F is for Feelings (and Fight, Flight, Freeze)

Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. –Victor Frankl

For a species that has been gifted with the ability to name and express our feelings and needs, we humans sure are terrible at it. Instead of allowing ourselves to feel, we do everything in our power to not feel. We eat. We run. We nap. We bully. We hit, yell, scream. Withdraw. We reach for a bottle or a pill or an edible.

If we grew up getting the message that it’s not okay to have feelings and emotions, we might not even know what we are feeling at any given time, other than to know we don’t like it. I can remember being a very emotional 15-year-old (like most 15-year-old humans), and my dad saying to me “We do not have emotions is this house, young lady.” His solution was to take my concerns to Jesus through prayer. That solution never really worked for me, though I tried mightily. Others of you, Dear Reader, may have heard similar messages. Something like “stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about” or “boys don’t cry” or “big girls don’t pout.” All messages designed to help our caregivers/parents feel more comfortable but none of which did anything to get to the heart of the matter:  what we were feeling and more importantly why and what could be done.

Fortunately, The Center for Nonviolent Communication has published a list of Feelings divided into two categories:

  1. Feelings when my needs are satisfied
  2. Feelings when my needs are not satisfied

They have also published a list of needs to which we can refer when we are having feelings about unsatisfied needs. For example, if I wake up irritable, and I sink into a morning mood of anger and despair for no clear reason that I can determine on my own, I might look at the needs inventory in order to figure out what I need in order to change my feelings. What need is not being met?

I help clients walk through the process of identifying their feelings, encouraging them to sit with their emotions, to (as my own therapist used to tell me) invite the feelings in for tea and get to know them. I help my clients figure out what they need based on their identified feelings. We also work at sitting with the feelings, getting comfortable feeling uncomfortable and recognizing that feelings come and go and don’t actually hurt us. Feelings are based on thoughts and stories we create about those thoughts.

One example I use often and one that most people, especially Gen Z, seem to related to best is not getting a response when we send a text message. The most common assumption about text silence is that whomever we are waiting for a response from must hate us. Think about it . . . what assumptions and stories do you create when you don’t hear back after sending a text message? Some of us, a few, just figure their person is busy and get on with their day. Others struggle. Some people spiral and assume the absolute worst has happened: death, break ups, hatred, that somehow in the matter of a few minutes or an hour that they have lost the love of their nearest and dearest. Tragically and irrevocably.

We engage in this behavior because as human beings, we are wired for danger and anxiety. Anxiety kept us safe on the savannah. Worrying about danger, real or imagined, kept us from being eaten by lions or from being kidnapped by the strangers who live downriver. Our danger alert systems, our fight, flight, (fawn), and freeze responses are overly well-honed for this current world, and so overreact to smaller, non-life-threatening, perceived dangers.

Sometimes we seem to be held captive by these fears and anxieties, immobilized by imagined dangers. How can we overcome them? How can we learn to not make up stories and to not believe the worst-case scenarios that sometimes feel overwhelming?

Mindfulness helps. Meditation helps. Simple strategies such as slowing down enough to breathe when we start to have an uncomfortable feeling, giving ourselves enough time to choose our reaction. We can choose how to respond. If. We. Slow. Down. And when we have choices, we have power. We have control. We no longer feel like victims, buffeted by our emotions. We learn that we can feel uncomfortable feelings and not be undone by them. We can learn to not automatically think (and believe) the worst-case scenario.

But it takes practice.

Just like those I work with, I’m not always adept at being able to identify my own feelings and needs. Like most folks, I am eager to chase away the uncomfortable feelings—I’d rather not sit with anxiety or anger, bewilderment or burn-out. And like everyone else who is human, I get really good at developing strategies for not feeling my feelings.

One helpful strategy that nearly always works, I learned from Buddhist meditation teacher and psychologist/author Tara Brach. The technique is called RAIN and stands for Recognize, Allow, Investigate, and Nurture. In short, we first recognize we are having an uncomfortable feeling and we allow ourselves to feel it, instead of chasing it away, getting more comfortable with being (temporarily) uncomfortable. Eventually we learn that the discomfort will pass. Then we can create some space around the feeling and investigate it—how familiar is it? How big is it? When did we first feel it? How old is that feeling? Where in our bodies do we feel it? Focus on that part of our body and breathe into it. Ask yourself, what do I need in this moment to feel better?

Finally, we nurture ourselves. Hold our hand to our heart and press, releasing dopamine and oxytocin, happy hormones to counteract the adrenaline and cortisol the anxiety and fear produce. We can nurture ourselves.

We can learn that feelings come and feelings go and we don’t have to be held captive by them.