Yesterday I was writing about emotional intelligence and the power of therapy and came across an outstanding illustration by Lindsay Braman. (She’s a therapist and artist who has recently moved to St. Louis and she doesn’t know it yet, but we’re gonna be BFFs).
In this chart, she takes the original “feelings wheel” developed by Gloria Wilcox and, in the outer ring, layers on what emotions and feelings can actually feel like in the body. Emotion sensations. (Copyright prevents me from sharing it here, but you can go to Lindsay’s website to download it. She’s even got it on a pillow!)
I love emotions—so rich with information and guidance! And I know that when contentment and serenity feel miles away, it is often because I am Under the Influence of Big Feelings.
In the book I’m writing, I make reference to dozens of different emotions and feelings that crop up in everyday life, from joy and contentment to anger and grief, discomfort, confusion, insecurity, disgust, terror, shame and more. Our deepest emotions—and the patterns and conditioning ingrained over time that dictate how they are express, or not—play a tremendous role in the idea that we are, somehow, stuck. If we can understand what our emotions are telling us, and then act on them in productive and meaningful ways, they can play a tremendous role in getting us unstuck, too.
But first we have to learn to feel them.
If “stuck” has been your state of being for any length of time, chances are you unwittingly have a default response to emotions that could include: minimizing the triggers that causes them, quashing ones that do arise before they get much of a foothold (aka, Whac-a-mole), or becoming swept up in a flood of feelings against your will because you haven’t yet learned that you can swim among them and not drown. Many trauma survivors and those who did not learn at an early age how to regulate their emotions may experience dissociation, an extreme form of emotional detachment, which renders them emotionally numb to survive the stress of a triggering moment.
But without the ability to know what important information your emotions are trying to give you, you’ll have a very difficult time answering the two fundamental questions every person must be able to answer if she is to move herself forward: How do you feel? and What do you need?
If the idea of feeling your feelings sounds about as fun as nagging a teenager to clean up her messy room, you’re not alone. But, good news: Identifying and processing emotions, like any other skill, is learned. And the number of clues your body offers up is remarkable.
Take another look at the emotion-sensation wheel in the photo. Consider the connection of a rapid heart rate to the emotion of anger, how a slow heart rate could indicate depression, or how a jaw that’s clenched in irritation feels different from one dropped open in awe. This is why the movement component of yoga—which helps you become aware of, connect with, and build control over your physical body—is so relevant and useful for your emotional development as well. Remember: Control the body and you can control the breath; control the breath and you can control the mind.
“We’ve all heard the message: Get over it. Stop focusing on yourself (as though such a thing were possible!). Don’t be so sensitive. Time to move on,” Marc Brackett writes in his book Permission to Feel. “The irony, though, is that when we ignore our feelings, or suppress them, they only become stronger. The really powerful emotions build up inside us, like a dark force that inevitably poisons everything we do, whether we like it or not. …If we don’t express our emotions, they pile up like a debt that will eventually come due.”
But what if you’ve never been taught how to feel and express? What if in school you learned how to multiply fractions, dissect a sentence (and maybe a frog), find Scandinavia on a map, say “Where is the bathroom?” in Spanish or French—but no one ever asked you—or, even better, encouraged you to ask yourself—things like: “How does that make you feel?,” “What are you afraid of?”, or “Did you know you can calm down by taking deep, slow breaths. Here, let me show you.” Yes, thank God, more of this is being taught now. But what about those of us in the “Have It All” generation? Where do we learn emotional intelligence, fluency, and agility?
Here’s where I’ll give a deep bow of thanks to social media (in spite of its mega-shortcomings in other areas). As mental health has leapfrogged to the front of the pack of wellness concerns and our society has become more curious and comfortable talking about emotions, experts have used social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram to offer bite-sized-but-powerful nuggets of validation and insight that previously was available only at $150 per session. (If you’ve ever had an aha moment when scrolling through squares on a screen, you know precisely what I mean. Thank you, Nedra Tawwab, Lisa Olivera, Allyson Dinneen, Amanda White!) Experts and influencers now share more of their personal struggles, previously a no-no but a change that I appreciate immensely; we’ve learned even therapists have therapists!
And while the principles of psychology and psychotherapy have finally gone mainstream, delivering much-needed doses of understanding, clarity, and hope to everyday lives, when it comes to learning how to notice, process, and leverage your emotions, nothing can compete with the real thing: working one-on-one with the right therapist. The decision to seek out therapy to help address emotional pain, mental anguish, behavioral patterns that need to be unpacked, and the impact of trauma—whether physical, emotional, complex, or generational—is life-changing.
You may think you don’t “qualify” for therapy, but if you resonate with any of these you may wish to think again:
• Trouble getting started on or finishing a project
• Fear of commitment
• Difficulty making decisions
• An overdeveloped sense of responsibility
• Social anxiety
• Inability to say no
• Feeling disconnected from your emotions or your body
• Having outsized emotional responses
• Regular sense of “fight,” “flight,” or “freeze”
• Difficulty with authority
• Exaggerating or minimizing the importance of things
• Low self-worth or feeling that you “don’t belong”
• Ever-present or major outbursts of anger
• Heightened sense of threat perception
Emotions, and how they are felt in the body, have the power to shape your outlook on life and your Self, your mood, the quality of your interactions and relationships with others, and your willingness to embrace change and take considered strategic risks. If you regularly feel inadequate, insignificant, powerless, or apathetic, chances are you’ll be less likely to initiate a big change in, say, your work environment than if you feel curious, inspired, energetic or respected. If you feel ridiculed by, suspicious of, distant from, and resentful of a person, it’s a safe bet you will be hesitant to seek an open, trusting partnership with them.
In our culture, we often think of emotions and feelings as either good (happy!) or bad (angry or sad). Negative ones tend to get more ink and airtime not because they are more prevalent, but because we are less skilled at managing them. It takes significantly more ability and practice to navigate resentment than delight, right? But emotions aren’t inherently negative or in need of being shut down. On the contrary, they all are an inherent, essential part of the human experience, one that sets us apart from other animal species. You can’t stop powerful emotions from arising any more than you can avoid the air you breathe.
I love the way Karla McLaren put it in her book, The Language of Emotions: “We truly need our emotions. We can’t live functional lives without them. Without our emotions, we can’t make decisions; we can’t decipher our dreams and visions; we can’t set proper boundaries or behave skillfully in relationships; we can’t identify our hopes or support the hopes of others; and we can’t connect to, or even find, our dearest loves. Without access to our emotional selves, we grow in this culture like trees in the wrong soil, becoming tall but not strong, and old but not mature.”
Here’s to feeling our feelings—the good, the bad, and the ugly—which are actually quite beautiful once we can see them for what they are. Every single one of ‘em.