The fear of feeling
Who we are...and how we cope...is not our fault.
Who we are...and how we cope...becomes our responsibility.
- Paul Gilbert, Developer of Compassion Focused Therapy One of the recurrent themes that I work with in my life and in my therapeutic practice is the fear of feelings. With regret, I see that we lack an intentional, conscious education on how to recognize, understand and accept our emotions. Instead of learning to develop flexible and adaptive strategies for coping with everyday disappointments or more traumatic events, we acquire more avoidant, defensive and blocking responses. The lie we tell ourselves and to our loved ones is that the act of feeling, of going through messy emotions is a weakness. We choose distance over closeness, efficiency over vulnerability and prefer to avoid real, deep and intense emotional connections. When faced with a life situation that triggers emotional responses like anger, anxiety, stress, shame or depression we choose to disconnect from self and others, shutting down, numbing out or hiding. The self goes offline, listening is muted, learning is blocked, and change becomes inaccessible. The effect of this way of living is easily seen in relationships. Unavailable mothers, disconnected husbands, needy partners, relationships that lack vitality or that abound of drama. This fear of feeling that ultimately can be translated as a fear of living authentically is easily transformed and healed in therapy. What I suggest to my clients is to look at their personality, their self as a puzzle. After all, the attempt to respond to the question who am I? is a process of self-discovery. And as in trying to solve a puzzle, one uses curiosity, openness and the resourceful mechanism of trial-and -error. Therefore applying this optic when going through painful emotions means attuning to your suffering with curiosity instead of judgment. Feeling empathy and self-compassion for the hurt part within, as you would for a broken arm. Breathing-in kindness, as you would if your best friend would be in pain. And if all of these seem hard, just close your eyes and start an internal dialogue with your sadness, your anger, your grief. They are as real as our bodies. So why treat them like they don't exist or like they don't deserve to be seen and acknowledged? After all, the most recent neuroscience research concludes with the evidence that our emotions last longer than our thoughts and have the power to shape the maturation of our brain. I leave you with a simple, yet profound tool that can be used to connect with your inner parts. Half of the exercise is written below, the other, most important part will be created by you, once you will feel curious enough to experience and observe your feelings.
Hand of the Heart Exercise (inspired by psychologist Linda Graham)
Simply place your own hand on your own heart center. Breath gently, softly, deeply into your heart center. Breath in a sense of ease or safety or goodness to your heart center. Then remember one moment, just one moment, when you felt safe, loved and cherished by another human being. This could be a spouse, a parent or a child, a friend, or a therapist or a teacher. It could be a spiritual figure; it could be a pet. As you remember this moment of feeling safe and loved and cherished, let yourself feel the feeling of that moment. Let the feeling wash through your body, and let yourself stay there for as long as you feel. Allow your tears and sighs to come out. Allow your face to smile and your body to express whatever emotions are released.
When you do this exercise, the warm, safe touch of your hand on your heart center begins to activate the release of oxytocin, the brain's hormone of safety and trust, bonding and belonging, calm and connect. Warm, safe touch anywhere that feels comfortable on your body can release the oxytocin, but there are neural cells around the heart that communicate directly with the brain and more quickly begin the activation of the oxytocin release. Breathing deeply into the heart center activates the calming (parasympathetic) branch of the nervous system and the body begins to relax. Breathing a sense of safety or any positive emotion into the heart center puts the breaks on the automatic survival responses of fight-flight-freeze. Blood pressure goes down and the heart rate stabilizes. This technique is powerful enough to calm down a panic attack in less than a minute.