Can I ask something super random? How are you feeling today?
Could be better
Okay maybe the question isn’t that random, but does it fill you with dread? Or perhaps thoughts of a nodding therapist asking the question, which is why you’re not in therapy?
Maybe another f word then comes to mind!
But here’s something you need to know. ‘Okay’ is not a feeling. None of these is.
These words are often a coded way for saying “I don’t want to tell you.” or “I don’t know how I’m feeling.” Responses like ‘I’m okay.’ are typically ways we protect ourselves. ‘I’m alright’ keeps your guard up and locks the doors of your life. Consequently, you can hide what you feel and hide from your feelings.
When you’re so used to hiding, you lose the valuable insight into those lost feelings and your inner knowing. That’s true, especially when you’re raised with an experience of having to hide or suppress your feelings and emotions because to do so was dangerous inviting punishment or shame.
Don’t cry or I’ll give you something to cry about!
Go to your room; how dare you get angry!
You’re so ungrateful.
A clenched fist
Withholding and stonewalling
Maybe there’s a good reason for the ambiguous ‘okay.’ Somewhere along the line, you learnt not to tell anyone how you feel and keep them hidden. Nothing good comes from telling the truth about how you feel. That only leads to disappointment.
The problem is the more you get used to masking your feelings, the more disconnected you become from recognising what they are. You lose sight of the infinite wisdom of your inner world.
So what are feelings and how do they differ from emotions.
Feelings & Emotions
Feelings usually arise in the body as physical sensation first.
Emotions are an embodied experience. Feelings are how we make sense of that experience.
The English language isn’t constructive here because we use the word to feel to explain a feeling! But essentially we feel the emotion in our body and translate that as a feeling cognitively.
Here are some examples of what the body might be letting you know.
Muscular tension, particularly in jaw and shoulders – Anger
Tears, a lump in the throat, heavy – Sadness
Contracted, cold, breathless – Anxiety
Relaxed, warm, expanded – Happiness
A racing heart, trembling, frozen – Fear
Rising heat particularly in the face – Shame
I read recently that a celebrity said she doesn’t do emotions. Well, I’ve got some news. We may have chosen or learnt to deny or ignore our feelings, but they’re still there, trying to grab our attention. That brain keeps working, and the body remembers.
I Think I’m Feeling Happy?
The limbic system is the part of the brain responsible for many of our behavioural and emotional responses. It sites the amygdala, which perceives emotions such as fear, anger and sadness. Therefore it has a vital role in the trauma response and the emotions evoked due to trauma, i.e. fight, flight, or freeze responses in the face of threat. (1)
The hippocampus helps transfer this initial information from the amygdala to the cortex. It’s then possible to make sense of the situation. This is because, the cortex, the more recent, outermost layer of the brain, facilitates thinking and our ability to judge, deliberate, contrast, and compare.
The amygdala is our early-warning system reacting long before the more sophisticated cortex even gets the hint that something has happened. When you experience something, for example, threatening the amygdala perceives the danger through the senses, i.e. sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell.
That threat could be the raised voice of your partner, a tone of voice or a particular phrase. This sets in motion the release of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol and other somatic reactions that quickly lead to the fight, flight, and freeze response.
For example, adrenaline slows down the digestive system. That’s why you might experience a dry mouth or stomach ache in the middle of an argument that feels unsafe say, for example, if your partner is verbally abusive. The heart rate also increases as does and your breathing. Now your body is in self-protection mode.
Caught By Surprise
So our feelings are on autopilot. They’re happening; it’s just that sometimes we don’t know how to make sense of the control panel to respond appropriately.
When you live with the constant toxic realities of an abusive relationship, there may be a disconnect or gap between the experience and what you register as a feeling because you may have become accustomed to a certain level of anxiety.
That’s one reason why our feelings can catch us by surprise, and we only realise what we feel when they are at 8 out of 10.
Now you might mistake nausea, not as an indicator of being in an unsafe environment but for the dodgy takeaways you keep eating. Or you get preoccupied with the actual physical symptom of, for example, IBS or acid reflux and not get curious between the relationship between your nervous system, your stomach and the state of your relationship.
Similarly, if you had to learn to live with a narcissistic parent as a child as the adult, you might not recognise the early signs of control and abuse in your relationship. Your fear sensors work to a different calibration scale, so you don’t sense the danger. The hippocampus helps us give context and meaning to current and past events. When the hippocampus is affected, you lose the ability to differentiate threats and non-threats. So, you tell yourself, ‘Just let it go. I’m fine.’
Sometimes the brain checks out, and you dissociate so you don’t have to feel.
Other times we suppress our feelings, deny or mistake them for something else. You might be incandescent with rage but tell yourself you are calm.
There are so many things we do to invalidate our feelings.
Feelings And Your Body
One way to familiarise yourself with your body language is with a body scan. This is an invitation to listen to your body. We already do this every day. When our stomach rumbles, we think about being hungry and needing to eat. When we feel cold, we put on a coat before we venture outside.
Listening to our feelings and emotions is the same thing. When you tap into your bodily sensations, it tells you something about your emotional wellbeing.
Try this body scan. Sitting comfortably, place your feet flat on the floor. Close your eyelids or direct your gaze to the tip of your nose. Take a deep inhale and exhale. Starting with your toes, focus on your body piece by piece up to the crown of your head. Pay close attention to the sensations your feel and every tiny movement when you have finished write in your journal about what you noticed.
What information did you receive about your feelings?
Over To You
Are you struggling with recognising your feelings? If you want a safe space to discuss and explore your feelings, get in touch, and book your first counselling appointment. I offer video sessions online via a secure platform. Coronavirus (COVID-19) doesn’t need to put your therapy sessions on pause.
Or call me today on 07535 864836.
Leave a comment below; I’d love to hear from you.
P.S. PASS IT ON
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© Sandra Harewood 2021
Soul Centred couples counsellor Sandra Harewood specialises in working with couples and women with childhood wounding that impacts their adult relationships. Sandra provides a soulful space for her clients to explore creative solutions to their difficulties and create a great relationship.
(1) Rothschild, B. (2000). The body remembers: The psychophysiology of trauma and trauma treatment. New York: WW Norton.