When we first come into this life, we experience the world entirely through felt perception. We feel the world before we see the world. Feeling and emotion is not only the heart of your life here on earth, it is also the heart of your relationships. Given this truth, it is obvious why it is such a big problem that we have a negative relationship with our emotions. Our relationship with our own emotions and other people’s emotions begins in our childhood. In today’s world, most parents ignore the world of emotion entirely. They adhere to typical parenting advice, which focuses on how to correct misbehavior whilst disregarding the feelings that underlie and cause the misbehavior. Regardless of how far we have progressed, the goal of parenting is still to have a compliant and obedient child, not to raise a healthy adult. The goal is to raise a child who is “good”. Our justice system takes the exact same approach with regards to misbehavior. We are concerned with correcting misbehavior and creating good citizens whilst being unconcerned with the feelings that motivate such misbehavior. Good parenting involves emotion. Good relationships involve emotion.
Today, most parents make three crucial mistakes, the same ones that were most likely made with you when you were growing up. 1. They disapprove of their children’s emotions, 2. They dismiss their children’s emotions and 3. They offer no guidance to a child with regards to their emotions. The parent who disapproves of their child’s emotions is critical of their children’s displays of negative emotion and reprimand or punish for emotional expression. The parent, who dismisses their child’s emotions, disregards them as important, ignores their child’s emotions or worse, trivializes their child’s emotions. And the parent, who offers no guidance, may empathize with their child’s emotions, but does not set limits on behavior or assist the child in understanding and coping with their emotion. The most damaging aspect of emotional dismissal and disapproval is as follows. When a parent disapproves of their child’s emotion or dismisses it, the child begins to accept the parent’s estimation of the event and learns to doubt his or her own judgment. As a result, the child loses confidence in themself. When emotional dysfunction rules the relationship, the child learns that they have no right to feel how they feel. They learn that it is wrong to feel how they feel. In short, they learn that it is wrong to feel the way that they feel. Now here’s the crux, the child believes that if it is wrong to feel the way they feel, but they feel that way, something must be wrong with them.
Because this is how our parents taught us to treat emotion, this is how we treat our own feelings and each other’s feelings as adults. Our friendships and romantic relationships are painful because we do not know how to emotionally relate with one another. We fail to develop true intimacy with one another. We dismiss each other’s emotions. We disapprove of each other’s feelings. We tell other people how they should and shouldn’t feel. We have no patience for the emotional needs of others. We see emotions and feelings as weakness. We call people who display emotions, sensitive. And as a result, our adult relationships are emotionally unhealthy.
When we learn one way or another over the course of our lives that it is not ok to have feelings, there is one particular strategy we use to deal with our emotion that is the most dysfunctional and damaging in the long run. We learn how to “tune out” our emotions, disconnect from them, deny them, disown them, suppress them and likewise banish them from our awareness. In other words, we stop feeling. It is as if feelings in their entirety are unacceptable and so they are delegated to the subconscious mind. At a more minor level, this is like a perpetual numbness and/or suppression and on a more serious level, this is dissociation.
Your feelings are not only the key to good relationships with yourself and others; they are your guidance system in life. So learning how to feel is as critical as learning how to use a compass in the open sea. The better you are at feeling, the deeper your connection with life will be. The better you are at feeling, the more clarity you have. The better you are at feeling, the faster you will heal. The better you are at feeling, the more aware you are of what you really want. The better you are at feeling, the more sensitive your internal navigation system will be and thus the easier it will be to come into alignment and thus experience the kind of life that reflects that alignment.
