Well, shit. If you clicked through to this, it means you’re probably having a rough go of things, and I’m legitimately sorry to hear it. You’re here, though, so let’s see what we can do with these rough feelings.
1. Locate Your Feeling.
It’s tempting to think of emotions as nebulous phantasms that live somewhere in your brain. But, while the central nervous system is involved with regulating emotion, the process doesn’t start there.
The brain builds your emotions out of physical experiences in your body, meaning that every emotion you feel began in a physical location as a set of concrete sensations.
When you slip on a patch of ice, for instance, the fear you feel is made up of skin stretching at the ankle, alerting the brain to fast, uncontrolled changes in your position, and the stomach-dropping vertigo of your head rushing toward the ground.
So, before you get too caught up in what you’re feeling: where are you feeling? Uncomfortable emotions might be sneaky, but if you look for them, unflinchingly, they will be there, somewhere.
Describe your feeling as (at least) one location in the body: a brow furrowed, a fist clenched, a heart racing, a stomach churning. There are no wrong answers. Sometimes it’s even numbness, or a loss of normal sensation that you’ll find. It’s your body, and while there are commonalities in how we physically locate our experiences, emotion-based sensations are far from universal.
2. Assign Physical Attributes to Your Feeling
So there it is, that shitty feeling, lodged squarely wherever you found it. Now we need a way to get our hands on it, turn it around in the mind, and examine it. For this to happen it needs physical attributes.
And guess what! You get to make them all up. That feeling needs color, and shape. It needs texture, curves and angles. It needs a smell, a taste, even a behavior. Be creative! The more evocative the better.
And if you think it sounds crazy to actively give an uncomfortable experience more depth, well … I hear you. It is a little weird.
We spend a lot of our lives distracting ourselves from uncomfortable experiences because we don’t have the time, energy or resources to stare them down. If that sounds like you: you can stop reading right here and you’ll get no judgement from me.
But if you have a little courage to spare, seeing a shitty feeling in all its shitty detail can prove valuable. Once the feeling is a thing in a place, more of the brain’s problem solving utilities can tinker with it. That tinkering expands your capacity to cope—and produce solutions.
3. Narrate Your Feeling
Ok, there it is, and it’s one ugly motherf***er. Now what?
If you’re having an uncomfortable feeling, there is definitely a problem—but the feeling is not the problem. Feeling this feeling does not make you weak, or weird, or damaged.
Behaviors can be shameful; feelings cannot.
One way to prove that to yourself is to say what you are feeling out loud. Try it alone at first:
Say: “I feel (sensation) in my (area of the body).”
Continue by voicing the attributes you have chosen for this feeling. “It’s (temperature/color/shape) and (size/texture) and it feels like it is (behavior).”
Hearing yourself talk about this feeling, you then have the opportunity to accept that it is, in fact, your feeling.
That acceptance does not guarantee that whatever caused it will be alleviated, but it does mean that you’re no longer spending valuable resources, both mental and physical, pretending that you are not having a feeling. You can enter the fight without one hand tied behind your back.
If you’ve made it this far—found your feeling, gave it shape, and accepted that you are having it by listening to it stated out loud—the last step is to narrate it again, this time for someone else.
Not all of us have someone we trust to hear us having our hardest feelings, and to accept us; hell: we may not yet have a handle on accepting ourselves. One step at a time.
If you can’t think of person for whom you are comfortable narrating your experience, try writing it out in addition to saying it out loud.