Let’s talk about feelings.
We all know that feelings are important, especially in our relationships. But many of us have learned habits of either tuning out feelings or, on the other extreme, being overrun or overwhelmed by them.
Feelings As Data
In my experience, these reactions to feelings stem from a misunderstanding of what feelings are, why they’re there, and how we can respond to them constructively. And one way I like to address this is by asking my therapy clients to view feelings as data.
Thinking about feelings as helpful pieces of information that we can process and learn from converts them from something that is ambiguous, mysterious, or threatening into something helpful. Feelings become messages that we can get curious about and accept as vital signals our body is sending to tell us that something needs attention.
Viewing feelings as data is liberating! This is because we are used to accepting data – it is non-emotional. For instance, when we see the weather forecast, we don’t curse or dismiss that data. Instead, we process it and react accordingly by putting on a jacket, grabbing an umbrella, or changing our decisions about where we’re going to go that day. To quote Dr. Susan David, Harvard, psychologist and bestselling author of the book Emotional Agility, “feelings are data, not directives.” (Dr. David has a fantastic Ted Talk, by the way.)
Men and Feelings: As a side note, many males in our society (myself included) have gotten the message that being aware of feelings is unproductive and a sign of weakness. We’ve been told that tuning into feelings gets in the way of the true work of solving problems. Research reveals that even as young as age four, boys stop being as attuned to feelings as do their female peers. But on a physiological level, boys and girls feel the same amount. They’ve just been conditioned differently in how to respond to them.
Don’t Ignore the Data
Think of feelings as the check engine light in our car. When that light pops on in our car, it is telling us something. It’s data! If we ignore the check engine light, we do so at our peril.
Feelings give us information about what’s going on within ourselves – they are our own internal check engine lights. And because we’re relational, social beings, feelings also tell us what’s going on for somebody else. We ignore these check engine lights at our peril and at the peril of the relationships we care so much about.
Processing Feelings As Data
A key part of psychological health and a key part of the work that I do with my clients is becoming more aware of and accepting of feelings. I create space for my clients to name their feelings in order to really feel them, to give them appropriate attention and expression, and to then choose for ourselves how we will respond to them. Feelings influence our behavior whether we like it or not. Being aware of them is very empowering and gives us a sense of control.
It can be scary to process our feelings. It is common to fear that if we allow ourselves to really feel things, our feelings will overrun us or somehow lead us to do hurtful or irresponsible things. We tell ourselves, “If I allow myself to really feel angry, I’ll do something hurtful.” Or, “if I allow myself to feel deeply sad, I’m going to get depressed and stuck.” Or, “if I allow myself to really feel overwhelmed, I won’t be able to do the job that I need to do.”
Those are legitimate, important concerns. But it’s been my experience (and we have brain science to back this up) that as we allow ourselves to be open to our feelings, give words to them, and allow them to run through us, the opposite of what we fear tends to happen. We actually feel relief! There’s liberation and lightness that comes from the acknowledgment and naming of our feelings.
Men and Feelings, Part 2: Again, when it comes to feelings, men and women are conditioned differently. Many men hear the feelings of another person and want to jump in and fix them. I admit I’ve been guilty of this. There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to help those you care about. But problems arise when someone else is expressing a feeling and our knee-jerk reaction is to try to fix the source of the problem instead of listening to and providing support for the feelings and emotions.
All Feelings are Acceptable
I like to remind the parents of children that I work with that all feelings are acceptable, though not all behaviors are. Imagine if we were able to communicate this kind of acceptance and openness not only to our children, but also to ourselves and our partners! How a relationship might change if each person knew they could feel and name their feelings without fear of being ignored, dismissed, judged, or minimized. Love comes across with flying colors when feelings are heard and accepted.
Practically, you can apply this by asking yourself at any given time, “what am I feeling right now?” Or, “what might my child or partner be feeling?” and writing down the results (this feelings list can help). I know this sounds so simple but we often don’t slow down enough to self-reflect in this way.
A counseling relationship can be of enormous help in this process, whether you’re struggling as a parent, in your relationship, or as an individual. Seeing feelings as data and getting support navigating them is vital for healthy living. I’m here to help!