So here are some tips for how to start feeling:
1. Admit to where you are. You’ve got to be aware that you are not really aware of how you feel in order to turn your awareness deliberately towards feeling and begin to feel again. Reflect back on your childhood and life up to this point. What was it about your environment that led you to believe that emotions are threatening or dangerous? What experiences were you adapting to? I’ll tip you off… Lack of emotional awareness and connection is most often associated with what we call an avoidant attachment pattern in children, which develops into a dismissing attachment pattern in adults. This situation develops when a child does not get consistent or reliable emotional support from caregivers and adapts by emphasizing his or her self-sufficiency. An avoidant attachment pattern does not necessarily imply that parents were negligent. It does mean that parents, or other significant caregivers, exhibited a dismissing attachment pattern themselves. In that they taught the child that they were not reliable, especially emotionally and so relying on them and depending on that connection and intimacy with them was emotionally dangerous. A child might respond in childhood or early adulthood by distancing from that parent, adopting a dismissing stance towards that relationship and adopting the belief “I’m all good, I don’t need others and they aren’t the most important thing to me, I’m fine on my own”.
2. Practice coming back into your body. Sometimes if we can’t feel, it’s because we are not really embodied. Our consciousness is trying to avoid being in the body. As adults we’re conditioned to live outside our body, to always be focused externally. Also, if we were ever unsafe in our bodies, this motivation to live outside the body becomes stronger and stronger. We need to slow down and consciously imagine (which is calling the consciousness back) that our consciousness is sinking or dropping back into our body. Massaging or holding your ankles and feet while you do this is a good idea, as it can ground you back into the physical dimension. Lying in warm water can assist this process as well. Another good technique you can use is to take a breath and imagine that you are breathing that breath retroactively into your body as you exhale. 3. It is tempting to think that something about you is broken or that feeling is buried so deep you have no access to it. This is not the case. Your emotions are always giving you accurate feedback about yourself and your inner truth in each situation, whether you are allowing yourself to become aware of those feelings or not. Many of us simply bypass how we feel so quickly with our mind or actions that we do not stop long enough to become aware of how we feel. This habit must be broken. The first thing you need to do is to buy a little journal to carry with you during the day. Set a timer to go off at random intervals throughout the day and each time it goes off, close your eyes and scan the inside of your body. You are going to pretend that your skin separates your internal world from your external world. And the goal of the exercise is to “check in” with the internal world and write down the feelings you notice in this journal each time the timer goes off. These feelings could come with labels like emotions, such as shame or joy. If you’re confused about emotions, print off a sheet of paper that lists the various emotions and try to select the one that best represents your inner state at that time. Or the feelings could just be pure sensations, such as tightness or swelling or buzzing. After you get comfortable with simply reporting your emotion in the journal, reflect on what you think is giving rise to the feeling you are experiencing. For example, if you feel shame, you might become aware of the fact that you’ve been feeling this way ever since your boss put you on the spot at the company meeting.
4. Make use of particularly strong feelings to become aware of feeling. Use sensations that arise in your body in reaction to things as an alarm bell. Each time you feel a strong sensation that is the internal alarm going off saying “there’s something important here, pay attention to me”. So turn your attention inwards and sit with the emotion, give it your undivided attention and unconditional presence. Instead of trying to bypass, ignore, fix or heal the emotions, embrace the feelings and emotions entirely, no matter how painful they may be. Be with the feelings and emotions instead of trying to change them. Listen to them and what they need you to know. Observe the sensations and feelings and emotions in your body. They will intensify as you focus on them. Breathe continuously without unnecessary pauses between breaths. Breathe in and out of your nose. Notice the way you feel. Your entire goal is to be with your feelings, which is to fully be with yourself the way you truly are right here and now. For more detailed instructions about how to do this process, watch my video on YouTube titled: How to Heal the Emotional Body.
5. Create feeling experiences (both subtle and not so subtle, both positive and negative) for yourself specifically so you can pay attention to the feeling reactions you have to what is happening within your internal world. The whole goal of this exercise is to become aware of how experiences feel to you. Some examples of feeling experiences could be riding a ride at an amusement park, watching different movies that are designed to elicit different feelings within you, hanging out with different people from different cultures and social groups, climbing a mountain, having your skin rubbed with something soft, getting into an argument or another emotionally charged situation, swimming in the ocean, getting stuck in traffic, intentionally trying to or allowing yourself to feel someone else’s pain, visiting a homeless shelter or animal pound etc. See if you can notice not just the feeling from extreme experiences, but also the feeling from subtle, seemingly insignificant experiences.
