I was telling a girlfriend last night at dinner that when I first started to learn to express my feelings it was so painful I felt like I was going to die. Even saying as something as simple as “My feelings are hurt” felt like my heart was being ripped out as I said it. Maybe this is because I was never in touch with my feelings to begin with. Since the heart is the seat of our emotions, I guess it would make sense that’s where I would feel the pain.
Why is it so hard for many of us to express our feelings? Because we’re not used to it. It’s foreign and unknown and because of this, it’s not only scary, but it’s simply something we don’t know how to do. I certainly had no connection to my feelings at all. Actually, that’s not true. I was definitely angry all the time. I was really good at feeling sad and mad. In fact, I think that’s all I knew and all I did for years was fluctuate between one and the other. A moment of happiness was a most awkward and uncomfortable thing. If I found myself having a good belly laugh about something I was suddenly self-conscious of myself and this strange tingling feeling in my body. And that scared the crap out of me. Even being in touch with my body was frightening. I grew up being raised Catholic and the body was taboo. How it felt, what it did, and especially what is lusted after was all bad. You didn’t go there. While many of us may not have been raised Catholic, we may have been raised in other religious environments where being in touch with your body, its sensations, and its sensuality were all the devil’s work. This really creates a disconnect and a dismemberment of ourselves.
It’s no secret (at least anymore) that I went to rehab for alcohol addiction, not once, not twice, but three times. It was the final program that helped me get out and it was different than the traditional 12-step based program. We got in touch with our feelings every day. In fact, each group therapy session started with writing down three feeling words. What you felt at the moment, no judging, no thinking, just a quick “pulse check” as our group counselor liked to call it. I had a hell of a time doing this exercise, of course. I would often think about a counselor I had at a previous rehab program and what she said to me. She would say “Kerry, you’re nothing but a floating head.” Meaning I was so stuck in my head and thinking everything that I was completely disconnected from my body. Thus, I was disconnected from my emotions. She was right. My body was a bad place to be and my feelings were part of that.
It’s not just religious upbringing that might instill stunted growth in your emotional capabilities of expressing yourself, but your family of origin or even the inter-personal dynamics in it. My father is what you would call New England stoic. He is the epitome of the silent and self-reliant American man who shows no emotion. In fact, he was mostly emotionally unavailable to a small girl, a teenage girl, a grown woman. You see, this created a detachment problem. My stay at home mother, who was a Germanic disciplinarian and often stressed, would quite frequently yell or use the silent treatment to command obeying the rules.
If I’m unable to connect with my core family members in an emotionally enriching way and I’m taught that being in touch with my body is evil, it’s a potent combination for some serious dysfunction when it comes to expressing my feelings. Thus, it’s important to understand where you might have been stunted in learning how to get in touch with and express your emotions and feelings. Do some searching and focus on some self-discovery in this regard to see what you might find. It will help you move past it by knowing what it is.
Expressing ones feelings is what is needed for healing and growth. Otherwise, these things get pent up and have nowhere to go. They get suppressed and turn into ugly emotions like rage, and can exhibit themselves through depression and violence, even violence against oneself.
So, I challenge you to start small. Ask yourself how am I feeling right now? Am I feeling frustrated, elated, disappointed, hurt, silly, or….? Don’t judge what comes, just notice it. And then, let it be. Let it breathe. Do this once a day. Over time, it will become habit and you’ll find yourself better understanding your emotional landscape. Then, you can begin to speak it out loud. “I’m feeling hurt.” “I’m feeling proud.” I’m feeling sad.” These are all just feelings and expressions of a moment in time, which too, shall pass. So let them ride like the wind and float away like dandelion puffs. But just for that moment when you blew your breath on it, you were connected with it. And in this connection, you validated yourself, your unique you, and you gave that self a voice. Thus, you honored you. Learn to get in touch with your feelings, learn to speak them out loud, and most importantly, learn to honor the wonderful you that is you.