I think we all know, intuitively at least, that being hardened against our own feelings has a major impact on our life. It could be that we believe we can achieve more if our feelings don't get in the way—and I wouldn't disagree with that. But then achievement is our goal—not living well.
If engaging life in order to live with our hearts open is important to us, we also intuitively know we are taking a risk. Some of the time, living this way will involve pain and disappointment. And the courage and hope to carry on might be a challenge. But when we consider the alternative and the long run of life ahead of us, living in an emotional desert seems like a travesty.
I like the wisdom of Dr. Gordon Neufeld who says we can't reach our full potential without the gift of "feelingfulness." If we cut short our feelings, we cut down our aptitude for living well. And you don't need to be a genius to see—a life without feelings is just not we all dreamed of as a child. Not worthy of "us"--it is not a place that humans yearn for. When we pay attention to our deepest dreams and longings, they will take us to a place where we love and are loved well. And we need our feelings, our feelingfulness, for that.
But where do you start if you have fallen into habits of ignoring emotions because they were too big to face, too risky for their vulnerable aspects? Or if you got into the habit of filling your life with "doings"...but now you feel called to some growth in "being"? —starting with being with yourself.
We need our feelings to come out from behind walls we put up to help us cope, many of us. Those walls are usually a little hard—sturdy, strong, protective. We put them there to shield ourselves in times when we didn't feel safe. Our feelings (emotions) were safer—for a while. But now it is time to engage with our deeper, inner self. Time to find our "soft" feelings, which have been carefully guarded behind those walls.
Here is how I use "soft"--SOFT—as an acronym. Each stage that I describe here is more complex than this. But let's start today with a basic summary. What does each letter in SOFT represent and how can we use this to reach inside and become more aware of our inner world.
S-Sensations. (Somatic emotion if you are familiar with that term already.) Our emotions spring from our preverbal brain and they activate our whole body, not just our mind. The easiest ones to identify are often those that come from our alarm instincts—our fight, flight, freeze responses when there is danger to consider. But this is also true for our emotional responses to other instinctual things, such as frustration or our inner longing to belong. (Like I said, too much for this summary.)
With this word, "sensations," you want to start to explore your emotions by paying attention to where the messages got stored in your body. Start by being aware that there are things that make you anxious or frustrated (or both) and look for the way your body signals this to you. Is there tension or turmoil in your upper body—shoulders, throat, neck? How about in your inner organs—does your heart race or your stomach churn? Or do you feel like running away—is there some message in your legs?
These sensations come usually quite quickly and throw off your "thinking brain"—so you don't stop and say "hey, I suddenly feel anxious—why do I have this urge to run...or fight...or like I am frozen?" Literally, you may feel like throwing something—your arm muscles will be primed and ready to protect you by throwing a punch or a rock. Listen to these sensations, they are signalling to you that an emotion has been activated.
O—Outcome or Outburst. If you are already good at processing emotion, or if you have a less sensitive brain, you might skip this one—but for those of us who struggle with big emotions, there is some kind of action that we know helps us "blow off steam"—get rid of the emotional sensations. It works for a while but in the long-run we want something more meaningful, more satisfying. As I mentioned, throwing something feels like a good idea for me—when I am anxious and frustrated in combination, I throw stuff. I often also feel like throwing up if I really pay attention to what my stomach is feeling. At those times, I often yell at someone. Both of these might help release the pressure of that feeling but don't actually resolve anything.
There is another option. We can listen to our sensations and note what they are telling us or prompting in our body and we can stop and search for a name for what is going on. Yes, this is the next letter in SOFT.
F—Feelings. Feelings are a more refined version of our emotions. They are the conscious version, the named rendering of the raw "reactive" part we started with. In this version, where we name our emotions and call them a feeling, we start to have a relationship with our own self. We begin the journey toward our conscious awareness of how we respond and we also begin our journey toward processing those emotions, making choices that we are more satisfied with. This is a journey that will take years to explore because feelings are not simple. But starting with a basic name—sadness, frustration, fear, isolation, worthlessness—starting here will help. Once you are more familiar with more words for your feelings you will get better at this.
