emotions

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.