only my feelings, but also my rational mind, and my intuition. I listen to multiple parts of myself, and let them have voice too. I don't let any one part dominate me. Feelings included. If I just went by my feelings, I wouldn't be authentic to my other parts, such as long term goals, or higher values. And maybe that's OK...maybe that's the choice I want to make in that moment... But it should be a decision, not a tsunami-like emotion pushing me into something I may regret later.

The work that I do is constantly trying to get people to pause and operate from their WISE-MINDED self--their will, or spirit in action. It's where the heart and the head find balance. And it's only when we inhabit that place in which we're able to find lasting fulfillment.

Happy Triggering

The holiday's are upon us.  For many this involves not only HIGH high's, but also LOW low's.  Like it or not, family is a bright red button, waiting to be pushed and trigger an explosive response.

 Our family of origin is also usually the original cause of most of our relational issues, the place of our primal wound.  That can translate into a deeply upsetting, and emotionally disturbing experience, especially during the holiday's--when we're hoping for a little cheer and goodwill.

When I was a kid I felt like holiday’s were magical and sparkling. I loved them! I was the child who was MOST identified with the wonder of the season, in my family. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve noticed that the time actually produces an intense sadness, and sometimes even a kind of anxiety that grips me. Thanks to some solid mentoring in my life I’ve been able to identify what was going on…the holiday’s—with all their wonder—are like heavy lifting for my soul. Big payoffs…but also a lot of self-punishment and pressure. In fact this time of year, and especially around my family of origin, I start to shut down just a little. I get…GRINCH.

I’ve come to realize, I’m hardly alone. In my work with men I’ve discovered that for many of us the holiday season is filled with pressure to perform, painful memories and triggering interactions. Men tend to underperform in this setting. I commonly hear men say that they shut down, they hide, they sedate or numb. What’s the turn into? More often than not, just the feeling of being used—throwing cash at the kids, while inwardly hiding.

But things don't have to stay toxic.  Actually the holiday's and the potential of trigger's coming up make it the best time to explore the hurt that's lying underneath.  We can settle into an experience of "ourselves" and the basic goodness of life, so that when the buttons are pushed, we don't explode.

I'll freely admit that family, especially my parents, but also my siblings, and my own children, trigger me to no end.  But, in doing this, they help me become who I really hope to be, and actually am.  By directing my attention to the hurting places when the pain occurs, my family unknowingly, allows me insight into where the work needs to be done. As the old saying goes, "the wolf that howls is the one that got hit." The hurting parts of our selves are the places that need to be attended to.  From the place of healthy ego-strength we're able use these frustrating moments to identify and address the underlying pain--fragmented, and tender.

When we realize that our relationships can act as mirrors, instead of writing people off, we can actually come to a place of gratitude, where we thank them for such provoking behavior or attitudes, because we can deal with the unfinished business needing work.

So--from this strength position, we can welcome the holiday's as an opportunity to do the work, to grow, and be shaped by deep truth.  Imagine the healing that could come from this shift of attitude.  That's something to be thankful for.

A Step By Step Guide

  • Take the hit—step one is literally this…just STOP. Fucking pause. Freeze your body. Don’t move. Don’t say a word. Don’t do a single blessed thing. Just stop. Breathe. Get the air conditioning going….respirate.

  • Feel the feelings—you don’t have to try and control them, modulate them, or distort them. Just notice them: who, what, when, and where. See if you can locate the PHYSICAL SENSATION that occurs when Aunt Glady’s says that annoying as hell comment, or your child shrieks for the thirteenth time that they need help, or your dad refuses to acknowledge you are your own man. Where do you feel that on your body? What’s happening in you?

  • Observe the impulse— again, there’s no need to act on this. You don’t have to go to the store on the 5th errand just yet (come on—we all know that you’re just going to smoke an unplanned cigarette that you allegedly quit anyway). You don’t need to bite off Uncle Frank’s head. Don’t do it. Just notice. Log it in your invisible anthropology journal (I like to play the anthropologist game in my imagination where I pretend to be observing myself like an alien might. “The human is now feeling his blood boil….the human is having the impulse to explode…etc…”). Just notice.

  • Name the feeling—put the sensation in your body, together with the impulse you just observed and give it a name. Believe you me, this is harder than it sounds actually. Sometimes you think that its anger—when really its fear. Sometimes you imagine its love, when its lust…etc…You sort of have to actually go to the root. And lets face it—most men just want to move forward. Do yourself (and us all) the favor and wait…really get to the root of it and name the feeling, cool?

