Do You Really Feel What You Feel?
Sounds like a ridiculous question, doesn’t it? Of course you feel what you feel! It may not be what you want to feel, or what you think you should feel, but if you feel it, you feel it!
But what if we told you that, if you’re like the rest of us, you typically don’t feel your feelings much at all? And that if you did feel your feelings, you might avoid–or resolve–a lot of problems?
If this sounds crazy to you, would you be willing to try a little experiment?
Answer this question: What are you feeling right now?
If your answer is “calm,” “peaceful” or “neutral,” bring to mind a recent time when you were feeling a stronger emotion. What were you feeling then?
Do you have the feeling?
Good! Now answer this question: How do you know what you are (or were) feeling?
Really think about this question for a moment. How can you tell that you’re happy and not sad, or happy and not angry, or sad and not happy? What lets you know what your feeling is?
Your feeling of happiness, in reality, starts as a collection of physical sensations interpreted by your mind.
Let’s say you lay your hand on a table. It’s clear to you that the feeling of touching the table originates in signals coming from a place in your body, in this case your hand.
Though it’s not as obvious, your emotions work in a similar way. When you feel sad or angry or worried or any other emotional feeling, the messages that signal those feelings also come from sensations in your body.
Take a moment right now to feel exactly what sensations in your body are producing your awareness of what you’re feeling. If you’re happy, for example, is your chest feeling wide open and relaxed? What other physical sensations are you feeling? What does “sadness” feel like? What does “worried” feel like?
Final question: When was the last time you stopped and noticed what your feelings actually feel like?
You may be wondering “Why does this matter?”
To answer that question, let us tell you a little story.
The Evolution of Emotions
Five hundred thirty million years ago, life evolved from microscopic one-celled organisms into animals with brains and nervous systems and backbones. It took approximately 3 billion years to get there. Over those hundreds of millions of years, evolution programmed these animals to perform incredibly complex tasks to survive. They could find food, escape or fight off danger, and mate. But they operated reflexively, pretty much robotically. Nothing within them had the capacity to decide what to do. As a result, they and their direct descendants living today don’t have much flexibility on how to respond to the contingencies of life.
Over time, new species evolved. Instead of laying 10,000 eggs and forgetting about them, they laid a few and tended to them. They bore live offspring and nursed them. They banded together in flocks and herds and cooperated with each other to survive. And since they survived, they flourished. This new way of being, which demanded more flexibility and interaction, required a new development in their nervous systems: relational emotions.
Our fellow mammals, and possibly birds, have emotions similar to ours. Rats are ticklish and laugh, and even jump for joy. Elephants, orcas, dolphins and chimpanzees grieve lost relatives and even “friends.” Emotions do for them what they do for us: move them away from what could hurt them and toward what helps them survive, thrive and have offspring that grow to maturity. And as with us, their emotions communicate messages, such as “I’m safe. I like you. Let’s cooperate,” or warnings such as “Tigers up ahead! Let’s get out of here.”
But animals can’t think about their feelings. They don’t have emotional awareness. They can only feel whatever they’re feeling in the moment.
Then, about 250,000 years ago, modern human beings—Homo sapiens—came on the scene. Evolutionarily speaking, that’s a blink of an eye. But the most important development came along even more recently. Only 100,000, or possibly as little as 50,000 years ago, humans developed the mental ability to produce language.
This was truly the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden! It is our most unique gift, separating us from all other animals. With language we can create and communicate complex ideas. We can hold in our imaginations objects and even whole worlds that don’t exist. We can teach and learn incredible amounts of abstract information. We can think about the past and future. Thinking and communicating in words liberated the potential of the already highly-developed human brain. With it, we populated and asserted dominance over the entire Earth.
In much the same way, this newcomer within us, our thinking “word-full” brain, has taken over our awareness and sense of self. We literally can’t stop thinking in language. As long as we’re not completely engaged in a task or listening to someone else talking, we’re talking to ourselves. Our thinking brain has spread through our consciousness like crabgrass on a patchy lawn—or like humans across six continents—and has declared itself superior to everything else that makes us “us.” Especially our emotional brain.
