When I first started learning about emotions, there were two camps I kept running into:
Camp 1: F*ck (pardon me) your feelings. This camp believed that feelings lead you into impulsive behavior and unskillful reasoning. Best case, approach emotions cautiously, listen to them sparingly, and regard them as nervous system remnants of a currently more well-developed brain.
Camp 2: Feel your feelings. This camp subscribed to sitting with your feelings. Letting them be there and being with them.
Even in my social and emotional learning infancy, each felt extreme, and I just couldn’t get it. There had to be more to the experience of emotions. They just had to have some sort of utility, I thought. Otherwise, why would we have them?
But whenever I would try to just be with them, especially the ones that were uncomfortable, I felt like I was drowning. There had to be a middle ground!
As I continued my journey, reading more, practicing, and floundering, I had to acknowledge that we live in a culture that promotes extreme ways of living, and especially living mostly in our heads! Even the fitness culture, which we would think would be more body literate, is focused on intellectualism and the thinking mind. And, let's not forget that many of us were raised in environments where we learned that certain feelings are “bad” and others are “good.”
We're often so focused on avoiding feeling bad, that we never learn how to actually feel!
Now, it's likely no surprise that I’m a health psychologist, a therapist, and a coach.
Our experiences shape us, and if we're willing, they can transform us in magical ways. I love to venture deep to the bottom and scramble to the very tip tops of emotions. And yes, while this penchant for emotion did in fact lead me toward my career path, I was not always fascinated with, much less curious about, emotion. My curiosity about emotions began because, well, to put it frankly, it had to.
In the summer of 2000, at the age of 19, on the campus of the University of Wyoming, I trudged my way to Student Health, on the insistence of my mother. My non-fasted blood had been drawn, and I was going to get the results.
I sat on the crunchy paper-covered bed, in the frigid room.
I waited for the doctor to come in.
She entered moments later, briskly, abruptly, and without missing a breath, she looked at me with eyes as cold as the steel bed frame holding the mattress I was sitting on, and said, “Hi, Kori. I have your results...
Kori… you’re killing yourself.”
I don’t remember anything she said after that. If my mom were here she could tell you the exact number of my blood glucose. It was far below what a fasted blood glucose should read, but more importantly, it provided evidence. Not that I needed any. I was 95 lbs, I was exercising at least 4 times a day, and all I thought about was grades and food, studying and food, exercising, food, studying, exercise, grades, food, studying. Only, when I thought about food, I didn’t follow that up with eating food.
On the long, excruciating walk back to my dorm room, I recall thinking, “You don’t want to die! You just don’t know how to live!” Like a snare drum tapping with each step, I cried, “NO MORE!” NO MORE! NO MORE!”
I was always a sensitive kid. Observant. Attuned to the emotions of others, their faces and microexpressions, body language. I felt things deeply. And maybe that’s part of what made me shy… it all felt like too much to take in. Even now, at 44 years old and a confident and accomplished coach and therapist, having engaged in a lot of reflective work, that hasn't changed.
In 8th grade I was named the Natural Helper by my peers. I remember feeling a lot then, and I have the journals to prove it, but I don’t recall it being within my awareness. I never thought, “I feel so much and I don’t know what to do with it!”
But that day, walking to my dorm room, it became clear. I felt a lot, and I didn’t know what to do with all those feelings.
So I pushed them away and drowned them out by obsessing about my body and food. There was no room in my life for emotions! But the smaller I became, the bigger the emotions grew.
As its been said, “what we resist, persists” and from one of my favorite movies, The Fault in Our Stars, “Emotions will demand to be felt”.
And so my journey into emotions began. I made the decision in that moment to understand them… and understand myself.
Now, if you’re like the majority of people who come to me for therapy or coaching, there are very specific emotions that you absolutely do not want to experience. It may be sadness for some, shame for others, rejection, anger, or anxiety. Raise your hand if you have some emotion that you try to avoid!
So we’re all in the same boat here! Go, us!!
