Recently, a client I haven’t seen in some time wrote to me the following question and asked me if I would comment on this in my next newsletter.
J. P. wrote: “Last December, I sent cards to some relatives back home, but didn’t receive a single reply from them. Also, I have a cousin who doesn’t respond to my emails, and I’m having a hard time dealing with this. Sometimes I think I should just let go but this little bug inside me says: “Well, there has to be something you can do to let this person know how you feel, because if you don’t, how will anything ever change?” But I’m worried that my response will show my anger, and what would that accomplish.”
This relates to a very important issue that I deal with daily in my practice. What to do with your feelings?
Most people have distorted thinking about their feelings. They often view feelings as weak, irrational, embarrassing, out of control, unpredictable, or as a means of manipulating or as an excuse to not get things done. For example, some people believe that anger is a bad, unholy, dangerous and toxic emotion. Rather than ever feeling anger they may instead only ever allow themselves to feel sadness.
Because of this distorted thinking, people either attempt to hide, deny or suppress their feelings convincing themselves that it would be selfish, bad or a waste of time to express them. They try to deal with everything only from a logical, rational, non emotional standpoint and may even become impatient with other people’s feelings.
Because they view feelings as a private matter, these same people may also have difficulties in showing affection and expressing love. They reason that “others should know you love them without having to say it”, or will just say “ditto” when told “I love you”. Denying feelings inevitably leads to silent stewing and resentment which eventually erupts as subtle put downs, invalidations and disengagement from others.
People at the other end of the spectrum are quick to express what they believe to be ‘what they feel’, when in fact they are expressing opinions, judgments and criticism for example, “I feel that you don’t care, I feel like I don’t matter to you, I feel you are inconsiderate”. These are all stories and assumptions born out of our interpretations rather than your feelings.
What to do with your feelings?
The way I teach clients to work with feelings is to take the middle path. I say, “don’t suppress, don’t express but address”. That means, don’t deny what you feel by telling yourself to “just let it go, it’s not important or just get over it”. And don’t act on your feelings as if they were the absolute, final truth, by lashing out at others and ending up feeling worse because you’ve behaved in a mean manner. Instead, let your inner wisdom and your capacity for self-reflection dictate your behavior.
To acknowledge, honor and validate what we feel is the first step in dealing skillfully with our feelings. We don’t move on until and unless we take this first step.
Your feelings matter. Feelings are never right or wrong, but behavior can be.
Once we acknowledge and accept our feelings, we can proceed with trying to understand them.
Exploring the story behind your feelings is the second step. When J.P.’s relatives didn’t reply, chances are she created a story in her mind to explain this. This story was likely, negative, critical and blaming. I suspect J.P. might have a story around being rejected, not important, or not worthy. “My relatives didn’t reply because they don’t care about me, they think I’m not worth the time, I’m not important enough to them”. It is this story, rather than the event that has left her feeling angry.
Once you identify the story, ask yourself two questions: “do I absolutely know that my story is true?”. Do I absolutely know that my relatives don’t care?” 90% of the time the answer is “no, I don’t know this to be true”.
Then ask the next question: “If I didn’t have this story what would my attitude be, what would I do?”
This latter question always brings out the best in people. Essentially it allows us to look at a situation free from the entanglements of our negative interpretations, and without taking it personally. The answer to this question will reveal to us the wisest and most sensible course of action.
Stating clearly what we want is the third step. What is the outcome we are looking for. Typically people will criticize others, tell them all the ways they have been hurt by them, but never give them a clear description of what they would like instead.
In J.P.’s case she might want to email her cousin with something like: “Hi “cousin”, I thought I would try to email you once again, as I would really like to connect with you and hear how you are doing. I was disappointed not hear back from you and I’m beginning to wonder if I have the right email address! I’m imagining that your life is very busy, but please if you have a moment drop me a line as I look forward to hearing how you are and what’s been happening in your life.”
Your feelings are never the problem.
Rather it’s how you relate to and what you do with your feelings. You can turn your feelings into suffering by trying to escape them when you suppress or express them.
If you suppress and don’t say anything you are left suffering with a story that is likely untrue.
If you express with opinions and blame, you’re left suffering with the consequences of your actions.
Our willingness to appreciate and validate what we feel and then investigate its meaning will help us act in ways that facilitate connection and bonding in relationships.
A final word. Feelings are different from ‘intuition’ and from ‘states of being’ such as joy, peace and love. Next month I will elaborate on this.
Written by: Claire Maisonneuve, M.A. Registered Clinical Counsellor
Director of the Alpine Counselling Clinic