Dealing with feeling

August 6th, 2019

Feelings are powerful. They have the ability to influence our behaviour. One minute, we can be operating perfectly calmly, the next minute someone says something that affects us inside our heads, and we can act in unexpected and sometimes frightening ways.

When we work with people, as you might imagine, we spend a lot of time talking about feelings. From stressed-out execs to work teams who are not getting on, to individuals going through the pain and rage of divorce, the topic of our feelings is usually high up on the agenda.

Very often, when people are asked to talk about how they feel in a difficult situation, they will say they feel "numb". In other words, that they feel that they are not feeling anything. In times of great shock and sadness - the sudden death of a dearly loved one, for example - that is probably a pretty accurate description of how a person feels. The body's emotions are hard-wired to protect us from extreme shock by filtering out our strong feelings so that we can deal with them gradually, as we become ready.

But when I speak to people who are experiencing conflict, I'm afraid that "numb" is not good enough, it is just a way of masking what that person is actually feeling.

And that brings me to lesson number one about dealing with feelings. First, you have to acknowledge them. And for that, a useful mental exercise is to learn to categorise them.

So, here are the feelings that I feel:

Angry
Happy
Hurt
Scared
Sad
Ashamed

These are my 'core' feelings - and they are yours, too. They are everyone's. The reason why dealing with feelings is so hard is that many types of society teach us that some of these feelings are signs of weakness, they are not emotions that anyone should be proud of. But in fact, the reverse is true. Admitting we are scared is actually pretty brave. Admitting shame is arguably even braver. We only have to look at those courageous women who have come forward as part of the #MeToo movement - admitting what was done to them, and how it made them feel - to see an example of real bravery.

But recognising, facing up to, admitting, acknowledging - however you want to call it - our feelings doesn't have to be done in public. You don't have to stand on the table in front of a room full of people and say, "What X has said to me just now has made me feel a mixture of hurt, sad, scared and angry." I will leave that particular course of action entirely up to you! The important thing is to admit your own feelings to yourself.

There are many tools that could help you work through your feelings. Why not keep a diary of your feelings? Often people find that writing down their feelings is one way of acknowledging that they exist, and sometimes, it helps us to move forward. Creating a virtual basin for your feelings has been used as an illustration, often in response to the example in Harry Potter. The 'Pensieve' that Dumbledore and other wizards use to offload their thoughts a good representation of how the process of feeling acknowledgement works.

"This? It is called a Pensieve," said Dumbledore. "I sometimes find, and I am sure you know the feeling, that I simply have too many thoughts and memories crammed into my mind."

"Er," said Harry, who couldn't truthfully say that he had ever felt anything of the sort.

"At these times," said Dumbledore, indicating the stone basin, "I use the Pensieve. One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one's mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one's leisure. It becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form."

- (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire)

In the muggle world, the damage that feelings can really cause is not by the feelings themselves, it is suppressing them, pretending they are not there - that will only make them get bigger. And yes, that also goes for happiness. Plenty of people can suppress the happiness they feel, tell themselves they don't deserve it, that they haven't worked hard enough for it, and put it away in a box in their minds. What a shame!

When we suppress our feelings, we are doing something akin to pressing down on a balloon - it will only bulge somewhere else and eventually, of course, pop! Your feelings are the same. If you try to suppress them, you end up reacting badly to a situation that you would normally be able to cope with perfectly well, perhaps taking out your fear, or your hurt, or your sadness on an entirely innocent target; your child, for example, or your spouse. That's when not acknowledging our feelings starts to become dangerous. We start to become unkind to those we love, as our mind tries to work out what is really wrong.

Acknowledging our feelings, then, is absolutely not a sign of weakness. It is the only way to truly face up to them. Feeling hurt and angry and ashamed just shows us who we are. We are human beings, not robots ... yet!