Feelings – our allies or our enemies?
It’s not uncommon to view feelings as a sort of bothersome entity: they seem somewhat independent from ourselves and they can get in our way.
We often talk about our own feelings as a third person, a force that is external and uncontrollable: “My anxiety overwhelmed me and I couldn’t stop”; “I cannot stop feeling sad”; “this fear came over me…”. Oftentimes goals set by clients in therapy are about feelings: I want to change how I feel, I want to control my feelings.
So, what are feelings and why do we have them? Can they be changed or controlled? Are they helping us or hindering us? Hopefully, by the end of this article, you will start seeing some answers to all those questions.
First of all, what are feelings? In our current understanding, feelings have two components: a physiological one and a psychological one. The physiological is a bodily sensation, an interplay among hormones and various parts of our body.
We all experience feelings through our body and there have been many attempts to describe how we physically feel when we are afraid, anxious, satisfied, content, angry etc. You might feel as if you could throw up when you experience anxiety. Your muscles might tighten up when you experience fear or anger. These are physiological components: bodily sensations.
The psychological component is how our brain understands the signals of the body: we label the physical sensation: oh, I am feeling anxious or afraid or excited or hungry and so on. Recent studies have pointed out that, for example, anxiety and excitement have very similar biological backgrounds, so much so that in theory we could convince ourselves that we feel excitement instead of anxiety. This does point to something important to consider: it is our brain that names our feelings, and bodily sensations in themselves might not be enough to know what we feel.
Second question, why do we feel? What is the point of having feelings? Feelings are the warning signs of a complicated and billion-year-old system. Similarly how the physical sensation of pain warns us to stop doing whatever is hurting ourselves, feelings prompt us to do something to protect the balance of the system.
Fear warns us to defend ourselves against some sort of danger, anxiety is the anticipation of loss – it warns us to protect what is dear to us, anger is getting ready to fight – they all prompt us to do something. Perhaps it is not so surprising they can feel so overwhelming and out of our control.
In dialectical behaviour therapy clients are often asked to do an analysis of the behaviour chain to dissect how they ended up doing something. When we try to understand what roles our feelings play in our behaviour, I find this simple idea of chain reaction quite useful.
These are the steps of the behaviour chain:
- A thought comes to mind.
- A feeling emerges as a response to that thought.
- Then comes the urge to do something.
- This results in an action.
Let’s see an example: you are walking around in a supermarket and you hear a voice that reminds you of someone significant you have lost (this is the thought: thinking about the person you lost). Suddenly, you feel upset (the thought triggered sadness). Now once you registered the feeling of sadness, you feel the urge to do something about your sadness. You feel compelled to leave the place and forget the thought, or you want to find a place to cry in private or you might wish to talk to someone close to you.
What we feel compelled to do with our feelings is personal, based on our experiences and processes. Then you reached the step of action: you might give in to the urge or you don’t: you might carry on with your shopping (now feeling somewhat upset) or go home to forget or cry – whichever is your usual way to deal with sadness.
Now we have got some answers about what feelings are and why they exist, let’s move on to the next question: can we change how we feel?
As I mentioned before, different feelings do have very similar biological components. Our brain does the work of labelling the bodily sensation as a certain feeling. This could mean that we identify different feelings even when we physically sense the same. So there is a chance we can modify how we label what we feel (for instance, you might tell yourself you are feeling excited about your recent promotion, not anxious).
On the other hand, this process of sensing something and then recognising it as an emerging feeling happens instantly, even a second is too long to measure the time it takes. So our conscious mind is lagging behind and relearning such deeply engraved habits is very difficult. Also, our feelings are important warning signs: they tell us what we need. Would changing them be a good idea?
Here is a simple example: we feel hunger so we could start looking for something to eat. Our body needs its fuel – if we ignore the sign (hunger), we will starve and get sick and weak. It is for our benefit to listen and act.
Take a look at sadness: sadness is an essential part of mourning. We all experience some sort of loss throughout our life, sooner or later we all have something to mourn for. Sadness itself is often a sign that we lost something or someone important and what we need is comforting, a bit of care for ourselves. Sadness helps us to heal – emotionally heal from our loss. Changing this feeling or ignoring it would cause our process of mourning to stop. Then our wound remains open and healing cannot take place.
In therapy, the goal is to learn to sit with the feelings. With the help of a therapist, you can let feelings come and go, you have the space to experience them, to think about them, and to question yourself what these feelings are about and what they are signalling to you. In this sense, there is no need to change them, you can learn to live with them.
Last but not least, can we control our feelings? If you paid attention to previous paragraphs, you might suspect that the short answer is no. They emerge instantly and spontaneously. They are engraved in a system where we have little conscious control. And once again, they have a vital function – we need our feelings. So what we can do is to control our actions.
Remember the chain: thoughts, feelings, urge, action. The feeling and the urge are spontaneous but we can choose the last step – we can decide how to act.
I am aware that this is easier to say than to do. However, we all have that space, that capacity to think about how we feel, to see where it would lead us if we give in to the urge and modify our actions.
If you think your feelings are overwhelming, you can find that place where those feelings can be looked at. If you are able to look at them, you will feel more capable of acting the way you want, not the way you feel you have to. You can be liberated.
Talking therapy provides you with a safe place to bring and feel those feelings. You can change your relationship with your own feelings and see them as allies rather than enemies to conquer. In therapy, in the beginning, your therapist will be the observer of your feelings and urges and actions, but as the work evolves, you can learn to see it in yourself. Therefore what you achieve is yours, and you will take it with you.
Feelings are just feelings, they are neither right nor wrong. They are your own unique signals and it’s up to you to decide which ones you follow.