When I was in high school, I went to see the movie Dances with Wolves with my mom, my brother, and my aunt. It touched me deeply. After watching it I felt like crying. In fact, I desperately wanted to cry. It felt like there were tears right there beneath the surface, but I couldn't get them to come out. I hadn't cried for as long as I could remember.
When we got home, I went for a walk, alone, with our dog. It was night. Quiet. Nobody on the streets. I tried again to see if I could cry. It was too scary with people around, so maybe it would be easier if I were alone. It still didn't work. I never shed a tear.
It wasn't until years later, in Mexico in 1998, that I managed to cry. I got in touch with a deep, dark, painful part of me. It felt like there was some black awful part of me that if other people discovered it, they would immediately reject me. When I closed my eyes and really allowed myself to veer into it, I could feel it, I could feel the pain. It felt like such an important thing to get in touch with this pain, rather than keep running from it.
After I got home from that trip to Mexico, my girlfriend told me in no uncertain terms that she was not interested in me pursuing any feelings like that any further. Her father had died when she was young, and that had been very painful, and she had survived by just keeping her head above water, and never going there. I had no business thinking I'd experienced pain, no business feeling those feelings.
I convinced myself that she was absolutely right. My friends suggested that this was the most loving thing anybody had ever done for me. I agreed, and continued to bury my feelings for another decade.
Ten things I've learned about feelings
- They're meant to be felt. That's why they're called feelings. Your head has no part to play in this. What's required is the ability to feel feelings without being identified with them. Feel the anger, feel the fear, but don't say "I am angry", "I am afraid". Say "I feel anger inside me", "I experience fear in my throat and belly". Breathe into them. That allows them to move through you.
- You don't need to understand them. There may be a reason you feel the way you feel, but it's probably not what you think it is. In fact, that part of your brain that feels (right) doesn't have access to language (left), so it's always going to be a rationalization, an attempt to come up with a plausible explanation, rather than the true reason. If understanding helps you feel them, great, but you don't need to understand anything in order to feel them.
- You don't need to justify them. You have a right to feel whatever you're feeling at any moment. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Don't even try to justify your feelings. They're never about anyone else, anyway, so there's really no need. Feelings are facts.
- You don't need to tell a story about them. We have this desire to put a narrative on our feelings, to make them about outside events, about things that happened to us. That can be useful, sometimes, but don't overdo it. Don't attach too much meaning to your feelings. Just go "I feel anger," and notice that when you allow yourself to feel anger without identifying, it feels really good.
- They come in layers. Beneath one feeling lies another, which you'll only get to if you pass through the gates of the first one. Underneath anger lies sadness, and underneath the sadness lies hurt. And underneath the hurt lies fear. You can always trace things back to fear. Not that you have to, but it can be a helpful tool to know.
- Once felt, they're out of your system in seconds. That's how you know if you've fully felt them, or if there's still some part that's waiting to be felt. Remember: Always feel with understanding and love.
- If they stay longer, or reappear regularly, you haven't felt them yet. See above.
- They live in your body, not your mind. No need to think about this. Just allow yourself to feel the sensations in your body, and communicate those sensations to your loved ones as simply and clearly as possible.
- They're what makes you human, what makes you come alive. So celebrate them. Don't run away from them. Allow yourself to go deeper and deeper into feeling.
- They're all good, even the bad ones. One of the best periods in my life was during my divorce when I would walk down the street and start to cry, with nothing triggering or prompting it. It was such a raw period in my life. Suddenly I'd opened up this whole new space for feelings to rise to the surface, and they sure did. They just kept pouring out. It was painful, but it was also raw and alive and real in a way that I'd never experienced before. I wanted it to be over with, but as soon as it was over, I wanted it back. There's no substitute for feeling fully alive. It's what we're here for.
What do you (not) feel?