It has been known that feelings are important aspect of our lives but the trouble is many of us have been brought up to ignore and override feelings. Childhood messages have a great role in contributing to this state of mind. We feel guilty if we express our feelings of anger, shame, guilt and annoyance. We are afraid that we will hurt the feelings of others due to being people pleaser. The result of this kind of suppression is often anxiety, phobias, depression and restlessness. People adopt a negative and pessimistic outlook of life. Feelings are often complex and it is hard to identify them. Sometimes, even if we identify them, it becomes hard to express them. It is important to identify feelings and then be able to express them appropriately to avoid the dangers of becoming prone to anxiety and phobias.
Before we learn to identify feelings it is important to understand some facts about feelings.
- Feelings involve a total body reaction. They are mediated by a part of brain called limbic system and the involuntary, autonomic nervous system. During moments of emotional stress, you experience bodily reactions such as increased heart rate, respiration, perspiration, trembling and even shaking. These symptoms also occur when you experience panic attacks.
- Feelings are influenced by our thoughts and perceptions. The way you perceive an event or interpret a situation gives rise to corresponding feelings. Feelings are also affected by stress. Automatic thoughts determine our state of mind. If you perceive a person as totally unreasonable, and selfish, you might feel anger towards this person. If you are jealous or envious of the other person, it will give rise to feelings of jealousy and envy and you will be inclined to react accordingly towards this person when you interact.
- Feelings can be simple and complex. Complex feelings may be a combination of more basic emotions and also shaped by thoughts and images. Simple feelings could be anger, grief, sadness, fear, love, excitement, or joy. Complex feelings last longer and are also linked to our thought process. Simple feelings tend to be short lived, more reactive, and tied to involuntary physical reactions mediated by the autonomic nervous system. Fear and panic can be basic emotions while free floating anxiety is an example of a more complex feeling.
- Feelings give you energy. If you are in touch with your feelings and can express them, you will feel more energetic. However, when you are unaware of your feelings, you may feel lethargic, numb, tired, or depressed. Suppressed feelings lead to anxiety.
- It is possible to feel several feelings at the same time. For example it is possible to feel anger and fear at the same time in response to a threat in the environment. It is possible to feel anger, love, and guilt all at the same time.
- Feelings are contagious. If you spend time with a depressed person, you may start to feel sad and even cry. Similarly, you can catch other person’s enthusiasm and excitement. You can be inspired by living and interacting with positive people. When you withhold your feelings of anger and sadness, they can overpower you and make you depressed therefore it is very important to be in touch with your feelings.
- Feelings are never right or wrong. They simply exist. The perception and judgment can be wrong or right, valid or invalid but feelings are simply there. Once you learn how to express them, you will feel better. It is not good to evaluate others or yourself on the basis of feelings because we are all entitled to have feelings. All human beings experience emotions like anger, envy, jealousy, sadness, frustration, and irritation.
- We tend to suppress our feelings. Suppression can be conscious or subtle. As children we are sometimes taught to suppress our feelings and then it becomes a habit. The result is that as adults you tend to be out of touch of your feelings. You begin to ignore and withhold them. You may experience a global feeling of unhappiness but you are not able to pinpoint what is making you unhappy.
Therefore it is very important to learn to identify your feelings.
Identification of Feelings
Withheld feelings get manifested through several types of bodily and psychological symptoms. For example, free floating anxiety could be caused by uncertainty or due to anticipation of a negative outcome. Worrier type people are always insecure and worry about bad things happening to them. Their self talk is always, “what If?” type and this gives rise to anxiety. Feelings carry a charge of energy but often times we try to hold in that energy and do not express our feelings. Consequently we feel tension and vague anxiety. Likewise we can hold in enthusiasm and excitement and this can also make you anxious. Sometimes when we hang on to our feelings of sadness for a long time without venting it, we get depressed. When we vent our feelings by crying and talking about it, we feel relieved. It has been found that if we hold on to anger too long without expressing it, it can cause depression. We also feel psychosomatic symptoms when we suppress our feelings for a long time. Symptoms such as headaches, ulcers, blood pressure, asthma, cardiac problems could be due to withheld feelings too. When you learn to identify your feelings, you can reduce the symptoms of psychosomatic illnesses.