  • Decide what would be effective—You know what you want to do…but is it effective? Is it really worth it? Is it actually the justifiable action? These are valid questions. They deserve real responses. An action urge is justified if the emotion is legitimate. For instance the urge associated with SHAME is to hide. So you have to ask the question—do I really have something I SHOULD be ashamed of? If so, then you’d need to ask if that’s actually effective to do? Would hiding yourself, or withdrawing actually accomplish your long term goals? (And by the way—some time’s the answer is totally YES!) The same would go for ANGER whose accompanying impulse is to fight back, to retaliate, or to push through. Is the anger justified? Is a goal really truly being blocked, or do you just have a short fuse? Etc…then—even if it IS justified—would it be effective to actually hit Uncle Frank? You get the idea.

  • Act and bear the consequences—This is that moment when you get to do what your highest and best self has counseled you to do. This is exciting! You get to take it on. And just notice the difference. It genuinely feels better. Doesn’t it?

The Gift of Being Triggered

Our thoughts, feelings, and intention-making capacity are littered with trigger points.  All it takes is the wrong person to set one of them off.  The truth is that usually it takes someone special to detonate one of those.  That makes sense right?  Our entire lives we've built up emotional armor to protect ourselves and prevent getting hurt.  The folks we let in are really the ones who have access to those incredibly tender spaces--where most of our explosive capacities are hidden.

So our spouse gets blasted with a wall of quiet rage.

Our children are hammered with our need for control and our frustration at being OUT of control.

Our best friends take the majority of our inner critique and then our over-compensating sense of blind-loyalty (which as a side note is as detrimental as being judgmental).

You get the idea....

The reason is because our deepest wounds are most accessed by those closest to us.

When we're triggered, when something in our thoughts or feelings or choosings is detonated, and we switch into fight or flight mode--it becomes an opportunity to see exactly where the wound is--where we are broken, and defensive of.

These places of reaction hold within them the capacity to become a road map of our psyche--showing us exactly where we need to be transformed next.

We are tempted to withdraw from relationships when triggered too much, and in the cases of abuse or mental or physical harm this is absolutely appropriate. But for most of us, we simply become disillusioned with discomfort and run, rather than realize the gift of such spaces. We will experience transformation to the degree that we allow our relationship with others, and most of all the failures involved within them, to be SELF revealing.

It's always about us...but will we be awake enough to notice?

This holiday season, why not allow those trigger points to become moments where you notice who you are and what your armors are. It’s time to put the child aside, and become the man.

Cut Off

Now, I know what you're thinking. AND this isn't an article about circumcission. Well, not exactly. It's about the experience of being emotionally castrated, particularly as men. Severed from the source of your emotions, you walk through the world passionless, mission less, directionless. You've been cut off. 

Ok. Draw in a breath. Scan your own body, your emotions, your interpretations--and take a deep dive into the heart of manhood, today.

THINKING LIKE AN ANTHROPOLOGIST

If an alien anthropologist was watching you in a coffee shop, here's what they'd see.

Hunched over, squinting at your too-large-phone X, snarling at the screen. Bristling when you're bumped. Shoving your way to the bathrooms--and then when you've accidentally tripped someone, ruthlessly apologizing. You grunt loudly when someone makes a move you don't like. You roll your eyes to almost any disturbance, but when directly confronted you're all smiles. 

When you get into your car to drive away a new scene unfolds. The alien anthropologist sees you look indignant as someone refuses to let you into traffic, as if someone just kicked your puppy. Another car cuts you off and you've apparently had enough. You launch into a tirade of verbal diarrhea under your breath, and then wave and smile at them. 

If you're a father, you come home from work, and instantly demand to know why the dishes haven't been put away. The toys need to be up, off the ground. The kids should at least look bathed.  Your spouse should be upbeat, positive. At the slightest sign of any alarm, any surprise, you can be found slinking away to sulk in the next room, away from the situation that was beyond your control. Everyone knows to cross their t's and dot their i's with you. If they don't you meet them with a simmering, seething silence. .

Anxious. Nervous. On edge. 

All of these are signs of latent frustration.

This, is you. A picture of manhood. 

Yet...

