The holiday season
has just ended. It is a time that elicits a great deal of feeling, whether
it is being resigned to another "command performance," excited about sharing
it with friends and loved-ones, or sad about not having someone with whom
to connect that way.
What does it mean
to feel? From the first moments of our lives, we all want.
We want to be held, touched, burped, loved, to rest, get warm, lose weight,
make money, scratch an itch, etc. It matters to us whether or not we accomplish
what we want and it is this mattering which is the basis of feeling: To
feel is to spontaneously evaluate how successfully we are fulfilling our
wants, satisfying our appetites. Sometimes we are thematically aware of
(that is, are focused on, "conscious" of) how we're affected and sometimes
we are not. What we desire, the degree to which we desire it and how we
are affected by our perceived successes and failures always arise from
the fabric of our entire life history and are inseparable from it.
Feeling is our
constant companion. We continuously evaluate—most often, without thinking
about it—how things are going for us. Yet many people believe that they
feel only sometimes. Such people tend to be aware of how they feel only
when intensely affected. Although often subtly affected, they are out of
touch with, "blind" to the many shades of gray between their intense pleasure
and intense distress: As a result, they rob themselves of the greater richness,
joy and sense of adequacy and worth that would grace their lives given
a more intimate awareness of their affected selves.
Contrary to the
popular view—perpetuated explicitly or implicitly in numerous self-help
books—we do not will, do not choose how we feel. (If we really could
choose how to feel, all of us would surely have already chosen to be happy,
which, by any stretch of the imagination, is not the case.) We are free
only to discover how we feel as it is made manifest to us through
our affected bodies (e.g., while waiting for an interview for a job which
I really want but for which I am unprepared, I discover that I am anxious
through my sweaty palms and rapidly beating heart.) We are who we feel,
no matter how we attempt to stop or deny it, and cannot be otherwise.
believe that they choose how they feel view "feelings" as nouns, as
that they have. For them, if feelings are things they have, then
it follows that when they are unpleasant feelings, they're things to be
gotten rid of. But this is impossible, since to feel is actually a verb,
a way of being, not a noun:
feel is to be affected, an unchoosable way of being.
One result of
viewing feeling as thing is believing that a feeling is something ethereal,
unsubstantial; that is, that we have neutral bodies through which we choose
to experience, or not experience, intangible feeling. However, to feel
is always visceral, incarnate; it always involves our whole selves.
Our troubled bodies are the very means through which our distressed being
becomes manifest (and, therefore, remediable); to subdue feeling is to
People often come
into therapy confused by how they are feeling. They believe that
their being distressed means that something is wrong with them, that in
some way they are defective, inadequate. As a result, they search—often
desperately—for some way to keep from feeling as they do. Since this effort
is inevitably futile, it is self-defeating. It can provide short-lived
relief, at best, but is more likely to lead, in a vicious cycle, to diminishing
confidence about being able to gain lasting relief, and increasing fear
and anxiety about failing.
If how we feel
is an unchoosable fact of life, then how we feel can
be wrong (no more than blue eyes or blond hair can be wrong)—even
though we have been blamed, shamed and threatened for feeling as we do
(that is, for being who we are). And, if we are to achieve more abiding
relief, increasing confidence and diminishing fear and anxiety, we must
risk acknowledging/experiencing/expressing the way in which we are affected;
we must dwell with, focus on, be present to, let in, even
the ways in which we are affected.
Attending in this
way to how we feel can be extremely valuable; It can instruct us about
what we are trying to accomplish, how important it is to us and the extent
of our success or failure. Consequently, it can help us discover how to
minister to ourselves most effectively. So, rather than try to deny, ignore,
distract ourselves from, or choke down how we feel (which, ultimately,
fail), it is in our best interest to live out, live through how we're affected,
perhaps most especially when we are distressed.
