Wednesday, March 16, 2011

To feel or not to feel, that is the question...

"I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." ~Maya Angelou

I'll never forget the butterflies in my stomach and the way my hands ached just after my first kiss in junior high, or the racing of my heart and accompanying surge of electricity when I was recently reunited at the airport with my dear friend from abroad.  These bodily sensations helped me to identify my emotions...nervousness, excitement, warmth, affection.

On the other hand, I am often reminded of the fear and anger that I felt when my parents fought...the tightness in my stomach and shoulders, the headaches...and could never forget--even if I tried--the extreme empty pit of desperation and sadness that I experienced at the age of 8 when my Opa Leo died.

Why is this?  Why is it that feelings are imprinted upon us so totally and completely, to the point that we might never forget how another person or situation made us feel?  Why is it that even when we want to let go of feelings, they seem to follow us, sneaking up on us when we least expect them, catching us off guard and impacting us so deeply?  

Feelings get stored in our bodies and our brains.  This storage process was built into our neurobiology as human beings to keep us on alert and safe in the face of danger.  As new discoveries have been made related to brain chemistry and circuitry, it has become an essential component within the therapeutic process to involve both body and mind in the process of healing for true change to take place.  This process almost inevitably involves learning to feel our feelings from head to toe, and accepting and believing that they will not kill us or make us go crazy.

"Nothing fixes a thing so intensely in memory as the wish to forget it." ~Michel de Montaigne

One might say the same of feelings.  A client of mine just recently stated in our session, "it's really difficult being human."  He was referring to the fact that no matter how strong we are, no matter how ready we might be to let go of difficult memories or experiences, we still have to learn to move into rather than run from our feelings when they come up, in order to get to a point where they won't shake us to our core when they arise.  This is hard work, and can seem overwhelming.
Sometimes feelings (especially if imprinted from an earlier time) can feel so big that they are all consuming, taking us over and making it difficult to think or to act rationally.  We develop ways to take care of ourselves when this happens, to protect ourselves from the onslaught.  We learn to run from the feelings, to shield ourselves from the anxiety and the loneliness, the fear and the sadness.  We distract, we consume, we restrict; we reach out or act out, we self medicate or self destruct, we move, we freeze.  

So what, if anything, might we choose to do as an alternative?

Like the stamina and strength building exercises required to train our muscles for a marathon, so must we train our minds and bodies to feel.  Each time we make the choice to identify what we are feeling in our bodies and minds and allow ourselves to move through these feelings, we are building strength and growing the inner endurance necessary to experience our feelings more deeply.  At the same time that we are experiencing our feelings more deeply, we are literally changing our brain chemistry and creating new neural pathways that will open us up to think and function in healthier ways. Feeling intense emotion is often scary, so self care is central to this process...deep breathing, calming self talk and the introduction of self compassion are all components that can help us sit with strong emotions.  Meditation, yoga and other forms of movement and relaxation are also excellent ways to support yourself in this work, along with a trusted therapist as your guide.

So what's the point?  Why bother choosing to take the more challenging path to feel more deeply or change the brain circuitry, especially when we have developed perfectly effective methods of coping?

It's a great question, and the best person to ask is yourself.