All this reflection is part of our cognitive work—our thinking brain. And you guessed it, we have come to the SOFT "T". Maybe I should be a bit quirky and let it be SOFTT, because there are two parts to the T. But I don't like the look of SOFTT. So here is T in two parts.
T—Thoughts. The easier part of this is to identify what you tend to think of yourself when you consider the feelings you have. (See how you have stopped the raw emotion and are now reflecting on the feeling? This is a good thing!) Do you think something like "I'm a loser." or "I did it again. I hate that"? Do your feelings and emotions generate a negative thought about yourself?
Take time to consider where your thoughts have been taking you, because most of us do this, usually without realizing it. It isn't that hard to consider what you would like someone to say to you or what you would say to a friend in this situation. Come up with a few (or even just one) simple statements that you would like to "hear"—even from yourself. Make it your business to change what you say to yourself when you have a chance to consider your emotional, inner landscape. Say things like "You matter." or "I am worthy." Experiment and find the most helpful ways to talk to yourself.
The second part of the "T" is more complex. It has to do with allowing yourself to fully experience two differing thoughts at the same time. You can allow yourself the freedom to be mad as a nutty hatter at something when you know how this works. And at the same time, you tell yourself "On the other hand"....and you bring those two thoughts together in something called "tempering"—the original meaning of "temper"—to put two metals together to make them stronger. Temper your thoughts about your feelings.
"On the one hand I am really angry at my boss for putting me in my place in that meeting and telling me to stop pushing for human rights. That makes me just mad! On the other hand, he has the power to fire me so I need to find ways to speak respectfully—modelling the kind of respect I want from him—so that I can move forward with the agenda I feel is clearly needed to improve the morale at work. I can do this—it just might take a little longer."
Do you hear how I'm speaking to myself in this, giving a generous space for the anger but not leaving myself to the single perspective. The "other hand"—the second perspective is what gives me the reflective power for self-control. It also gives me the values I live by—respect and justice. It may even give me compassion and empathy—if I consider other thoughts on my boss and what he may be exhibiting in his behaviour. I may even come to see that I challenged him too openly, too hard, went after something with so much force that he reacted....it is a whole different way of thinking about what's going on. The one hand is all about space for me—my feelings, my reactions. The other hand is all about space for another perspective.
This last piece on "tempering" comes from the work of Dr. Gordon Neufeld who calls this the integrative process and says it is one of three things that creates emotional maturity as we develop. There is so much more that could be said here. I've already taken too long to say all this.
So let me close with this. This last T (tempering), for me, was a game changer. When I allowed myself the "first hand" and acknowledged that I would benefit from a generous space for those reactions and big emotions and feelings, I took leaps forward in my inner world. At first my "second hand" was simply that I was an adult, but it didn't take long to find and develop other things to put into the second hand. And there is nothing substandard about being in that second hand—that is where our values live. Because of that, the two work together for a much more fulfilling life.
I hope you find some game-changers in this for you, too.
Watch for more about SOFT in coming blogs. This is just the beginning!
There's been a rumour that anxiety has become an epidemic—that so many people are "having it"—it's out of control. Which is kind of helpful and kind of not. The idea of anything being out of control is not helpful to anyone battling anxiety.
Anxiety, the actual emotion of alarm, is not an illness all by itself. It is a normal, natural, and even useful emotion. It has a function: to keep us alive...and safe.
Let's say you are walking on a dark night and the road is rough. You start to feel a little anxious. That's exactly what you should be feeling, isn't it? You might fall into a hole and if no one hears you go down, you'll be rather stuck there. So your alarm system alerts you: there is a possibility of danger here, be cautious, step with care. Alarm...stress...a feeling of anxiety: all there to tell you there is imminent danger.
Of course, if you are walking on a familiar road with pavement that you know is clean and solid, the anxiety should dissipate when you remind yourself this is a safe place. The dark and the unfamiliar often trigger alarm. But as you think it through, you calm yourself--the anxiety has done its job and now it is done. And you are in charge of your thoughts.