Although we do
not choose how we feel, we are not helpless; we can choose how—and
how well—we will take care of our affected selves. For example, if
we discover that we are anxious about the possibility of failing a course,
we can hire a tutor, study longer, study with a friend, drop the course,
take an incomplete, ask the teacher for help, and so on.
We use the verb
'to feel' in a number of distinctly different, yet related, ways:
Most of us don't
realize that there is a great deal amiss in these situations: In all of
them, we are both fleeing and pretending so as to keep from
realizing, experiencing and expressing how and how much we are affected,
as though we can get beyond our distresses through force of will.
All feeling occurs
in relationship to someone else. Thus, our pretenses are also deceits.
As a result, in misinforming or not informing others, we
alienate ourselves from them, as well as make their journeys (and
our own) more confusing and difficult.
We seem to believe
that if we can keep from experiencing and expressing how we feel then we
are finished with it. Unfortunately for us, whenever emotional expression
is aborted (e.g., for fear of hurting someone or of being punished
or abandoned), it continuously "strives" to be realized. As a result,
it must be actively and concretely withheld (e.g., with a frozen smile,
or held breath). Such holdings-back will continue endlessly, even for many
decades or a whole lifetime, unless and until the interrupted "movement"
back exacts further costs which are directly proportional to the extent
of one's withholding: Doing so is painful, consumes a great deal of "energy"
and compels considerable attention, which are then no longer available
for creating our lives. This renders us anxious, because we are moved to
act at the same time that we see ourselves as neither having a right to
act, nor being adequate to do so.
To be intensely
affected is often described pejoratively: It is called childish, immature,
weak, sissyish, an indication of inadequacy, a "breaking down," or being
"out-of-control," "emotional," or "too sensitive." In fact, recognizing,
acknowledging and honestly expressing how we are affected is human.
demonstrates strength and maturity, especially in a culture as anti-
feeling as ours, which regards it as dangerous (when, in fact, only its
Feeling is reputed
to be irrational, too. In reality, it is the most rational
of experiences. For example, being sad, scared or anxious bespeaks failure
or loss with regard to something or someone which one values: Being sad
is a response to loss which has already occurred (e.g., of a hope,
a friend or, even, a favorite sweater), while being scared is an anticipation
of loss (e.g., my fear as I am falling and anticipate being harmed) and
being anxious expresses anticipated loss of worth in another's eyes (e.g.,
when I hand in a hastily written report which 1 imagine may define me as
inept in my boss' eyes). Conversely, being excited and joyful acknowledge
success and desired gain (e.g., excitement expresses anticipated gain and
joy is a realization of important and previously uncertain success).
are fundamentally neither flights nor pretenses, neither immature nor irrational,
neither excessive nor dangerous. Here, one's being affected is lived-through,
lived-out, fully articulated (without reserve or self-abasement, which
are strategies for magically fleeing from fearful possibilities).
This is a true surrender to, and acceptance of the way things are. As such,
it is a transcendent, arresting experience for participant and witness
alike, which heals both.
use it to describe a conclusion we have drawn about someone else
(e.g., "I feel that she is rude." The word "that" immediately following
the word "feel" clearly shows that this is how it is being used.).
use it to describe something someone else does to us (e.g.,
"I feel rejected"). Here, we are implying, instead of actually stating,
how we feel ("I feel hurt," "I feel scared") when, for instance, someone
We also use the
word "feel" to indicate how we are affected, although we are actually stifling
how we feel (e.g., "I feel angry," spoken through a clenched jaw). The
clenched jaw says, "I'm so angry with you that I have to hold myself back;
in reality, the clenched jaw conceals; it attempts to insinuate
strong feeling to the other person while avoiding actually being as fully
angry/hurt/scared as is true.
There are times
when what we say we feel is dissonant with how we appear: Sometimes
what we say we feel is contradicted by our appearance (e.g., "I feel angry,"
spoken with a smile); or, is accompanied by our appearing to be unaffected;
at other times, we appear to feel a particular way, even while denying
E. Linn, Ph.D. • Empowering People