The REAL Purpose of Feelings
- The status quo, dominant culture of our society was not built to and cannot bring about liberation and justice for all people.
- What we practice with our lives — our habits and actions — often reinforces that status quo culture, even when we don’t mean for it to.
- Our opportunity is to become more conscious about what we’re practicing and make choices about how to practice in more liberatory, disruptively self-compassionate ways.
- Creating collective liberation — out in the world, for all people — starts with, and in fact depends on, our own inner liberation.
That is the heart work we’re doing here.
Published: November 1, 2018
The REAL Purpose of Feelings
by laura brewer
The real purpose of feelings is: to be felt.
No really. The purpose of feelings is to be felt. To be experienced. Because the full human experience is meant to be lived.
While the vast majority of humans might know intellectually that emotions are meant to be felt, their life reveals that the purpose of feelings is to be avoided, feared, resisted, denied, repressed, or shut off. And therefore: that the full human experience is to be feared, avoided, resisted, denied, repressed, or shut off.
No bueno. And for sure not self love and liberation.
So: the real purpose, my friends, of feelings — is to be felt.
The Basics: the what, why, and how of feelings
“Rather than being your thoughts and emotions, be the awareness behind them.” ― Eckhart Tolle
An emotion — or feeling — is literally that. It’s a vibration in your body. And the vibration exists on a spectrum — it can be a low vibration all the way up to a big, loud vibration that you feel surge through your body.
And feelings work in really interesting, counter-intuitive ways. It all begins with your head. First, you have a thought. (And a thought is basically just a sentence in your mind. You have a gazillion a day.) That thought — that sentence in your mind — then creates a feeling/emotion. And then you take action (or inaction) based on the feeling. So: thought —> feeling —> (in)action. That’s it.
What’s even more interesting is (get ready for it): if felt fully and tapped straight into, an emotion only lives for about 90 seconds. Full stop. If felt fully and directly, a feeling lasts — and then evaporates — after about 90 seconds. Brain scientist Jill Boyte Taylor writes in her book, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey: “Once triggered, the chemical released by my brain surges through my body and I have a physiological experience. Within 90 seconds from the initial trigger, the chemical component of my anger has completely dissipated from my blood and my automatic response is over. If, however, I remain angry after those 90 seconds have passed, then it is because I have chosen to let that circuit continue to run.”
Remember: thoughts come first, then feelings. And thoughts continue to stoke feelings — keeping them alive for wayyyyyy longer than 90 seconds (try years!), because thoughts are a way of avoiding feeling our emotions. Emotions aren’t made to be thought. They’re made to be felt.
Why We Avoid Feeling Our Feelings
“The best way out is always through.” ― Robert Frost
That “90 second rule” above — well it takes some serious courage and a radical practice of mindfulness/self-love. The trick to an emotion being experienced and released in 90 seconds only happens when we feel the feeling without judgement, without thoughts, without the story line in our head that actually stokes the emotion. The truth is: about 50% of emotions feel good to experience, and about 50% of emotions feel shitty to experience. And because you were born a human, that’s just the reality: you’re going to have shitty experiences and shitting feelings sometimes, and other times you’re going to have wonderful experiences and wonderful feelings.
We don’t like to feel yucky stuff in our society. Culturally, feelings and emotions are often seen as a sign of weakness. Since we’ve been children, we’ve been conditioned and trained to avoid pain and discomfort. What happens when we cry? — we’re picked up and consoled; we’re given a treat. The message most of us get from birth is: “avoid pain and discomfort.” About half of your feelings are going to be uncomfortable to feel. So if we’ve been trained to avoid discomfort but half of the human experience is uncomfortable — well, it makes sense that so many of us are living a half-life. We numb out, we avoid, we fall victim to fear and shoulds and other people’s opinions for how we ought to live … We buffer, we escape, we repress. And then we end up making the discomfort of our feelings significantly worse, because we’re either avoiding feeling things that are meant to be felt and then released — or — we poke at the emotion and make it more red and tender by thinking thoughts that really exagerate how scary the emotion seems. Usually the scary thoughts we have about our emotions are far more painful than the experience of allowing the emotion to be felt.
