Whether you realize it or not, every minute of every day, you are experiencing feelings.
Whether it’s a burst of frustration when you realize you forgot your keys, a second of peaceful calm as you recall your day at the beach last month, or a pang of painful helplessness when you think of a family member who is struggling with addiction, emotions come and go, one after another, constantly.
Just as your physical feelings reside in your body, so do your emotions. Many people describe feeling sadness in their belly, anxiety in their throat, anger in their chest or arms, for example. Where you feel your feelings is unique to you, but rest assured that you have feelings, and if you focus in on a feeling, you can locate it in your body.
Our feelings originate in the base of our brains, the limbic system. This quote from the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect says it all:
For humans, the ability to feel emotion evolved millions of years before the ability to think. Human emotions originate in the limbic system, which is buried deep below the cerebral cortex, the section of the brain where thought originates. In this way, our feelings are a more basic part of who we are than our thoughts. They are a physiological part of our bodies, like fingernails or knees. Our emotions cannot be erased and will not be denied, any more than we can erase or deny our hunger or thirst, our elbows or our earlobes.
Emotions are necessary for survival. Emotions tell us when what we want, feel and need, what to avoid and what to seek; when to protect ourselves, what to do, what to avoid, and much, much more. Beyond this, our emotions are the bond that connects us to others and keeps those connections strong.
Where would we humans be without our feelings? We would find ourselves traveling rudderless through a world replete with potential harms that we do not know to avoid, and rich with opportunities that we are unmotivated to pursue. We would not know what we want, feel or need. We would be lost and vulnerable. We would feel alone.
In many ways which most of us never consider, our feelings are our best friends. But, unfortunately, they can also become our worst enemies.
3 Ways Feelings Go Awry
Your emotions are busy sending you messages every day, yes. Those messages are vital information for informing and directing and connecting you, yes. But things happen to make some feelings get stronger or weaker than they should be, and some feelings can attach themselves where they do not belong.
- You suppress, marginalize or ignore your feelings. If you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) then you probably do this to some extent. Suppressing your emotions impairs your ability to hear their messages. And although it may seem to make them go away, those feelings continually grow under the surface. So it actually makes them more intense than they should be.
- Something in your current life touches off old feelings from the past. There are many things in our lives which evoke strong feelings in us, like grief and loss, anger or fear, for example. We may perceive those feelings gone once the situation has passed, but old intense emotions still lurk under the surface, especially feelings that have been suppressed. Now, when something happens today that slightly resembles that past experience, those old feelings can be touched off and blended with the much milder current ones. For example, the terse, callous behavior of your boss brings back the helplessness and anger you had when your spouse treated you this way during your divorce ten years ago.
- You lack enough understanding of how emotions work — often a result of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN. To use our feelings as helpers, we need to have enough emotional intelligence to know what they mean, how to think through their messages and understand what to do with them. If you lack enough of this vital knowledge, you may be at the mercy of your feelings instead of in charge of them. You may often be mystified by your own behaviors, choices and actions. Your feelings are running your life from behind the scenes. You are the puppet, and they are your puppet master.
It is indeed sad and unfortunate when your best friends begin to act like your worst enemies. But, if you see yourself in this article, I want to tell you that the good news is every bit as good as the bad news is bad.
The first step you should take is to learn everything you can about Childhood Emotional Neglect. You’ll find plenty of free resources at EmotionalNeglect.com (link below) and also below this article. CEN can be healed, and you can learn the emotion skills you missed learning as a child.
In the meantime, here are some steps to follow when you have a feeling that you want to understand and use, as well as sift through to its level of usefulness and trustworthiness.
A Special Technique to Determine if You Can Trust Your Feelings
- First, sit with the feeling and think it through. Try to name the feeling(s), keeping in mind that many intense feelings are made up of several. What is going on in your current life that is causing you to feel this way? It may be something that looms large or it could be something that seems trivial to you. Figure it out as best as you can.
- Second, imagine a friend telling you this story: “This happened and I feel this way.” What would you tell your friend? Would you perceive your friend’s feelings are off, excessive, or wrong?
- Third, think back. Have you had this feeling, or this mixture of feelings, at some time in the past? What caused it then? Could some of those old emotions be reactivated by what’s happening now, and attaching themselves to your current situation?
- Fourth, close your eyes and focus in on your feelings. Visualize a meter that measures the feelings that are old, from the past. How high does the needle register? Now do the same, but register the feelings from the current situation. How high does that needle go?
Parsing out your feelings this way is a highly effective technique that works. The more you do it, the better you will get at it.
As powerful as your feelings may be, and as mystifying as they may seem at times, with some work and skill learning, you can learn to connect with them and use them as they were meant to be used.
Find links to books and free resources, including the books Running On Empty and Running On Empty No More and the free Emotional Neglect Test, below this article.