Do you ever fantasize about finding an escape? Some beautifully blissful way to escape the misery and challenge of the current moment. Continuing to live through the social isolation related to COVID-19 and ongoing uncertainty is hard. And when life gets really hard, the temptation to escape can feel powerful. Our chosen path for escapism may be different, but the underlying emotional motivation is usually quite similar. We do not want to feel our feelings.
We see it every day. Good people who turn to alcohol, food, shopping, gambling, porn, exercise, substance use and even work – to serve as a form of distraction. These are good people who have an inability to feel and express their emotions in healthy ways.
Feeling is not a simple task and most of us were not actually taught how to feel and express emotions in authentic ways. Instead, we were taught, through modelled behaviour, exactly the opposite – how to numb our emotions with activity or numbing agents.
Many of us feel ill-equipped to feel our emotions. We are afraid of opening the “emotional floodgates” and being unable to recover. We are then caught. The only options are to keep doing what we have always done, which likely isn’t healthy for us, or we need to do something different.
What if, instead of covering up our emotions, we gave them space and explored them a little further?
What if we just allowed ourselves to sit with them? It is possible to teach yourself how to feel again. I will admit that it is not easy, but it is worth it.
The harsh truth is that we cannot selectively numb the hard stuff. We end up numbing the good stuff too – the happiness, joy, excitement, surprise and wonder. So that is the motivation to do this messy work of learning how to feel – so we can live a more full and rich emotional life. We can love more deeply, experience more happiness and satisfaction, and yes, feel our hurts and pain so we can heal and move on from them knowing we have grown from the experience.
Although there is not a “one-size fits all” solution to learning how to re-connect to your feelings, the following are strategies that can help.
- AWARENESS: We need to become aware of our thought processes – especially the ones that are “on repeat” creating feelings of fear and suffering which tempt us toward the numbing path. For example, I just freaked out at my kids and feel like the worst parent ever – feelings of anger and shame settle in upon me – I will grab a glass of wine to help me calm down.
- IDENTIFY THE TRIGGER: After identifying the situations that trigger you into negative thoughts and behaviour patterns, try to notice when they occur. Are there any patterns that you can notice? Instead of shutting your thoughts out, recognize the feelings that come along with them. For example: When you lose your patience with the kids, do you feel angry? Sad? Disappointed? Afraid for their future?
- NOTICE YOUR BODY: Notice how these feelings show up in your body. Does your heart beat faster? Is your head pounding? Does your stomach knot up?
- WHAT DO YOU DO: Then notice what do you do? Do you head for the fridge or pantry? Do you go to the liquor cabinet? Do you reach for the tablet and the Netflix app?
- PAUSE: Bring stillness and compassion to this process. Remind yourself you were not taught to face your emotions. Try sitting in a quiet space alone, notice your thoughts and sensations. Focus on your breath. Let your feelings just be.
- WRITE IT DOWN: Give voice to your feelings in a journal. A journal can be a special book, a simple notepad, or a loose paper you will shred. Simply allowing yourself to feel the feeling and express it on paper is where the new growth takes place.
- SELECTIVELY SHARE: Surround yourself with people you trust and practice sharing your feelings with them. Vulnerably sharing our feelings brings them to the light of day diminishing the need to escape them.
- PRACTICE: Practice – again and again.
I understand this is not an easy road. And it requires courage. But it also offers the opportunity to live in a more authentic and healthy way. If you would like to be supported on your journey to learn how to understand and feel your emotions, let one of our therapists be your guide.
“For it is only when we walk into the arena, covered in dirt and mud, confronting our own fear, that we can also experience deep happiness, love and belonging.” Brené Brown
by Mary Joan Brinson MSW, RSW