So even though it makes sense that we avoid feeling emotions due to cultural messages, socialization, and a tendency to run toward pleasure and avoid pain — avoiding the experience of emotions makes stuff a lot worse. To live a full life — a radically human life — we have to learn to sit with our discomfort and not run away.
Deprograming & Reprograming
“Our feelings are our most genuine paths to knowledge.” ― Audre Lorde
Here are 5 reasons it’s worth it to put in the time, work, and practice to deprogram your resistance to discomfort/feeling feelings and reprogram the willingness to, capacity for, and practice of radical openness.
- Bottom line: you won’t feel the fullness of the highs if you aren’t willing or able to feel the fullness of the lows. When we mute our response to negative emotions in order to dull them out and make them less scary/painful, we mute out the positive emotions too.
- Personal freedom and liberation includes — and perhaps rests upon — the ability and willingness to feel it all. To live all of life. When you trust yourself that you can feel and confront it all, there’s no need to avoid, to dull out. You’re free to experience the full spectrum of being human. (I call this being ‘radically human.’)
- You’ll increase your health (you’ll sleep more, you’ll breathe easier, your body will feel lighter) as you learn to feel your feelings. Avoiding emotions causes stress, and stress creates real health problems.
- You’ll push through procrastination and that feeling that you’re “stuck.” So much of our procrastination comes because we’re — surprise! — avoiding feeling certain emotions. When we aren’t willing or able to feel certain feelings, we experience build up because we’re being held back from moving forward. So you’ll feel stuck less often and have greater capacity to cope with the feeling of the stuckness as you learn to feel the emotions that generally hold you back.
- “First, do no harm.” Real basic: you’ll create less harm to yourself (emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, physically… in all the ways) when you learn to allow all your feelings. We make things so much worse when we resist, and we cause additional harm to our Selves. Do yourself a favor: stop hurting yourself.
How To Feel Feelings
“Just like children, emotions heal when they are heard and validated.” ― Jill Bolte Taylor
Since we’re not taught that feeling our feelings is okay, most of us definitely weren’t taught how to feel our emotions.
Feeling our emotions is an ongoing practice. Take time with the steps below. Practice them on “positive” emotions and “negative” emotions, so you can experience the depth of both.
Phase 1: increase your awareness that you’re having an emotion. This is actually really difficult and a lot of work. There is likely some sort of emotional vibration in your body every second of the day, so this first step is about learning to slow down and become present enough to be aware that you’re feeling something. And then learn to identify what the emotion is. (Use this feelings wheel to help you with that last part — the identifying. But for what it’s worth, the actual name of the emotion is less important than your awareness of it.)
Phase 2: practice allowing the emotion and feeling it in your body. Usually folks want to turn up their nose at this step and say “I don’t need that,” but — it’s the practice. How you do this is you learn to truly identify and feel the emotion in your body. Imagine that you had to describe it to someone who’d never felt the emotion. What does doubt, for example, feel like in your body? Where is it? What color is it? What’s it shape, texture, tonality, temperature? These are just prompts to get you into the practice of feeling your emotion. Remember: emotions are NOT meant to be thought. They’re meant to be FELT and feeling is a physical experience. The trick to this step is learning to feel without changing anything. Don’t judge it, don’t change it. Just keep feeling and repeating the process until the emotion naturally dissipates (which is different from: the emotion goes away because I resisted or denied it.)
Phase 3: learn to feel your different emotions and identify and name them (“oh, that’s doubt” “that’s shame,” etc.). And then validate the truth of them. Drop the judgment, and simply validate. You have no control over the fact that you are human, and humans have a whole spectrum of emotions. Remember, personal freedom is in part about allowing all of the human experience. There’s no need to judge whatever emotions you’re feeling — your only job is to feel them.
The irony to me personally about feeling feelings is that it is a practice of surrender. Letting go of my desire to control, to fix, to solve, to figure out. The practice of feeling is the practice of courage, compassion, humanity. It’s a bold and worthy practice. And it requires audacity — the audacity to practice personal freedom and to be radically human.
Go feel. I dare you.
Our practice is enhanced by learning from other humans out there doing the same work. I strongly recommend complimenting your practice and this article by listening to Episode 8 of my podcast, How To Make Love. Yolonda Coles Jones models feeling, and the journey into personal liberation and freedom through the courage to feel it all.
Yolonda Coles Jones
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