For most of my life, I’ve seeked to be rational and logical. When my grandmother died, I told myself that everyone dies eventually; there’s no point feeling sad over it. When our house was burglarized, I reported it to the police and moved on. “There’s no point crying over spilled milk.”
Over time, it’s become more difficult for me to feel my feelings or consciously acknowledge what I’m experiencing. At times, this gave me the illusion of being detached and I came to believe that I can look at life objectively. The truth is, the feelings are still there; I’ve simply pushed them out of my conscious awareness.
For example, when someone is momentarily distracted by their phone notifications while we’re talking, I can become very irritated even while they are otherwise still engaged in the conversation. Frequently, I don’t realize my irritation until I find myself arguing over trivial things with this person.
Then, there are situations where I am sad, such as when I was passed over for a promotion. At those times, I’d focus on intellectualizing all the reasons for what happened and plan actions on what to do about it. This way, I avoid fully experiencing the feeling of sadness. At the same time, I became hyper sensitive to what my VP might think about me and obsessed over trivial work details.
One of the most traumatic experiences I’ve had was when our family lost the family business. Because my father never diversified the family wealth outside of the business, we literally lost everything overnight. As I came out of shock and started facing a very different life ahead, I told myself many things to help me cope.
Some of my self-talk included:
“Money is not important, it’s family that I’ve got to focus on.”
“I have the smarts and skills to depend on myself. I didn’t need my father’s money.”
“My dad was the one who created the business and wealth. It’s his decision what he wanted to do with it and I don’t have the right to be angry with his lack of planning.”
Through it all, I rationalized away my fear, my anger and my sadness for the loss of what could have been. What I didn’t realize was that those feelings around wealth and money were still within me. One of the things that led to my divorce was our home remodel. When my ex-wife decided to remodel the house, I became very anxious even though we had the savings and the cash flow to afford it. We argued on every detail of the remodel that required more money. And, I had hard feelings toward her for wanting to do the things she was doing.
Years later, when I was telling my stories to a new friend, she looked me in the eyes and told me that I needed to let myself feel the anger toward my father so that I can forgive him. Otherwise, I will always be trapped by the feeling of scarcity and fear.
I was shocked by her statement but I realized that she was right.
What I learned
Have you ever found yourself reacting strongly to small, mundane things in your life? When someone texted you back late. When the kids forgot to put dishes in the sink. When someone didn’t appreciate you quite the way you wanted.
This “overreaction” may be due to our bodies remembering things from our past that our brains have forgotten. When we experience events that evoke strong emotions within us — anger, fear, sadness, disgust, and joy — we are more likely to retain those memories in some way. For example, most people in the US remember what they were doing on September 11, 2001 but much fewer remember what happened on August 11, 2001. This is especially true for events that called forth strong negative emotions.
In the early days of human civilization, human lives were very fragile. Anything different or dangerous can mean injury, death, or outcast from the tribe. To maximize survival, we are evolutionarily conditioned to watch out for and remember anything potentially bad. Frequently, the emotions are markers that help us remember.
The world is a different place now. In a society of achievement and self-empowerment, we try to rationalize or “logic away” our emotional reactions. We want to be strong and in control; there’s shame in feeling like we’re victims. However, this doesn’t mean that we can ignore the legacy of our survival conditioning.
There is a place for us to seek understanding of ourselves and a time when we must push through feelings that are holding us back. However, it is also crucial for our bodies to have time to experience and process strong feelings. Our survival instinct has difficulty differentiating physical danger and psychological pain. As a result, strong negative emotions can register as the sensation of dying. To keep us alive, our survival instinct will do what it can to avoid any situations that might cause similar sensations of death – even when context and our capabilities have changed.
When we allow our bodies to experience these negative emotions fully, we let our instincts realize that we can survive this. With this recognition, the emotions are released and we are more likely to stay calm rather than go into fight/flight/freeze when we encounter similar situations in the future. We become stronger and expand our zone of comfort.
But how do I allow my body to experience feelings that I’m not aware of?
This is what I did. I found a secluded place where I can be alone for a while and not bother others. Then, I proceeded to close my eyes and to think back to the time when I found out the family business was no more. The factual details were not important. Instead, I paid attention to my body, to the sensations that came up as I thought back to the event. The goal wasn’t to focus on and “analyze” the sensations. Instead, I simply noticed and allowed the sensation to guide my body.
Soon, I became aware that my hands were clenched tightly into fists. I was shaking and felt something heavy on my chest. My whole body became very tense and I had the urge to scream, which I did. Strangely, after I screamed, I had a feeling of relief and calmness.
That was the first of my on-going practice to release my feelings. I found that, even if I thought back to the same event, my body’s reactions weren’t always the same. As I contemplated on the family business, I sometimes screamed, sometimes cried, sometimes punched the pillow, and sometimes felt nothing at all. And, over time, I found that I looked at things differently.
Today, I’m not as irrationally triggered by financial risks and economic security as I had been 5 years ago. Instead, I am more capable of seeing both the benefits and risks of opportunities so that I can make better decisions for the family. More importantly, I find myself more relaxed around my father. In the past few years, we’ve spoken a lot more often and became much closer.
While it hasn’t been easy working on the release of emotions locked inside my body, and I am very much still a work in progress, the rewards have been amazing. If you are someone who has trouble connecting with your emotions, you might give this body sensation exercise a try. I hope you will get as much benefit from it as I have.