Feelings are a double-edged sword. They can make you deliriously happy, and they can cause you deep pain. Even though they are complex, feelings, or emotions, are good for us. One of the most significant reasons is that they connect us to other people. It is almost impossible to have a deep and vulnerable relationship when there is no transfer of emotions. Remember that even Star Trek’s Spock showed feelings from time to time!
For many people, it is difficult to be aware of one’s feelings. We tend to be more attuned to our thoughts than our emotions. There are lots of reasons for this. For example, our culture’s busyness keeps us out of touch with ourselves as we race from meeting to meeting. In addition, some people may be estranged from their feelings because of past relationships with emotionally detached figures such as parents, teachers, coaches and spiritual advisers. For others, feelings have been associated with weakness or shame.
Here are some tips to help you improve your relationships by developing skills in the emotional world:
Concentrate on emotions every day. There is a body of thought called mindfulness that advises people to be aware of their body and feelings instead of being swept up in a driven and stressed lifestyle. In that same vein, spend a few minutes every day asking yourself, “At this time today, what am I feeling and why?” This focus will help you, because what is noticed, improves.
Get a feelings chart. Some people only experience “happy,” “angry” and “checked out.” That’s not a lot of emotional range, and feelings are very nuanced – there are hundreds of them! Just Google one of the more popular charts online and begin studying it. For example, besides “angry,” there are “irritated,” “frustrated,” “smoldering” and “enraged.” Increase your emotional vocabulary.
Talk to a safe and warm person. Nothing helps us connect with our feelings better than spending time with a person who is emotionally attached, safe and warm. Our feelings are sometimes frozen like a block of ice. Think of that person as the sun, whose kind and accepting presence will, over time, begin melting the ice and help us achieve emotional access. My book Hiding from Love describes this process in detail.
Bring up needs and negatives. Often, the key to emotional access is talking to that warm person about the more painful parts of life: needs and negatives. For example, you may want to discuss your need to be accepted, understood or validated. And you may want to bring up a negative event or circumstance that was hard for you. Sometimes the “frozenness” comes because needs and negatives were dismissed or shamed.
Get the history. Reflect with someone on possible sources for your emotional distance. People who have a hard time feeling their feelings don’t come out of the womb that way, unless there is some sort of constitutional or neurological issue. We were meant to connect on deep levels. The more you understand about your family of origin, any losses or traumatic experiences, the better equipped you will be.
Journal. Keep a daily journal of your experiences, and address the emotional parts as well. Your brain needs a chance to work those emotional muscles. So instead of “Had dinner with Suzie,” write, “Had dinner with Suzie. I was hesitant to open up to her about my marriage problems but relieved when she was accepting and interested.”
Feelings are not your enemy, they are your friend. Spend the time to get to know them. They are an important part of you and of your friendships. They’re waiting to hear from you!
Dr. John Townsend