A few weeks after our miscarriage, I started going to counseling. Like many Americans, I found it to be a helpful place to process the grief and anxiety I was feeling.
Just a few minutes into my first session, the counselor hit me with the question, “How does that make you feel?” I had to stifle a laugh. It was so cliché, so exactly what you would expect from a counselor. Movies and TV shows emphasize that one question (coming from therapists) and I was getting it right off the bat. But the thing movies and television don’t capture is that that question is just the beginning.
Seeking emotional awareness is a good thing. But it is a journey full of landmines and temptations. If we do it well, it serves both us and our relationships immensely. If we do it poorly, or partially, it can derail our journey.
Because it is fraught with dangers, many opt to just avoid it altogether. Many people have come from families where emotions were stifled because they were terribly inconvenient and difficult to control.
The reason my counselor asked how I felt is because emotions are important. They let us know something of value is going on; it is an alert system telling us something important is happening and we need to pay attention.
When we ignore that alarm, we start to set patterns and practices that ignore reality. Our emotions are not going anywhere. We cannot stop them. We cannot really “control” them either. They are what they are. We can respond to them well, but that starts with a full acknowledgement of how we feel.
Naming our emotions is essential to healthy living. We have to have the courage to give our feelings their due. No less…but also no more.
As if to make up for the stifling of emotions, many of us go too far the other direction and make our feelings the most important thing about who we are. Many of us, whether we would say it or not, associate our very identity (who we are at the core) with how we feel. Which is dangerous because how we feel changes circumstance by circumstance, almost moment by moment. Yet we are trying to live consistent lives.
When our emotions flare up, ignoring them is like ignoring an alarm clock that is trying to wake you up. Things are just going to continue being loud and mind-bending until you go insane. But if you worship your alarm, carry it around just waiting for it to go off, and tapping the snooze each time it does, you create a dependency that robs you of living the day in front of you.
Once we are aware of emotions, there are two things we need to do in response. The first is to ask why? What value is connected to the emotion and why has it been pressed. This is complicated because sometimes we associate certain emotions as good (like happy or excited) and others as bad (anger, sadness) and we bring those into the evaluation, assuming they are telling us our values are being encouraged or threatened in correlation with the positivity of negativity of the emotion.
But sometimes we are angry because someone is pointing out a value within us we are not living up to. The “negative” emotion is calling us to positive action. It is good for us. And sometimes our “positive” emotions are reinforcing our values only on a superficial level. Experiencing them can, strangely, keep us an arms length from our true value by just satisfying us with a small taste of it. Fool’s gold.
Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves the challenging question: why do I feel this way. What value is this connected to?
And then the second response is one of action. What am I going to do? What attitude or perspective am I going to adopt? What behavior am I going to choose as a response?
Once we start with emotions, we’ve got to see it all the way through. Many voices and narratives (both external and internal) will try to get us to silence the value of our emotions by saying we’ve gone far enough or resting on conclusions before the process of awareness and response is truly complete.
But if we do it well, navigating our emotions can usher in a level of fulfillment otherwise impossible to achieve. So, how do you feel? And why? And what are you going to do as a response?