Have you heard?
We need to feel our feelings.
Seriously, it’s all over my instagram.
In the first few weeks of COVID, it was exercise challenges, sourdough starters, and closet cleaning. About two/three weeks in, the tune changed to no showers, three-day-old yoga pants, Twizzlers for dinner. Things to do, things to not do. All the cool kids say so.
And now? Well, now it’s time to feel our feelings, apparently.
In the words of my fifty-six year old client, Carl (not his real name), “what the hell does feeling your feelings mean anyhow?”
Can I get an AMEN? And I do feelings for a living.
Folks, we need to unpack this, and fast.
First, let’s start with a quick quiz: don’t worry — It’s only one question. Short essay is fine.
“What’s the difference between feelings and emotions?”
Before you panic, I want you to know that very smart people whom I love, admire, and look to for all of life’s instructions are confused about this, too.
And my question is about more than semantics, I promise.
We use the words feelings and emotions interchangeably. For the most part, it’s harmless. But these days a lot of well-meaning folks on social media and elsewhere are encouraging people to “feel feelings” without any clear instruction as to what that means or why it’s important.
So let’s start with an imperfect metaphor:
Let’s pretend your feelings are a camping tent — it’s a certain size (big feelers have big tents) and a certain color (you decide-green can be happy-ish, if you like) and is predictably easy/hard to manage. Most of us are pretty familiar with our tents and are conscious of them because they are obvious. You can have more than one feelings tent and certainly looking over the span of a lifetime, you may have had several.
Most of my early childhood was spent a small, tight, blue tent of anxiety. My adolescence was a large, gray, depressive tent. My mid-twenties onward have generally been a medium-sized, green, happy-ish tent with the occasional visit back to my blue and gray tents of yesteryear.
When my mom died this past summer I was torn from my comfy, green tent and spent a few months in a one-person, black tent of grief and despair. I’m mostly back in the green, but I have been known to move around.
Now let’s look at emotions. Emotions are more like bugs buzzing in and out of our tent. Unlike your feelings tent, these emotions are generally unconscious and are generated by things the things happen in your life (past and present). The emotion bugs zip in and out of the tent, sometimes many at the same time, and can have a significant impact on your overall sense of yourself but without awareness, they are even there.
Just like actual bugs in the forest, there are a lot of emotions. For the sake of common understanding let’s use the list of core emotions published in 2020 by vulnerability guru, Brene Brown:
Anger, Anxious, Belonging, Blame, Curious, Disappointed, Disgust, Embarrassment, Empathy, Excited, Fear/Scared, Frustrated, Gratitude, Grief, Guilt, Happy, Humiliation, Hurt, Jealous, Joy, Judgement, Lonely, Love, Overwhelmed, Regret, Sad, Shame, Surprised, Vulnerability (of course) and Worried.
Let me give an example of how this works: Take my client Carl — He’s a generally happy guy who noticed his overall tent (the way he was aware of feeling most of the day) seemed to change from happy to angry when he went to work. When he slowed down and took a deeper look inside his tent he noticed every time his boss gave him an instruction, (in booming, assertive voice, like Carl’s father’s), Carl felt fearful, sad, and worried.
If my client had followed the instruction to “feel his feelings” he would have sat in only his anger. Think about it. How often have you stewed in anger and just gotten angrier? No insight, no emotional relief or care, just more angry. Honestly, if that’s the instruction, it’s not only unhelpful, but it can be dangerous.
Let’s pretend we altered the phrase to “examine your emotions.” See how that changes things? To answer my client Carl’s question — “how do we feel our feelings?” we need to pause and identify the specific bugs inside the tent. In an anger tent, we may find a host of other emotional bugs including sadness, fear, and grief. Often the hard work is in the identification.
Look, I’ll be honest, most people I know use therapy to help identify the bugs. We didn’t get great emotional education at school. Many folks don’t know the most reliable bug detector is our physical system. Our bodies feel fear, anger, joy, shame, excitement, etc., in our five senses. We experience tension in our neck, restricted breathing, exploding energy through our chest. Each sensation is connected to emotions. The issue for most of us, myself included, is we are so cut off from our physical system or lacking in emotional fluency, the bugs can change the overall tent from happyish-green to an angry red without us understanding why.