Additionally, it has been found that when we withhold our feelings, it can also lead to tension in our muscle groups, neck, back, shoulder, and jaws. Anger can be held in by tightening many different muscle groups from the eyes to pelvis. In this way we see that tight muscle groups in any region of the body could be caused by bottled up and withheld feelings and it is important to identify your feelings so that you are not holding these feelings by tightening your muscle groups. Fear can be held in by tightening up of muscle group in the stomach and diaphragm area. Anger can be suppressed by tightening the back of your neck and shoulders. In order to relieve the tension in these muscle groups, it is important to use the progressive muscle relaxation technique. This technique has been elaborated in the blog written by the author about Panic disorder. There are sixteen muscle groups in our body and all you have to do is tense each muscle group for 7-10 seconds then relax it for 15-20 seconds. When you systematically do this procedure, it generates the relaxation response and also creates alpha wave activity in the brain.
How to Tune In To your Body:
As mentioned earlier, we tend to hold on to our feelings in different body parts. It is important to tune in to your body to identify your feelings. Eugine Gendlin has talked about a process called “experiential focusing” to illustrate the process of tuning in to your body. Following are the steps that you need to take in order to do this:
- Physically relax your body for five to ten minutes doing progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, to slow down your mind.
- Ask yourself, “What am I feeling right now?”
- Tune in to that place in your body where you feel emotional sensations such as anger, fear, or sadness. This is your inner place of feelings.
- Wait and listen to whatever you can sense in your place of feelings. Do not analyze or judge but become just an observer. If you begin to evaluate then you may not be able to get a sense of your real feeling.
- Once you have obtained a general sense of what you are feeling, and then ask the following questions: where is this feeling in my body? What is the shape of this feeling? If I have to give a color to this feeling, what would it be?
In this way, we see that it is important to give a concrete form to feelings then it becomes easier to identify them. Once you have identified your feeling, it is important to express them appropriately in good communication.
Expression of Feelings:
- Talk it Out: It is very therapeutic to share your feelings with a trustworthy person, like a friend, counselor, or a support person. They should be the person who are willing to listen to your feelings without evaluating you and who encourage you to let you express feelings and not just share them. By getting an outlet to your feelings, you might feel relieved and lighter. Agencies like Compeer and Big Brothers and Big Sisters serve this purpose. Depressed person, who does not have a family member to talk to, gets linked with a friend and they do activities together and establish friendly relationship by developing trust and this helps the person to open up eventually and share what is bothering them.
- Write it out: Sometimes it is helpful to make a feeling journal and vent your feelings in a written manner. It is good to periodically review this journal and see if there is a pattern emerging. This is a very healthy outlet of your feelings. Creative art work, writing poems, and songs also allow you to be able to express your feelings in a healthy manner. These are healthy outlets to feelings and that is why children suffering from depression receive play therapy which gives them an outlet to express their feelings through symbolic play. Story writing, storytelling are also very healthy and useful therapeutic tools which facilitate expression of feelings in an indirect and subtle manner.
- Discharging Sadness: When you are withholding your sadness, it can cause a heavy load on your body and mind. It is relevant to ask questions such as :Do I ever cry?, Under
what circumstances do I cry?, Do I cry because someone hurt me, or I am lonely or scared?, Do I cry for no apparent reason? Do I cry alone or do I allow others to see me crying? Sometimes, we feel sad but we have trouble shedding tears. It is advisable to listen to some evocative music, watch an emotional movie or read literature to surface the feelings of sadness and be able to shed tears. It is important to vent your sadness and not hold it in because the result will be more sadness and anger towards who has hurt you.
- Discharging Anger: Anger is the most pervasive emotion that leads to anxiety. Anger has a range from mild irritation on one end to extreme rage, on the other side of the continuum. Withheld anger can cause a person to become anxiety prone and also cause symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. When you are frustrated and angry, you become more preoccupied with your obsessions and phobias but often you are unaware of these angry feelings. Those who are, by nature, people pleaser, are prone to having anxiety disorders. They always want to present themselves as pleasant and nice. They are also dependent on relationships with significant others. Outward expression of feelings can risk the relationship of phobic people so they tend to suppress their anger. Also, it is important to note that people who are prone to anxiety have a strong need to control so when they feel threatened by a sense of loss of control, they give in to their anger and it frightens them. In addition, self defeating behaviors, such as excessive criticism, discounting the positives and focusing on the negative aspects of the situation, passive aggressive behaviors , blaming others, and worries about the future instead of enjoying life could also be signs of withholding anger.