But if anxiety has started to take over your life and plague you rather than serve to keep you safe, you are probably battling with a feeling of being overwhelmed. Too much anxiety and the problem of not being able to turn off the anxious thoughts—well, that is not a healthy, helpful place to be.
What's worse, anxiety has a terrible feature of being cyclical. If you are in alarm—sensing danger—and you realize you may not be in control of your emotions, you may get even more anxious! When I am tired and stressed (maybe worried about a work problem), sometimes my eye twitches. The first time it did that I started to worry about why it was twitching—would this go on for the rest of my life? How could I stop it? My twitch, caused by anxiety (together with tiredness) made me more anxious!
That's exactly how anxiety behaves—it makes us more anxious because we are anxious. Think about that for a minute—it doesn't make sense but it is so hard to stop.
There are potentially dozens of things you can do to help yourself take back the reins if anxious feelings and thoughts have galloped away with your life. But even a long list of "to-do's" might make your "problem" seem bigger. Talking to a professional to gain perspective or insight may be the obvious best choice. But that might also make you a lot more anxious. Talking to strangers about personal issues is...yes, alarming. You see how the cycle works, right?
So let's start with two small things that you can do that won't take up time, energy or resources that you may not have. And I'm not going to tell you to try mindfulness, even though it may help. Mindfulness takes quite a bit of time and effort. You could certainly aim for that and it should help—but take that step later, because these first two are much easier.
First, call a friend who has a voice that makes you feel safe. A soft voice and an inviting "posture"—not a real posture, but something about them that says "you matter to me." And just talk and listen—listen to the sound of their voice and carry it into your own breathing pattern. Listen, and as you do, imagine you are breathing air that has that calm quality to it. And imagine holding the calm inside your lungs for a couple of seconds before you let it go.
Why is this first on the list? Because when we were tiny helpless humans our brains were wired to get our calm from the safe humans who came to care for us every time we expressed alarm. We are not actually wired to learn to calm ourselves or create our own safety—it should be a matter of priority that this is offered to us in our first few years of life. But for some of us that was not the case and we have to go back to the foundations and start again. So if that is your story, don't feel bad about your anxiety issues and don't waste time looking for who to blame—they probably had no idea they were failing you.
But do this simple thing. Pick up the phone, listen to your friend, ask to get together with them, and as you listen, breathe in the soothing tones of their calming voice. Certain people just have that quality and it is something worth ingesting.
And my second suggestion? Just as easy and even possible to do at the same time as the first—get out for a walk in nature. Even if it is the coldest day in winter and you can only stand ten seconds outside—get yourself out to where you can feel the air on your skin, listen for some sounds of nature (birds, leaves moving), smell the air—or don't if it is polluted, but try to get somewhere with fresh air. And move, walk a little. And take a friend to join you—life is better together.
When I said the sound of a calming voice was intended to help create calm in the brains of human infants, it is all five senses that connect a baby to what is soothing. Six senses, actually, with motion (the sixth one) having significant impact on the nervous system. So go for a brief walk, with the intention to look around at the natural world, listen, breathe, feel the air or sunshine on your skin. And if you can't take a calming friend with you, remember someone who made your insides feel good in a deep and stable way...and imagine they are walking beside you, telling you that you matter.
And just like that, you've started to take back your thoughts and feelings and you're letting anxiety know that it has a place in your life, but that you are in charge.
*If you know you need to see a therapist, make sure you take the energy you get from your calming walk to book an appointment—in person or online (zoom), choosing whichever is less stressful for you. This advice in no way replaces talking to a therapist when you need one.
(Check out my video "Creating Calm" to get more insights on our early foundations of inner calm). https://www.ellenjanzen.com/the-power-of-instincts-and-emotion.html
I write on how humans develop and grow through challenges we face. I've divided this into three categories--Growing Love is about relationships and how we create conditions for growth despite the inevitable challenges. Cloudburst is about grief, specifically—which is a tricky topic. We need to keep growing but pushing is the opposite of helpful. And in Dancing on Hot Sand I talk about personal inner growth in hard places—spiritual growth, without sounding religious, I hope.