- Bradi Bergesen, LICSW
Feelings as Messengers
I think of feelings as messengers in the body, letting us know how we are responding to our environment. The messages our feelings have to share with us may be positive, neutral, or negative. If it is a positive or neutral feeling, it may be communicating how much we like the person we are with, how we are enjoying the activity, or how peaceful the moment is. If it is a negative feeling, it may be communicating that we are unhappy with how we are being treated, we are worried about something, or that we don’t enjoy what we are doing.
Some of us are really good at feeling our feelings. We feel them deeply and we often react to them deeply. An example of when reacting may not be helpful is with anger. When you openly feel anger, it is easy to react, getting louder with your tone of voice or getting more physical with your movement. Learning how to pause before you react allows you to listen to the message the anger is sharing with you and evaluate how you want to respond rather than reacting quickly without considering what the outcome may be when you yell at someone or throw an object across the room.
Others of us are not so great at feeling our feelings. It is more of a challenge. Sometimes we react by ignoring them completely, shutting them off, pushing them aside, hoping they will go away. The feelings we ignore often have a negative association with them, which is why we don’t want to feel them. Unfortunately, ignoring your feelings does not make them go away. They get stored in your body. When you experience a current situation with feelings that are similar to the feelings you previously ignored, the old feelings that you thought had gone away come forward into the present moment and intensify your current feelings. This can quickly make you feel overwhelmed and make it difficult to think clearly. If you do not listen to the current feelings and ignore them, they will become a part of the history of feelings that you store internally, waiting for an opportunity to be heard again.
The key to being able to learn how to listen to the messages your feelings are trying to share with you, is mindfulness. Mindfulness allows you to pause in the moment and acknowledge what is going on in you and around you with no judgement, accepting what is in the moment, just as it is. When you are mindful of your feelings, it allows you to pause before reacting, notice what you are feeling, and ask yourself how you want to respond.
Here is an example of what that might look like:
You wake up feeling anxious about the day, with no specific reason that you can think of as to why you are anxious. You keep going along with your daily routine, trying to ignore the anxiety, but it keeps coming into your thoughts, worrying about why you are worried, and feeling an ache in your shoulders.
You remember to practice being mindful and you stop what you are doing. You take a couple of deep breaths. You move your attention inward and acknowledge where the feeling of anxiety is in your body. It’s in your shoulders, that’s why you have been feeling the increased tension there.
You feel the anxiety increase as you focus in on it, but you take another deep breath to calm yourself down and you ask,
“Why am I anxious?”
“Why is this anxiety in my body?”
The answer comes from within. You learn that you are anxious because you have a job interview later today. You have prepared for the interview and thought you were not nervous about it, but when you listen to your anxiety you connect with how important this job is to you and how scared you are about not getting it.
Now that you have acknowledged your anxiety and listened to the message it wanted to share with you, you have a choice.
Do you continue to ignore the message, allowing the anxiety to remain a part of your day, and probably impact your interview performance?
Or, do you take that message and do something about it, so you can reduce your anxiety and feel better throughout the day?
Deciding to listen to the message, you take the time to review possible interview questions, rehearse what you want to say when you are asked why you would be a good fit for the job, and review the organization’s website. You do some stretches to release the tension in your shoulders. You eat a healthy lunch to give you energy for the afternoon and you take a walk before the interview to clear your mind. You visualize how you want the interview to go, answering questions clearly, feeling confident in your abilities, connecting well with the interviewer. When it is time for the interview, you feel a bit nervous because this job is important to you, but you also feel good about yourself, ready to share why you would be the best candidate for the job.
Taking the time to listen to your anxiety, you were able to acknowledge why it was there, take direct steps to address the anxiety about the interview, ultimately moving through and releasing the anxiety in a healthy way, improving your ability to give a good interview.
When you are open to listening to the messages your feelings want to share with you, you have the opportunity to change what you are doing, which can place you in a new space, with a new perspective. It allows you to move through feelings rather than get overwhelmed and stuck in them. You feel more at ease throughout the day which may lead to better outcomes and better quality of life.
The next time you notice a feeling that may begin to be overwhelming, pause, take a breath, and ask yourself what the feeling wants to share with you. It has an important message for you!
Bradi Bergesen is a licensed independent clinical social worker using online video therapy to connect with adults throughout the state of Washington to help them live at their fullest potential. She accepts Aetna, Cigna, First Choice Health, Premera, Regence and Optum/United Healthcare insurances.