In my childhood, I’d been pretty cut off from sadness of any kind even though the death of a loved one was one of my formidable childhood events. The world outside my tent didn’t tolerate sadness and grief well. The legacy of that experience over time is instead of sadness, now I sense anger first. She shows up with double guns drawn — obvious, every time. Right behind her, is always sadness and fear. Anytime I’m in the tent and see one of the emotional bug trifecta, I know to look for the other two.
This process is important because experiencing sadness is very different than anger. Most people have a sense that sadness is connected to crying and then….and then what? What do we do after we cry? What if you have some angry or frustrated emotional bugs? How many people do you know who can sit with an anger bug wondering where it came from, and what it wants and needs us to know or do? Most people I’ve met just try and squish it.
Why does it even matter?
It matters because our emotions drive our behavior, and how we create meaning. And lately, people have LOTS more bugs in their tents and their behavior is making less and less sense to them and those around them.
Let’s go back to my client. If Carl continued to just feel angry as he had for months, he may have created an overall meaning that his anger indicated he needed to find a better place to work, with better people and where he felt less angry. Carl would quit his very good job.
Instead, in pausing to identify the bugs of sadness and fear, Carl became aware of how often sadness flits in and out of his tent. He’d had so much unidentified and under-supported sadness as child, when he felt sadness as an adult it often felt overly big — too much to carry. It brought in frustration and anger to help carry the load.
In therapy, Carl sat with sadness. He cried. He looked around for other emotions (helplessness, hopelessness). He connected his feelings to current behaviors (smoking, yelling, shopping). He identified what he wished could have happened for him in childhood (empathy, compassion, intervention by an adult of his behalf). He sent compassion to his suffering kid self and ultimately decided to put some of the sadness down for good or at least for long stretches.
Then Carl did the same for fear and a host of other emotions. Lather, rinse, repeat.
The emotional bugs are less of a nuisance to Carl these days, though he still feels sadness and anger, particularly triggered by his boss’ tone of voice. He recognizes when it happens, and it makes sense to him. He feels it (making space to feel it more if need be, by taking a walk around the building and calling his wife). He identifies other emotional bugs, feels the emotion in his body, allows them to take up space in his thoughts, checks if he needs to do anything differently to meet his emotional needs (advocate for himself to his boss, for example) and moves forward.
When the outside of the tent is stormy (COVID, poverty, war, etc.) or the inside of the tent is full of other distractions (physical issues like illness, pregnancy, hormonal changes, etc.) we often have a hard time slowing down to investigate the bugs. Many of us have complicated insides and outsides. Feeling our feelings is not always the best way to survive or manage the present.
Those of us in the therapy field are having conversations in the background about the psychological trauma we anticipate this COVID pandemic to create in the coming months and years. If we can get this little bit of support right, we might mitigate some of the negative lasting effects. Many people survive and thrive through traumatic events — they are not better than the rest of us, they are often simply better supported.
For the moment let’s say, its okay to feel your feelings and it’s even okay to avoid your feelings (the Instagram memes actually mean its okay to be a mess of feelings). If you discover you want/need help identifying the emotional bugs in your tent, call a professional. Each person’s tent and bugs look different, and while there are some self-help books that can get you started, you deserve individual support. Therapists are doing online work — it’s even more accessible these days. For private clinicians in your area try searching by zip code at Psychology Today, contact your health insurance for in-network provider, contact your employer about their Employee Assitance Program (EAP) which offers free or discounted mental health services, or search government-sponsored organizations.
If therapy doesn’t make sense for you, just keep looking for the bugs. Some won’t matter at all, but if you can slow down and take a detective’s inventory you will likely discover many more bugs than two months ago. If you can make the bugs make sense, figure out how to live with them in your tent or even set them free — well, that’s feeling your feelings, Carl.
In the meantime, God Speed with the push-up challenge, let me how the bread turns out, and Good luck in your tent.
Meghan Riordan Jarvis is a psychotherapist, author, wife, and mother of three. After losing both her parents within two years of each other she began Grief Is My Side Hustle. (www.griefismysidehustle.com).