I have a pretty unusual take on feelings. One that is at the core of my work. And it is one I sure hope that I can teach you, because it has made my life a lot better for holding it.
Feelings are fleeting: They start involuntary – we all feel angry, sad, mad, frustrated, happy, horny, silly… these are natural responses to the world around us. But they are also fleeting things in their natural pattern. They are meant to give us a reason for acting. In fact that is what the word emotion means: movement that comes from within us and goes outward.
The feelings we feed last: Really, a feeling only needs to last a few seconds – long enough for you to decide if something is really a problem or not. Being angry that a mouse has eaten all your food is great for helping you decide to set a mouse trap, but absolutely useless for buying and setting one.
When people have a feeling that they want to hang on to they will do things to keep it going. A person who is sad might think of other times he was sad, or imagine things getting worse. An angry person who wants to feed his anger might remember times he was bullied, or ramp up the anger in his head with furious self-talk “How dare she say that to me?! After all I did for her! What an ungrateful snot!” to whip themselves up. Media is another popular choice.
Some people get hooked on their feelings though. They feel like they get something out of being angry, outraged, or sad. For some of them they like the rush of the feeling. For others they like the attention they get for expressing them. If a person gets everything she wants from the people around them by crying, then their unconscious mind will look for reasons to be sad.
Many people learn to solve their problems with feelings, either consciously or unconsciously. They let themselves get angry, sad, or afraid, because it allows them to get out of complicated social situations the easy way. But this forms a habit of feeling that can eventually turn into mood disorders like depression or anxiety.
These people feed a feeling out of habit, and when they are faced with mixed feelings, they always choose the feelings they are habituated to.
An unconscious relationship with feelings leaves you like a ship in a storm: Most people don’t really think about their feelings. When an emotion comes up, they choose either to act on it, or to swallow it. Swallowing a feeling doesn’t make it go away, it only turns all that movement inward where it can wreak havoc on your health. Just jumping on every strong feeling that passes buy and riding it to wherever it takes you is no better: you are constantly struggling with feelings like anger, sadness and frustration that make you unhappy, and often difficult to deal with, when you don’t have to.
Feelings after a certain point are a choice: It might not be a conscious choice, but if you are holding on to a feeling that was a choice that you made. And it is one because you thought something would come of it. Some feelings are really worth hanging on to. Joy, happiness, contentment, loving feelings, sexual arousal, laugher… these are worth feeding as long as they last. But holding on to anger, fear, sadness, rage… this is plain self-destructive. They throw your mental balance off.
There is a simple art to managing your feelings: With a little work, some self-awareness, and a solid emotional intelligence you can learn to shut down negative feelings that you’ve accidentally fed. The trick is to check in with yourself regularly. Every once in awhile, especially when your feelings are running hot stop and ask yourself some questions:
- What am I feeling right now?
- What originally inspired me to feel this way?
- Am I in the habit of feeding this feeling often?
- What am I doing to feed this feeling?
- Is this a feeling that really serves me right now?
- Is this a healthy feeling to keep feeding?
- What could I do to change my mood right now?
- What is something I could do that would make me feel good?
Of course it helps if you develop strong self-knowledge along the way. Knowing what makes you happy, joyful, focused, and silly are great things to know. It is why having hobbies can be such a powerful thing: they give you tools to inspire the feelings you want.
Nobody’s perfect: There will be times when you are not ready to let go of a feeling. You might be so angry that no amount of counting to ten will let you go to calm, compassionate, or reasonable. You might be so terrified, that the fear short-circuits your brain for a moment. When these happen, your best choice is to either remove yourself from the situation (if you are angry), run (if you are afraid because you are in terrible danger), or roll up your sleeves and do the first thing you can think of help (if someone else is in terrible danger).
In those situations err on the side of caution, give yourself permission to feel, but remember that you still have a choice not to act on those feelings. Then, when the immediate problem is past do a little exercise to release tension, then meditate until the feeling has left your body.
This conscious way of feeling takes away excuses: A person who has a good conscious grasp on his feelings doesn’t get “triggered”, he knows how to let go of anger, so he never lashes out. He doesn’t get so angry, afraid, or sad that he can’t act. He doesn’t participate in mob mentalities. He always has a choice to think differently, and the awareness to choose not to act rashly when he knows the feelings are nearly out of control.
This is an adult way of handling feelings: It takes time to learn. For the very young, sometimes they just have to cry out the tension they feel – it is like a wildfire in the brain and the body. One of the marks of maturity that I will be watching for before I give you this letter is that you have a developed enough mind and body that you no longer need to cry or scream out your feelings, that you can start stepping back and looking at them, and deciding what to do with them.
Hopefully, I will help you along in that process gently and in your own time.
Your energy needs an outlet: No one is completely free of high levels of emotional energy building up, of course. Adults get massive build-ups, too in the form of stress and tension. Even a master of emotions will still get a slow build-up. Purging it with martial arts, exercise, creativity, music, and art every once in awhile to make sure your emotions have room to process. Otherwise the stress can make those negative emotions hard to manage.