But there are very real health consequences to disowning emotions, including dysfunctional relationships, poor boundaries, depression, overfunctioning to the point of burnout, eating disorders, and a confused identity. I was barely-living proof of this.
So I want to share with you the three biggest lessons I learned as I began my exploration into healing myself and essentially, developing a relationship with my emotions that didn't involve abandonment. Leaving them behind was not working.
I learned through the practice of and practicing meditation, that you do not have to like your feelings, but by accepting them and viewing them as belonging, as sure as the sun belongs to the sky, that their pull and control will dissipate.
What makes emotions so sticky and icky is not the emotion itself, but what we believe about it!
Do any of these beliefs sound familiar to you?
This is bad! I shouldn’t feel this way! I should feel grateful! Why am I so sensitive?! The second you believe that whatever emotion you experience shouldn’t be there, you contract, you get all tense, and you lock it in!
So lesson #1: Emotions Belong
You do not have to fight them. It's your aversion to them that causes your suffering. Do you know why they belong? Because they are here!
This leads me right into lesson #2.
How many of you have experienced conflict in a relationship? 😉 Right, who hasn’t!?
Because relationships are the most important variable to our happiness, they carry a lot of weight. And because they carry a lot of weight, disagreement or tension within them, feels incredibly difficult!
I want you to imagine the last situation you were in with your partner, a colleague, a friend, or a family member in which there was difficulty.
Visualize the moment, hear the words being communicated, place yourself in the environment. Now, feel what was happening in your body, in your muscles, in your chest. Notice your temperature.
What are you observing? Tension anywhere? Tightness? Buzziness? Do you feel thick anywhere? Heavy? Contracted? Closed off? Like you just pulled up the drawbridge to your heart?
Now, as you continue imagining this scenario, observing the experience of being in your body, begin at the top of your head and moving slowly, inch by inch downward, over your eyes, your chin, your neck, your shoulders, invite your body to soften. Release. Let gravity do its work.
You know, when I lie down in my bed at night, what I notice almost every time is that I’m still slightly holding my head up and body up. Like it’s on alert. I have to consciously allow it to sink in and down into the mattress and pillow. When I do, my breathing gets deeper and slower, and my mind gets quieter.
When our bodies are soft, we send a message to the nervous system that we’re safe. And when we’re safe, we are in a much better position to welcome emotion, even if we don’t like it.
So lesson #2: Soften
Recognize that in this moment, you are safe. Because usually we are. (If you're not, do what you need to do to take care of yourself).
The final lesson I want to share is one that a client told me was one of the most profound for her. If it is a key for her, and it is for me, I am going to bet that it may just be a game-changer for you too.
It’s so common for us, when we’re experiencing an intense emotion, to feel as if we’re being hijacked by it, right? It can feel suffocatingly heavy. We feel so out of control, like something has taken us over.
The last time this happened for me was when the man I was dating & I ended our relationship. In the weeks following the breakup, I crumbled. I felt as if everything inside of me had shattered. I cried. I cried some more. You know, those guttural, messy, heaving sobs.
There was something that happened during one of the cries, and it’s happened before, but it had been a while, where through one of the caverns, in what felt like my ravaged soul, emerged a sliver of light. The intensity with which my body was being wrecked by the pain I felt, also made me feel SO ALIVE!!! In that moment I couldn’t help but think how miraculous it was to be able TO FEEL! Yes, it was painful, but it was also AMAZING!
It was that sense, that that particular pain wasn’t all that was there, led me to start asking a very specific question in moments of intense, uncomfortable, or unpleasant emotion.
So lesson #3: Ask, "What else is here?"
We ask this question not as a way of getting away from or bypassing the front-and-center emotion. The question is a way of bringing nuance and perspective to to the emotion, like a single drop of water in a vast ocean.
Emotions are a gateway to understanding what’s important to us, what our values are, and what we might need the most. I learned to truly live by becoming an explorer of them with these 3 tools.
The world doesn’t need a population of people focused on feeling better. What it needs is a community of people focused on becoming better feelers living fuller lives.