6. Watch how emotion responds to thought. Deliberately think a thought that is horrible. Watch the feeling reaction you have to that thought. Deliberately think a thought that is wonderful. Watch the feeling reaction you have to the thought as if you were just observing it happen. Play around with different thoughts, both image thoughts such as the image of a coral reef and word thoughts such as “I am a failure”. And watch how the feeling response within you shifts and changes. 7. Address what you are afraid will happen if you do feel. Unveil the positive intention you have behind suppressing, denying, rejecting, or being unable to feel your emotions. We only ever engage in something that we subconsciously think serves us positively in some way. But often this positive intention is buried so deep that we do not have conscious awareness of it. Our healing depends on us being brave enough to uncover and be honest with ourselves about those buried positive intentions. Ask yourself… what bad thing will happen if I feel? The answer may be, I will be out of control. Then ask yourself, what is the hidden positive intention I have for not feeling? The answer might be, “I get to be in control”. You’ve got to make peace with or release resistance to what you’re trying to avoid by not feeling in order to feel. Also, you need to alter your perspective about getting whatever you’re getting out of not feeling in order to allow yourself to be conscious of how you feel. For example, you’ve got to release resistance to the idea of being out of control and/or see that feeling emotions does not mean you’re out of control and/or let go of the need to be in control in order to start feeling if the hidden positive intention of not feeling is to stay in control. By discovering the hidden positive intentions behind the things we struggle with, we can find different, healthy ways to fulfill our needs so there will be no longer be a reason to perpetuate negative situations in order to meet those needs.
8. Let yourself express emotions that you are aware that you feel. This eventually involves talking about your emotion to others in a meaningful way. For more on how to do this, watch my video on YouTube titled: How to Express Your Emotion. 9. Willingly feel for and experience the despair within you. Despair is a complete absence or loss of hope. It is utter powerlessness. Face it. A cover emotion is an emotion that exists to keep you out of a lower vibrational feeling. For example, anger is a cover emotion for fear. The cover emotions are like ice over a lake that prevents you from falling into the deep water beneath. Numbness or lack of feeling is in fact a cover emotion for the emotion of despair. The willingness and choice to acknowledge, feel and experience that despair, makes it so there is no longer a purpose for the numbness to exist. Anytime the feeling of despair surfaces within you, treat it like your doorway to freedom from disconnection and your doorway to feeling.
10. “Call off the Guards”. People, who have a hard time feeling, in fact use mental techniques in a very subconscious way to remove themselves from the experience of fully feeling. For example, they may immediately resort to spiritual bypassing or minimizing events or engaging in a focus or addictive behavior that gets their mind off it. They use their cognitive abilities and their intense sense for potential emotional trouble to “head major emotions off at the pass”. People who are that good at depersonalizing, or 'de-emotionalizing' their experiences recognize when emotions are about to occur, they are even more aware than most people are of the bodily changes in body language, skin heat and perspiration or arousal for example. But they are so quick to avoid the intensity of these experiences that they then use their mind to intellectualize the experience, which immediately cuts the charge out of an emotion! Your ability to feel depends on becoming aware of this 6th sense you have for knowing when emotions are about to occur and becoming aware of how you use your mind to shut them down before they actualize. Imagine these behaviors and thoughts designed to keep you out of charged emotion like guards and once you become adept at catching yourself in the act of this defense mechanism, choose to “call of the guards” by not employing those thoughts and actions and instead, letting yourself fully feel the hit of the emotion you were tempted to head off at the pass.
Feeling is the hallmark of being alive. A life without feeling is no life at all. So allow the feeling experience of life to move through you, if it scares you to do so, let the fear of feeling move through you completely and soon, you will feel yourself come back to life.