Feelings are absolutely essential. They drive the majority of our thoughts, desires, and actions. For the most part, I’d say feelings are what give meaning to our lives. They give us passion, friendship, love, purpose, enjoyment, and everything worthwhile. Indeed, feelings can be quite wonderful. But why do they have to be so damn confusing sometimes?
I was telling a client the other day that not all feelings are created equal, and I broke it down like this…
Sometimes your feelings are indicators of unmet needs. This is what 3.7 billion years of evolution had in mind when feelings were invented. We will call these nature-feelings.
Other times, feelings are trauma responses — reactionary survival instincts that were programmed, perhaps generally by evolution, but more specifically by shoddy parenting, neglect, abuse, abandonment, and the like. These feelings are more of an indicator of a dysregulated nervous system than anything else. Let’s call these trauma-feelings.
And still in other instances, feelings are your body’s reaction to the mind. I’ll say that again because it’s heavy. A feeling can very well be a physiological mirroring of the random shit that’s swirling around in your head. I can think about some injustice and work up a good resentment. Remember a dead friend and shed a tear. I can visualize biting a lemon and start drooling on myself. In other words, our thoughts have an effect on our physical bodies. This third type of feelings we can refer to as thought-feelings.
How These Feelings Affect You
Why do you suppose having a high ACE score is strongly correlated to lifelong negative health outcomes — physical diseases and ailments?
Adverse Childhood Experiences wire your nervous system with trauma-feelings and also create shame-based beliefs that generate negative thought-feelings, along with cortisol, adrenaline, and other hormones that are harmful at elevated levels or prolonged exposure. And these feelings will continue to drive your thoughts and actions in a negative feedback loop to keep creating more of the same.
How You Affect These Feelings
So there may be some work to do in cleaning up your thought life. Inner critic, negative self-talk, shame — all that crap has to go if you wanna be healthy. Zero tolerance policy. No more shaming, shoulding, or shitting on yourself. Fill your mind with self-compassion and positive affirmations. Practice reparenting, thought correction, and thought substitution. Use meditation and mindfulness practices to gain some power over your thoughts. Upgrade your gray matter.
Then there could be work to do in healing trauma — both cognitive and somatic work. This takes time. Neuroplasticity is very real. You can rewire your brain, but it’s not like hot-wiring a ’72 Chevelle. You won’t get immediate gratification here. But stick with it. Self-soothing, grounding, deep breathing, meditation, connecting to yourself, tending to your needs, etc. Reparenting work tells your nervous system that it doesn’t have to live in survival mode anymore because there’s a grown-ass adult in charge now who’s competent and totally lovable.
And after you minimize interference from trauma-feelings and thought-feelings, you can start to trust your nature-feelings as they were intended to be used.
I say this all the time, but I’m gonna say it again. Sue me. According to Dr. Gabor Maté, “Trauma teaches us to fear our feelings instead of feel our feelings.” Trauma is a dissociative process whose success as a survival strategy rests squarely on its ability to separate us from feeling. Therefore, as I’ve written about before, and as I recently heard Dr. Gordon Neufeld say, “The essence of recovery is getting your feelings back.”
So remember, feelings aren’t the enemy. You just gotta learn how to feel them thangs, understand em, and put em to good use.