Beyond 101: Feels (part one: what the hell is a feel, anyway?)
Let’s talk about feelings.
My qualifications: I often refer to myself as “in the trenches.” I’m not a neurobiologist or a medical doctor. My understanding of the way the brain works comes from only slightly more education on the matter than a lay person. I use a lot of metaphor and simplified explanations. If you want more in-depth information on how the brain works by readable authors, I suggest you check out Oliver Sacks and Jill Bolte Taylor.
Okay, those of you who didn’t panic and run away, congratulations. I’m continually amazed by how difficult it can be to get people to talk about feelings. We’re all good to be judgmental of others, though. If you ever want to start a conversation with anyone, talk shit about something. People will instantly respond. But that’s another article.
I often think that if we could all learn to experience emotion in a more healthy way, we’d be a better society. Over and over I see people (including myself) either fighting their emotions or denying them all together. I also often see that it is only when we turn around and embrace the very things we’re running from that things get better.
Let me define what I mean when I say “emotions” or “feelings.” Emotions, as we tend to experience them, come in several forms:
1. Physical sensations. My anxiety frequently manifests as nausea. I carry stress and tension in my shoulders which tend to hike up to my ears if I’m thinking hard (I just noticed I was doing it now). If I’m very upset, I clench my jaw. I get hot and flushed when experiencing shame or embarrassment. My heart races, my breath gets shorter, my head pounds. Crying. Various bodily reactions signal the brain’s behavior, and they can vary a lot from person to person.
2. Cognitive reactions. Thoughts, all those thoughts. Thoughts are data, speeding their way through the computer we call a brain. When we “feel” something, we immediately think about it. We like to give things names. The brain loves to chatter. This is a huge and underestimated source of emotion. Our beliefs about the world (including childhood coping skills, world view, politics, judgments, whatever) strongly and frequently create our emotional experience. We know how to feel and when because we’ve developed quick and reliable reactions to tell us.
3. Behaviors. Withdrawing, engaging, talking, hugging, sexing up, tweeting. How we act is a component of emotional experience. Our behaviors do not happen spontaneously. They are an integral part of the system that makes up “emotion.” We do things because we feel things and we think things. Behavior doesn’t exist in a vacuum. This is why you can’t “make people” feel things through behaviors. Our emotions are so subjective and based on our personal reactions that there’s no telling how someone will feel when we do a thing. Frequently, our behaviors are escape mechanisms. We want to flee the discomfort in the mind, so we do all kinds of shit to get away from it.
4. The subjective experience of emotion. This is hardest to describe, but I think cannot be denied. Usually, I believe that experience is triggered via the bodily sensations and thoughts. However, my experience is that some people (whether through natural gifts or a buttload of mindful practice) can have an emotional experience without the cognitive or physical piece. Honestly, I can’t say I have often gotten here–my brain rarely shuts up long enough.
What I learned earliest and best in counseling school was one basic notion: we are not the victim of our emotional state. We are more than our feelings, and therefore we can climb on top of them. I visualize myself often at the top of a garbage-filled mountain, planting my flag of victory.
I imagine garbage because a good quantity of what the brain spits out is just that–garbage data. We have the most powerful computers we know of sitting on top of our shoulders, right? We can process information hella fast (science!), we can parallel process, we can actually make decisions before we’re cognitively aware we’ve made them. And yet, the brain makes billions of mistakes. People build whole careers on creating illusions–the brain is so faulty that these people can fool us into thinking they’ve moved the Statue of Liberty down the street. We know that’s not likely or possible, yet the brain goes “holy shit that guy moved the Statue of Liberty down the street!” Brains are flawed, easily fooled, and a product of evolutionary systems that may have worked well for us once but now leave us with a pack of emotions and an underdeveloped frontal cortex to deal with it all. THANKS
The frontal cortex basically helps us think through things. It holds all of our “executive functions,” like decision making, planning, evaluating, and restraint. All the good stuff we like, packed into the tiny sliver of brain at the front of our head. No kidding, most of our brain is dedicated to being a pain in the ass. Well, and stuff like heartbeat and breathing so… whatever.
