Feelings are information and listening to them is essential for personal and spiritual growth. Every feeling has a unique meaning attached to it. Feelings educate us. They are the royal road to self-discovery and self-development. To ignore, dismiss, or avoid what we feel is like choosing not to open an email that’s marked “Urgent – open immediately!” Our feelings teach us what is good and what is not good about ourselves and our lives. They are our quality control monitors.
Uncomfortable feelings such as sadness, anxiety, shame, loneliness, anger, and jealousy serve the same function as physical pain. Just like physical pain informs us that something is wrong and needs to be attended to, so too emotional pain. Ignoring a stomach pain, might result in having a ruptured appendix. Sadness that is ignored and not explored could result in depression. As a psychotherapist, I have found that all too often at the core of people’s problems is some degree of disconnect from their feelings and an inability to process their feelings effectively.
Listening to our feelings doesn’t mean following them impulsively or blindly. To learn from our feelings, we need to process them. There are three steps to processing our feelings:
- Identify what I am feeling by naming the feeling, for example, sad, mad, glad, fear, shame etc.
- Clarify why I am experiencing this particular feeling, at this particular moment and in this particular context.
- Decide what I want to do about this feeling now that I understand the meaning of it.
I realize something is bothering about something my wife said to me. I identify that I’m feeling sad. The reason I’m feeling sad is that within the context of the situation, this sadness means that she doesn’t understand something important about who I am. I feel distant from her. I decide that I need to have a conversation about how I feel and see if I can help her understand me better so we can reconnect.
I am waiting to meet my wife for lunch. She’s late. I am not only upset, I’m boiling with rage. Upon reflection, I recognize that my wife’s lateness is triggering painful memories of my father who consistently missed important events in my life. I realize that my anger has little to do with my wife being late. When she arrives, she apologizes profusely. I greet her with a hug and a kiss.
I open a professional journal in my office and am surprised to see that a colleague’s article has been published I immediately experience a sinking feeling in my stomach. I am feeling jealous and sad. I read the article and console myself by thinking, “It wasn’t such a great article.” I go on with my day and fail to explore the meaning of my jealousy and sadness. Although I have relieved my discomfort, I have missed a huge opportunity for self-discovery and growth.
Understandably, there are some who distrust human emotions. After all, giving into ones feelings blindly or impulsively “doing what feels good” can certainly lead to disastrous results. From this perspective, it is understandable why some believe it is best to try to get rid of bad feelings while opting to rely on reason and logic.
Nobody wants to be in pain. Patients come in with an expectation that my job is to help them get rid of their pain. Instead, I tell them my job is to help them understand the meaning of their pain, which will help them to tolerate and ultimately integrate it.
The desire for comfort is king in our culture. The drug industry is a multi-billion dollar business because so many people want to get rid of their uncomfortable feelings. (This is not to say, that there are certainly good and appropriate uses for such medications.) When we try to get rid of them we lose precious opportunities for self-discovery and growth. Rather than taking an adversarial stance vis-a-vis our feelings, we need to take a friendly and curious stance. We shouldn’t be afraid of our feelings.
Dating & Feelings
A final illustration of the importance of listening to our feelings is in the realm of making good decisions. In my work with singles, I tell them that in dating it’s very important to be aware of your feelings when choosing the right person to marry. How does this person make me feel? Is there something that consistently doesn’t feel right? What is my greatest fear if I marry this person? Do I respect this person? Do I trust this person?
Many well-intended friends, parents, and counselors inadvertently end up advising people not to listen to or trust their feelings. “Don’t worry about that, I had the same feelings when I was dating and it was nothing.” This type of advice is essentially telling the person not to listen to and process their feelings and can lead to disastrous results. When a person doesn’t listen to his or her feelings, he or she runs a risk of not seeing those infamous red flags waving in front of their faces. It also denies the person the opportunity to introspect and become fully aware of the issues involved in this relationship.
So don’t run away from your feelings. Listen to them, process them, and use them as an opportunity for self-discovery.