But our emotional brain, connected more closely to our bodily selves, is as complete and operational as it was ten million years ago, and—mostly behind the scenes—it’s running the show. It’s trying, to the best of its ability, to do what it did for our pre-human ancestors: guide us to survive, thrive, stay in balance, and pass on our genes or those of our kin.
One Brain, Two Languages
Though we like to think of our brain as a unitary, smoothly running machine, in fact our thinking and emotional brains are more like parallel systems that inform each other. The trouble is, in reality they don’t work well, or play well, together.
That’s because they don’t speak the same language.
Because it evolved long before language, the emotional brain is fundamentally wordless. It signals to us mostly with sensations and images. Many times its signals are intense, demanding immediate attention and decisive action. But most of the time they’re softer, quieter, more global and “hard to put into words.”
Naturally. Because words are not its native language. Its signals are more like music, which is why movies have soundtracks. Certain sounds and pitches and rhythms make us feel things, because that’s closer to how our emotional brain works.
Most of the time our thinking brain is much louder than our emotional brain. It’s more talkative (of course). And it craves certainty. It wants to assign reasons for how you feel, the quicker the better. A split-second after the thinking brain gets a signal from the emotional brain of an unpleasant or disturbing emotion, it runs with it, trying to explain why it’s there and what to do about it.
The problem is, a lot of important information from the emotional brain gets blocked out. It never gets a chance to come through.
Most of us spend a great deal of time rationalizing, analyzing, and trying to talk ourselves out of our feelings. But few of us ever stop to find out what’s under the surface (or as one of Larry’s male clients calls it, “under the hood”). What’s under the surface is nothing other than those vague, wordless feelings that we never pay attention to. You don’t find them by thinking about them, however. You have to pay a special kind of attention to signals coming from somewhere in your chest, torso, or throat, where your feelings begin.
You may have heard the term “emotional regulation.” The idea as it’s generally understood is that the cognitive brain should regulate the wilder, less “rational” emotional brain. If you could only think the right thoughts and take care of your body properly, you wouldn’t get “dysregulated” and lash out at your partner, or get depressed and binge-watch seven seasons of a show you’ve seen twenty times already.
But powerful emotions arising from deep within your body do not easily accept being controlled, overruled, or regulated out of existence. Your emotional brain, from its point of view, is doing exactly what eons of evolution has designed it to do: Protect you or help you get what you need.
Uncovering Your Emotional Self
There’s a step missing between having a feeling and immediately allowing the thinking brain to judge it and decide what to do. That step is quieting the thinking brain and putting it aside for as little as a minute or two, and letting yourself feel what you feel. Pay attention to those wordless, unclear, physical sensations and feelings that arise, as you would to a cherished friend, and listen to them. They will get clearer. Then bring your thinking brain back. Don’t think that everything you feel must be objectively true. That’s just another false conclusion created by a disconnected brain.
There’s a whole you in there, under the surface, just waiting to be understood and explored.
This is the true definition of emotional awareness. It’s being emotionally connected to yourself. It’s softer, kinder and more compassionate than what we usually do with our distressing feelings. It leads to reconciling and resolving conflicting thoughts and feelings.
As with yourself, so with others. Emotional connection, whether with yourself or with a friend or loved one, is what truly leads to emotional regulation.
Make no mistake, however: This isn’t easy! At our present stage of evolution, emotionally connecting to yourself frequently doesn’t come naturally. Our thinking brain doesn’t like the wordless way the emotional brain “thinks.” When faced with what’s unclear and ambiguous, our thinking brain tends to jump to conclusions and reach for certainty preemptively. Future blog posts will explain in greater detail how to make the connection between your thinking and emotional brain, but with practice, it gets easier.
You know the phrase ”Stop and think?” It’s an extremely important thing to learn to do before you lash out and say something you’re going to regret later. But maybe there’s something even more important to learn to do. That is how to stop and feel.
¹It’s theorized that before this there was some form of “proto-language” that wasn’t as capable of expressing complex ideas as all human languages are today.