It sounds like an easy and obvious question. However, I learned over the years that the answer to this question was not always easy and obvious. It wasn’t so for me for many years. It’s not always easy for my clients. The answers I often hear are: ‘’I am tired’’; or “I have a headache”. Well, being tired or having a headache are not feelings. These are conditions that may result from a specific feeling or arise to cover a feeling.
Why don’t we know what we feel?
I don’t think we are taught to recognise our own feelings. Just the opposite; as children and later on in life we are encouraged to get away from our feelings, mask them, transform them into something else, something more socially acceptable.
Let me explain. Whenever we tell a child to stop crying or to hug an uncle they don’t like and don’t want to hug, we teach them to forget their actual feeling and behave the way we want them to. We tell them in fact, that their feelings are unacceptable and need to be replaced with something else. (Worth remembering, if you are currently raising a family.)
Children are good in learning socially acceptable behaviours. They need to be loved and accepted by their caregivers to survive. They will do anything to deserve love and acceptance. So, very soon they learn that feeling sad and crying is not good; it is much better to push the sadness deep down and cover it with a pretty, happy smile. They recognise very quickly that hugging a person they don’t like gives them praise and approval while displaying fear and dislike causes parental displeasure. They learn that anger is unacceptable but being tired, for example, is not. So, they cover their feeling of anger with tiredness and get removed from the uncomfortable situation.
We learn to cover our feelings to get approval
In time, a child can learn to cover the feelings that didn’t get the approval from a parent with something that was expected of them, deemed as polite and appropriate.
Constant suppression of feelings may lead to chronic health problems
We all know at least one person that always smiles and is nice no matter what and suffers from migraines, autoimmune disease, or cancer.
I am not saying that there is a direct simple connection between suppressed feelings and cancer. It is much more complicated than that. Our reaction to stress, mental set up, experience, the way of dealing with stress, etc., they all play a role that is much more complex and takes much longer to explain.
Today, I am focusing only on the awareness of one’s feelings.
Knowing what you feel is a first important step to taking responsibility for what comes from the feeling – a reaction.
Once you learn to recognise what is going on within, you can learn not to react directly from your feeling. It means you don’t have to yell at your kids or be unpleasant to your partner just because your boss criticised your performance.
Unfortunately, this is exactly what we often do. We suppress our feelings, try not to feel them at the moment when they could be uncomfortable or even unacceptable, and blow up for no apparent reason when we “cannot hold it anymore”. Remember the last time in traffic when you completely lost control? Does that happen often for you?
Learning to control your unpredictable reaction
The first good step is recognising your feelings, being present to what is happening right now in the moment and acting accordingly. Acting, not reacting.
It is not a feeling that is ‘wrong’. All feelings are needed and important to our wellbeing. What may be ‘wrong’ is our reaction and timing for displaying those feelings.
So, do you know what you feel? If you don’t – start learning. Ask yourself several times during a day: Where am I, what do I feel right now? Not feeling sure? Breathe… breathe again and see what comes up. After a while, you may notice that tiny tingling in your stomach that always comes when you get upset. You may notice how anger feels like and how it feels to be scared… You may slowly learn what you respect and appreciate, and what disturbs you.
It is a long process that brings empowerment and helps to navigate your relationships: the one with yourself and those with others. It makes your life much easier at the end.