changE – Evaluate What You are Feeling is the last in a series of 7 blog posts about managing your fear of change.
By this point in time, you are letting go of an old way of behaving and thinking in order to embrace a new way. However, as easy as that may sound on paper, reality can often throw you a curveball when you find yourself attached or suppressing uncomfortable feelings about the change. There are ways to deal with this, and I’ll outline them in this blog post.
The Difference Between Emotions and Feelings
Although we use the words interchangeably in everyday conversation, emotions and feelings are actually two sides of the same coin.
Emotions are physiological states generated by your brain (your subconscious brain to be exact) in response to external stimuli. They are physical responses, e.g., tightness in your chest, butterflies in your stomach, a lump in your throat, etc. Emotions allow you to evaluate stimuli as good or bad.
Feelings are how we consciously experience and name the physical response by our subconscious brain. They are subjective. Feelings are the perceptions of what is going on in your body when you are having an emotion. In effect, feelings are labels for emotions.
For example, you might characterize those butterflies in your stomach as nervousness. This isn’t good or bad, it’s just nervousness. If the company you work for is downsizing and you think you may lose your job, you might label that nervousness as bad. If you’re waiting at the door for good friends you haven’t seen in 15 years and are nervous because you hope you didn’t age faster than they did, you’d probably label that as good. In either case, the butterflies in your stomach feel the same but you label them differently based on context.
A Common, Uncomfortable, Unwelcome Feeling: Anger
The feeling anger comes with a host of physiological responses: tight muscles, heightened blood pressure, a sensation that you’re about to explode. Taken together, we also assign the label “anger” to this collection of physiological responses.
Change can bring about this explosive and stressful feeling. But did you know that anger often masks a more vulnerable emotion, like sadness or hurt?
- Is it fear? What are you fearful of?
- Is it grief? Why are you grieving?
- Is it excitement? Why is it exciting?
What if you redefined the anger you’re feeling? What if you saw it for what it may actually be: an intense amount of energy caused by an underlying emotion, designed to bring about change? Although I don’t suggest screaming at the person who is the focus of your anger, figure out the cause of your anger and funnel that energy into the change you are embarking on.
When Emotions Challenge Your Values & Evoke Unpleasant Memories
Some of the hardest emotions to manage are those that challenge our values or those linked with memories. An emotional response to something could signal that your values are being challenged. It could also mean that you have experienced a similar situation that had either positive or negative outcomes.
For me, the unhappiness I was feeling in my marriage indeed affected me in this way.
The memories were negative: After my mother left my father, we struggled for years to get back onto our feet. Those were lean times with few comforts at home. I learned to hate my father for what he had done to our family.
After years of trying to make things work in my marriage, I realized I was going to have to leave it if I wanted to find the happiness I knew I deserved. The very idea of leaving a financially stable situation to venture into a new happier life evoked those memories of the lean times of my childhood. It scared me.
But I also struggled with how to honour a value that was very important to me: that my kids continue to have a loving relationship with their father. I did not want them to hate him the way I hated my father.
The emotions of sadness, guilt, fear and anger I felt because I knew I was being forced to make a decision I would have rather avoided were overwhelming. The result? I unwisely ignored them, because that was far easier than acknowledging them to myself and the world.
Only once I got in touch with my bottled-up emotions could I bring about this necessary change in my life.
What Happens When We Bottle up Our Emotions?
Society frowns upon those of us who wear our emotions on our sleeves. Many of us may have even grown up in households where emotions were considered signs of weakness. If your emotions were never validated as you were growing up, or if the healthy expression of emotions wasn’t modelled for you in your youth, it can feel overwhelming to start feeling them now.
But you need to—with help, if necessary. Biologically, emotions need to be felt – they need to be acknowledged and labelled and even embraced. If you allow your emotions to build up, they can explode out of you at the most unexpected and sometimes inappropriate time and in unhealthy ways.
The more you ignore your emotions the more out of control they can feel. This can lead to unhealthy behaviours. It can also lead to problems with your physical health. That’s what happened to me.