THE RIVER, DENIAL

The minute a person ask's if you might be angry-or directly state that this is their experience of you--you, like many men, will do backflips to protest. You'll wring your hands in agony trying to convince the observer that you weren't in fact angry. Maybe a little irritated, you admit. Perhaps even annoyed, but angry? God no, you say. And if the person presses you on this point, you'll kindly emphasize that they don't really know you, after all. 

I've known countless men like you in my career as psychotherapist and men's coach. And, with the rare exception, I hear something like this:

"Well...while I may get angry sometimes...I try not to show it. I don't want to express my anger. And I try not to make others angry either."

"Why?" I ask.

"Because things like Anger lead to hatred and Violence...and I've grown beyond that."

Sound familiar?

One man I was working with shared that he had been fired unjustly. He shared how he had been lied about, and maligned. When I asked how this effected him, he noted: "It made me sad." Yes, that makes perfect sense. But, was there something else, some OTHER equally justified emotion? No, was the answer. No anger. Zero.

Another man I interacted with around these issues was raised by parents that abused him--which caused him to grieve, a wife who was openly cheating on him--which made him feel despair, and employees who refused to respect him--which created confusion in his mind. Again, no anger. 

Are these simply more highly evolved specimens of masculinity? Can it be that these fine gentleman have been able to shed over 1.5 million years of affective (emotional) selection and wiring in their life time? 

I'm going to argue that in fact these men are emotionally castrated.

THE FUNCTION OF AN EMOTION

Researchers in affective psychology help us understand that every emotion has a purpose. Emotions didn't evolve in a vacuum. In fact they are adaptive elements involved in a constant feedback loop performing several key functions. 

1) Emotions inform US about what's going on

2) Emotions inform OTHERS about what's going on

3) Emotions motivate us towards action.

In other words, emotional experience is deeply important. Every single emotion that we feel is telling us something, and organizing us around achieving some sort of result. There aren't good or bad emotions--there are simply emotions. Sometimes these emotions are justified, and sometimes they aren't. 

For instance--if some one died, and I broke out laughing, that wouldn't be justified. The cause wouldn't fit the effect. In fact you'd think I might have lost my mind. Or, if my child got bullied in school, shame wouldn't necessarily be the justifiable experience. This doesn't mean these emotions are INVALID, but rather simply not congruent with what is going on. They're certainly telling you something, though they might not always be telling you the correct things.

Now--the function of ANGER is this: it is motivating action when a goal is blocked or has been thwarted. Simple, right? If I didn't get that promotion unjustly, then I might reasonably feel anger. If I suspect my wife is cheating on me, then I should feel justified anger. Once I asked a classroom of young men when they feel justified anger, and one said: "When I'm playing soccer and someone blocks my game winning goal!"  That's the exact function. Now--what does that anger do for him?  It actually organizes him to overcome the obstacle!  He now doubles down on solving the problem. Propelled by the emotion of anger he plays harder, he puts all doubt out of his mind, he focusses and he scores the next goal.  Get it? Anger has a profound purpose.  In human history we see that it was THIS emotion that helped us achieve tremendous advances. Whenever there was a setback or an obstruction, anger helped play a part in overcoming this.

In other words--it would be ridiculous to evolve past this feedback loop. In fact the limbic system and the emotion neural network are some of the most ingrained and efficient parts of a human. There are even some philosopher's and psychologist's who argue that this is the core of our basic sapiential experience. 

Losing touch with our emotions--ANY OF THEM--has unseen consequences that often times cause greater problems. As Brene Brown, one of my least favorite pop-psychologists says (accurately), "You can't cut off one emotion without cutting off the rest..."  

And here's the truth:

When a man is emotionally castrated you have lost touch with the fullness of your masculine essence. This tends to come across as anxiety. You are afraid to be alone, afraid to assert yourself, afraid to take part in things or participate with an open stance, you are afraid to express anger, or have anger expressed towards them. Maybe you run a successful business or even have numerous relationships--but my guess is that you don't experience real satisfaction. My assumption is you go from one lily pad to the next hoping "this one will be it" but each one disappoints. 

Why?

You're never going to find fulfillment as long as you are afraid of incarnating your full masculine force which includes anger!

While men experience actual anger,  their inability to express it ends up producing passionless people. Literally you've disowned your passions.

If you are afraid to express your anger, then you are afraid to experience your passions too. Men without the ability to be angry are men without the ability to love or live. 

WHY NOT FEEL ANGER?