Dealing with Anger in a Constructive Manner
It is very important to stop being controlled by a desire to be a people pleaser. When you remain passive in the face of other people exploiting you, after a while, it becomes unbearable and you end up getting hurt. It is important to become more assertive in your interpersonal style. Using a feeling script like: “ I feel——(angry, sad, frustrated), when you——-(behavior: like put me down) because—–( reason: it hurts my feelings). I would appreciate it if you —-( treat me with respect), is a good idea to be able to express your feelings versus withholding them altogether. This way the other person will be hear you out and hopefully make a change in how he deals with you. Most of the time we expect people to read our minds and behave according to our expectations. However, they are not able to read our minds and end up letting us down by showing insensitivity to our needs and wants. However, when you are able to assert yourself and express your needs, you are more likely to get desired results.
It is also important to get rid of the “what if” thinking because it stops you from being rational and you begin to hide and mask your feelings. Anger, withheld for a long time can become very intense, when you begin to express it first, but the intensity will reduce with time. Sometimes it is constructive to express your anger on inanimate objects before you confront the person who makes you angry. There is a lot of research on the value of this practice and there is some controversy also that too much expression of anger can lead to aggressive behaviors therefore, it is important to exercise caution.
It is also important to note that people are afraid to express their feelings for the fear of becoming alienated from the people. Think about expressing your angry feelings to significant others because you care about them. If you did not care about them, you would probably withdraw and withhold your true feelings. By communicating, you open the door for good communication and chances for change.
When you are angry, you are likely to express your feelings aggressively. However, if you become assertive in your style, you are more likely to get desired results. If you become aggressive and demand a change, you are likely to put the other person on defensive because he will feel attacked. When you respect the dignity of others in your expression of anger, it gives a feeling that you care and you are not degrading them. They do not feel attacked and are more likely to show sensitivity to your needs and wants.
Sometimes, it is healthy to engage in vigorous work out to vent some of the stress you feel when you are withholding anger. Pounding on the pillow, screaming into a pillow can also help if your anger is really intense and you need to let go of the energy before you confront the person who is making you angry.
Deep breathing and meditation techniques also help reduce the intensity of your anger. Meditation has a calming effect and it reduces your agitation.
Cognitive restructuring of dysfunctional thought patterns also helps. We have already discussed how our cognitive errors influence our feelings and mood in other blogs written by the author. I would recommend the readers to refer to the blog written on automatic self talk to learn more about cognitive distortions and how to dispute them with Socratic questions, which put the irrational self talk to rational scrutiny. Try to find the errors in your thinking before you draw conclusions about others. When you hang on to mistaken beliefs and negative self talk, they seem to color your attitude, behavior, and your reactions to these events and persons. When you become aware of your errors, try to challenge and dispute them with rational counterstatements and this will reduce the intensity of your anger. People resort to sarcasm, and belittling statements when they are angry. Instead, try to be honest with your feelings and express them assertively with openness and willingness. This will ensure better results.
It is also crucial to identify the needs behind your feelings. For example you could be anxious because you are afraid that people will notice your anxiety when you speak and they will judge you. Here the need for acceptance is behind your fear. When you have experienced a loss, you feel sad because you will be lonely after the departure of your loved one. The need behind your grief is for love, affection and companionship. When you are angry with your spouse because he broke his promise, the need behind this anger is respect and consideration. When you are able to identify the need behind your feelings, you give a new meaning to your feelings and can do something about meeting these needs in a better way. In this way when you uncover the unmet need, you will be able to address these needs in a healthier manner. If you fail to address these needs, they are more likely to come and grip you over and over. For example, an unmet need for anger could persist and make you angry all the time. This is a sure sign that you need to do something about your anger.
In summary, it is important to pay attention to your needs and wants. Do not try to hold your feelings but identify and express them in the manner discussed above. Withheld feelings are not healthy and they can cause serious health related problems.
Hypnosis can help in surfacing withheld feelings. Learn how hypnosis can facilitate well-being of the person.
Reference: Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, by Edmund J. Bourne, New Harbinger Publication, 2005