Are some of your feelings—feelings you want to have–hard to sustain?
Most of us have one or more feelings or body sensations that we cannot seem to stay with, or even experience at all. These might include joy, self-appreciation, anger, fear, excitement, and other emotions or sensations.
Maybe you would like to be able to receive appreciation or praise, or enjoy a beautiful moment, but you cannot seem to “let it in.” Perhaps you want to feel and express healthy anger, but somehow your anger always turns into sadness. Or maybe you feel numb in threatening situations, when an alarmed self-protective response would serve you better. Do you try hard to sustain the excitement and motivation to complete your projects, but find yourself falling into depression or boredom?
Often, our bodies have learned to automatically cut-off certain feelings and sensations. It’s like those light switches that shut off after 10 minutes. Or maybe we cannot find the “on” switch at all. How frustrating. But we can change this situation. We can re-train our bodies to allow those feelings back into our lives. Before we get to the “how” of that, we need to approach our bodies with the right attitude: our bodies are always paying attention to our environment, and doing their best to take care of us. The body always has a good reason for shutting down feelings or sensations.
For example, those of us who repeatedly endure oppressive insults or violence from employers, caregivers, police, social-service agencies (or anyone with power over our lives) because of our gender identity, race, economic situation, disability, etc. know how dangerous it can be to respond with anger. So our perceptive bodies may decide to stifle any anger that arises. This is an intelligent survival strategy, but like all survival strategies, it has side effects. When it is finally safe to reclaim and express our anger—which is inseparable from our vitality–we may not be able to find the “on” button. We are not free to feel that anger fully.
Shutting down anger to survive oppression might make sense to you, but why would someone stifle excitement? One of my coaching clients had this problem. He would get distracted whenever he started to feel excited about anything. As we listened to his body together, he gradually remembered a time when he was in second grade, about to perform in his first school play. His parents had promised to come watch; he was so proud and excited. But they never showed up, and he was crushed. This memory led to other memories of getting excited and being let down by his family. This little boy learned that excitement was followed by heartbreaking disappointment. Eventually, his body automatically stifled any joy or excitement before he could get hurt. It was pretty smart for a kid to figure this out. But now as an adult it was limiting him. He knew he loved his partner, and they both wanted to build a life together. But he could not feel or express his excitement, and his partner was feeling rejected.
Our bodies figure out how to stop sensations as well as feelings. If you have an old injury or chronic pain, you might habitually “blank out” that area of your body. This is an intelligent way to cope with pain, but like all survival strategies, it has side effects, such as reducing the blood flow to that part of the body. And some survivors of sexual abuse or sexual assault find it difficult to sustain sexual pleasure, because–in order to survive abuse–their bodies learned to numb all the sensations—the bad and the good–in their genitals.
All of the above situations represent the strategic survival choices that traumatized bodies can make. Even if you cannot remember the origin story of your own automatic “shut down” habit, you can assume that it began because your body decided it was too dangerous or painful to experience that sensation.
If the brain stem has already decided—years ago–that certain feelings are off-limits, how do we restore our choice? How do we give our bodies permission to feel what we want to feel? You probably have noticed that it doesn’t work to tell yourself: “Okay, I am going to take that compliment in.” Or, “It is okay for me to feel angry. I should feel angry!” Words are not enough. To grant ourselves the permission to feel, we need to talk directly to our reptile brain (the brainstem), because that is where the original “shut-down” survival decision was made. We need to speak to the reptile-brain in its own language: the language of sensation.
One way to gradually increase our capacity or tolerance for those disavowed feelings is to practice something I call warming up your feeling balloon. Let’s say you have a balloon you want to fill up with air. You know that if you attach it to a helium canister and fill it up too much, too fast, it will burst. So instead, you warm the balloon in your hands, stretch it out gently, and slowly send air into the balloon, little by little. You give it time to get used to the air it is already holding before filling it some more. Soon you have a big, full, sturdy balloon that will last.
In a similar way, here’s how to warm up your feeling balloon:
• First pick a feeling or sensation you want to work with. What emotion do you want to fill your feeling balloon with? What sensation do you want to be able to feel fully?
“I want to feel happy.”
• Think of something that reminds you of that feeling.
“I feel happy when my dog greets me in the morning.”
• Notice the sensations associated with that feeling—where do you feel them in your body? Focus in on sensory impressions or images such as temperature, color, texture, mood, size, movement, or stillness. It doesn’t have to make sense. The language of sensation has its own sense.
“My dog is happy to see me, I see his bright eyes and wagging body…a warm feeling fills my chest, like the sun.”
• Now that you know what and where the sensation is, find a way to remind yourself of this feeling. Find a word, or an image, or a story that will help you return to it. Now you are ready to start warming up your feeling balloon.
• Each day, spend some time recalling that feeling. Feel it vividly in your body.*
• Start small: put limits on your practice, so your body doesn’t stretch too much, too fast:
o Limit the amount of time you spend in the sensations. Start with five or ten seconds, 3 minutes, or whatever feels easy.
o Limit the intensity of the feeling. “I feel a little spot of warmth in my chest” or “On a happiness scale of one to ten, I am feeling a three.”
• Practice with your whole attention. Feel the sensations as fully as you can, then when times up, stop! Put your attention somewhere else. Distract yourself.
• Then, notice and tell yourself, “Hey, I felt that and nothing bad happened.” or,
“I felt those sensations and nobody got mad at me.” or, “I felt that feeling and nobody got hurt.”
• The key to this practice is to start small, build slowly, and repeat often.
• Be patient. Remember, you are warming and stretching your sensation balloon slowly so it can permanently hold more feeling.
*[If you don’t want to conjure up a feeling, you can still practice warming up your feeling balloon by noticing the smaller, subtle feelings that spontaneously show up during your day. For example, if you want to build your capacity to feel anger, you can start small by working with irritation. For some people, irritation is a less-threatening version of anger. When it comes up, where do you feel it in your body? Really feel it for a moment, then stop. Notice that nothing bad happened. Repeat this every time something irritates you.]
With practice, you will gradually be able to increase the intensity and duration of the feeling or sensation while your body continues to feel safe. With even more time and repetition, your body will begin to appreciate the benefits of feeling this sensation, and will start choosing to feel it.
When you can choose to feel your sensations, your anger (or joy or excitement) balloon will be a true party balloon–for your own celebration. Now you’ve taken your body back! You’ve taken your feelings back! The freedom to feel—fully—is your birthright, and something to celebrate.