The Physiological Strain of Bottled-up Emotions
I had been living with the stress and sadness of a very unhappy relationship for years, and I refused to allow myself to look at what was going on emotionally for me during that time.
In other words, I refused to acknowledge or evaluate or process my emotions around the situation.
I ended up with chronic pain. There were times my whole body ached. An enlightening visit to a rheumatologist sparked a desire to figure out the root cause of my pain.
I researched and read about the side effects of bottling up your emotions into one unhappy, stressed out mess. The answer was pretty simple: Your cortisol levels rise and rise and are not given an opportunity to rest.
I turned to Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction techniques to control my stress and process my emotions. It was cleansing. I no longer experience either the physical or mental pain associated with my unexpressed emotions of grief and sadness over the end of a long and loving relationship. Here is my blog about MBSR and managing your fear of change.
How to Evaluate Your Emotions
I’ve found the following three methods useful in evaluating emotions and feelings so my clients can learn to deal with them in a healthful way and move forward with their lives. As you try them, pay attention to your own reactions to these methods. You may feel resistance, or the emotions and feelings you are trying to acknowledge may go into hiding. Be patient with yourself.
Regular Check-ins with Yourself
Take regular 1- to 2-minute pauses throughout the day to check in with yourself physically and mentally:
- Become aware of those areas of your body where you are feeling discomfort or tension.
- Become aware of thoughts running through your mind.
- Ask yourself these two questions – How do I feel? How do I know this?
- Name how you are feeling.
Once you’ve become aware of your body and named your feelings, breathe long, deep, cleansing breaths. Make the exhale longer than the inhale.
This exercise activates the parts of your body that regulate emotions and your nervous system. It promotes the release of oxytocin, which makes us feel calmer.
Another way to evaluate your emotions is through the use of logic. Let’s say you experience something to which you have a negative reaction. Let’s pretend your co-worker brings in cookies and offers one to everyone else on your team except you.
Your interpretation is that he deliberately snubbed you because he doesn’t like you. The result, i.e., your emotional response, is that you feel sad and rejected.
To change your emotional response, look for the evidence that supports your interpretation. Did he really snub you? Or were you in the washroom when he came by your desk? Has he gotten too busy to be wandering around handing out cookies before he could come to you? Do all your co-workers have to like you?
Challenging your thoughts and beliefs about a situation and about yourself can change your emotional response. Emotions can cause logic to fly out the window. Once you can see how illogical your interpretation is, you can tackle the chatterbox in your head that is promoting the negative feelings. In fact, it will help you connect to more positive thoughts and emotions.
That’s right – just find something to smile about. According to the facial feedback hypothesis of emotion, you can activate physiological changes in your body that lead to a corresponding feeling just by changing the expression on your face. Find something to smile about even in the midst of a negative emotional crisis and your body will respond by relaxing a bit. You’ll be able to connect more easily with positive emotions. Check out this link if you want to learn more about facial expressions and feelings.
For years I smiled when I really felt the opposite of happy and it worked I experienced much happiness in the midst of a lot of sadness. On a lovely family vacation to Italy with great, long time friends – I smiled through it all despite feeling like I was dying inside. It worked, the vacation remains a treasured memory.
One word of caution: Smiling to get through an emotional response so you can evaluate it later in private or with a therapist is different than “grin and bear it.” Smiling through my marriage did not save it and in the end, grinning and bearing it ended up making me sick.
Honour Your Emotions
To evaluate our emotions means to honour them. It is a form of self-care and helps us to accept ourselves and our situation as we transition into a new life. If you learn how to honour your emotions you will find that you actually feel better by naming and accepting them. Remember that emotions are fleeting – they do not define you. As you become more comfortable naming and accepting emotions, it will become easier to ride those waves of intensity instead of ignoring them and allowing them to build up into an explosion or unhealthy habit. Honouring your emotions is actually an act of self-compassion, and every one of us is worthy of compassion.