A common story among men I interact with is that they've witnessed or heard of destructive anger, or rage. They've watched as their father's took out toxic anger on their mother's or loved ones, or even themselves. They've learned first hand the cost of letting anger get out of control.  Maybe you too have known this type of explosive rage or "toxic masculinity." It can be powerfully destructive and leave long term wounds.

Many men have also, particularly within the past 30 years, received the societal message of "aggression aversion" drilled into them. Anything that could lead to the potentiality of violence is seen as damning and to be avoided at all costs. Boys especially are being taught to be KIND, be GENTLE, be SWEET, and to NEVER-EVER-EVER fight. And frankly, they haven't had to fight their own battles all that much. James Scott, the well known anthropologist noted that in our current system, the State has a monopoly on violence. It is not as though people stop experiencing the impulse to be violent, they simply pick up the phone and call their local law enforcement.

In a culture that has watched a record decline in violent crime across the last 15 years, we have also witnessed a sharp increase in falsely reported, and over-reported criminal behavior, as well as all time highs in law suits and other civil challenges. These changes have led to the corollary of heightened isolation and relationship-fatigue. We have traded over aggression for the chill of dispassionate relationship, or state-sponsored violence.

It is apparent that in many ways we have simply sublimated our violence.  Scott points out that this sort of displacement tends to serve racially motivated outcomes. One commentator, building on this work, noted that there is a gendered and racial bias implicit in the use of State violence, largely against males, a majority of which are African American.

We haven't become less angry or violent. We've simply hidden it. Buried it and blamed others for it  

The reality of keeping the peace is largely played out in an inability to sit with or effectively process anger. Rather than learning how to experience it in healthy ways, we neglect the emotion at all until it becomes a deafening source of rage, or numbness. 

One man I know recently confessed: "If I were to tell you how I really felt about the situation that made me angry, I'd probably end up killing someone." Underneath this statement is a deep sense that he will be left out of control, Embarrassed and alone. It makes total sense why a man might not want to tap into this emotion. 

Positive  examples of emotional expression are hard to find. There are few places to practice safe anger.

ANGER, NOT RAGE

When it comes to affective psychology, historians tell us that we're actually witnessing a bit of a phenomenon. Evolutionary psychologists theorize that the heightened emotions that we currently exhibit (rage, despair, ecstasy, etc) are more recent than historic. Had emotions developed at these heightened levels, we would have not progressed as a species. An infant who is inconsolable would be left to tend to themselves. Men enraged might well annihilate themselves. Instead, our long track record was probably an extension of mid-level emotions in which we had a range available to us, but rarely dipped into the extremes. Today we see countless examples of living at those extremes. Men’s inability to express anger is matched by our current rates of despair, and closely related to our obsession with the feeling of ecstasy as a lasting state. We are either all hot, or all cold. Frankly, we don’t know how to have balance. 

One of the reasons, researchers say, that we’ve lost the ability to regulate our emotions effectively is that we have lost what they call: “environments of evolutionary adaptivity.” Holding spaces. Practice places  

it’s hard to utilize what you don’t use routinely.   

By creating environments where emotions may be attempted, feedback may be given, and direct change can be applied, we begin to learn a more balanced path. 

What emotionally castrated men have been missing is this: Tribe.

A place where you can learn to experience anger--NOT RAGE, but real and tangible anger. You can speak your pain. You can feel it in your bones. You can challenge another man, and be challenged by him. This seemingly "unsafe" space actually becomes a place of real safety, where you don't have to wonder about the passive aggressive take-away the man next to you is leaving with. Why not? Because he's serving it up to you right there. He's not terrified of devouring you should he express his anger. And you know that you're ok in speaking your mind. It's going to be all-fucking-right.

MOVING FORWARD

You need this, because you need to feel alive again. You need this because you need to connect with your mission. Fuck, even if you don't feel that--your wife probably does. Your kids probably do. Your employees do. Everyone around you gets it. You are disconnected and cut off. They just don't know what the answer is.  And you probably don’t either.

Here’s a starting point: 

Find a tribe of men willing to hold your truth. Don't give up. Don't run. Don't lick your wounds in isolation. Choose to keep your feet to the fire and feel that anger. Learn to find balance. And then once you've mastered it in this practice space, expand to the rest of your world. Start learning how to use it at work, in negotiation, and in relationships. Figure out how to overcome the obstacles you face, by connecting to your 1.5 million year old challenge-conquering emotional system.

Discover. Your. Anger.