Our emotions mainly come from information out of the limbic system. The limbic system is much older on the calendar of evolution than the frontal cortex. All the big emotions: anger, fear, sexual excitation, euphoria? They come from here.
But wait, you say. There are many more emotions than just anger, fear and lust! Of course there are. However, our complex and nuanced cognitions and emotional experiences are all filtered through the later-evolved systems. Our basic drives remain as they ever did–fight, flight, freeze, reproduce. (This is a vastly oversimplified way to explain what is a complicated organic system involving electric and chemical signals to a wide variety of structures.)
I believe what we as lay people need to understand is just this: we’re evolved to feel scared, angry, hurt, and lustful. We’re not well evolved for contentment and restraint. On the other hand, evolution only explains how we got here, not what we do with ourselves now. If we know that, we can have some compassion for our beleaguered brains. The organ is trying to do too many things at once, and it’s trying to do them in a world it wasn’t prepared for. Our brains haven’t caught up to the cultural advancements of the last two thousand years, not by a long shot.
So step one in feels? Know that your feelings are not the boss of you. They are chemical processes inside a brain that is at best poorly adapted to the world we live in.
Say it to yourself. I am known to repeat the mantra several times a day when things are hard: feelings are not the boss of me. Feelings are also poor reporters of information, often garbage data, and overreacting little drama queens to every situation. That last one might be just me.
Step two in feels is my step everything in everything: mindfulness.
(don’t hyperventilate. Go slow.)
When you get distracted, return the attention to the breath.
When you get distracted, return the attention to the breath… x10000. Your mind will wander. That’s okay, bring it back. A lot.
Get fancy. Drop your shoulders, roll them backward and notice the relaxing feeling. Okay back to breathing.
What happens when I do this is comedic and also frustrating. I get about two breaths in and my mind will start chattering. Planning blog posts, dinner lists, why that thing I said earlier was stupid, whether I remembered to make an appointment, etc. Fine, all fine. Breathe in, breathe out.
Next thing that happens is my body starts to try to distract me. Itchy nose, achy back, arm spasm, eye twitch. Breathe in, breathe out.
Sometimes if I can sit long enough I get feels. I feel inadequate, tired, frustrated, anxious. Breathe in, breathe out.
It doesn’t feel like you’re doing anything. In fact, you’re not. You’re practicing what is often called “observer mind.” You’re watching the garbage data float by on massive brain barges. All of the data is acceptable, nothing needs to change. You’re just watching anyway. I like to pretend I’m an anthropologist from Star Trek, hiding behind a blind and observing a culture we’ve never encountered before. Got to remember that Prime Directive–no interfering. Just notice.
“But how is that fixing my feelings?” you might ask. It isn’t. You’re not broken. There’s nothing to fix. The mind is poorly trained. Let’s train it better. We train ourselves to sit with discomfort, to slow down before we react to things, to listen, to be patient, to grow stronger. The only way to do that is to honor where we are right now, just notice. The longer you can sit with an itchy nose, the longer you can sit with grief. Or anger. Or fear.
The great secret none of us are told is that wellness lies in the separation between ourselves as observer mind and the rest of the junk–sensations, feelings, thoughts, whatever. The more we can grow that separation, the better.
Next time I’ll talk about adding a component of gentleness to your observations. Spoiler alert: be gentle. Until then, just keep breathing. In and out.
One last note: everything gets harder in brains gone awry with things like depression, anxiety, psychosis, and trauma. Feelings become tidally huge and glacially immovable. That’s okay. Notice. Be willing to get help, please please please. Let someone help you through this. You’re still not broken. You’re still worthy of love and belonging (so says Brene Brown, so say we all). Get help. If that help was no good, try again. You are worth it. You might need to try lots of different meds, or a few different therapists and doctors. Keep trying. Do not give up.