A penny for your feelings
I have always been an excellent thinker. I could spend all day in my head thinking if I wanted — and I often did as a kid. Being a great thinker meant being good in school, so it was easy enough for me to get good grades. Being a good thinker also meant being good at work, so I was able to get promotions quickly and take on more responsibility. I have always prided myself on being an excellent thinker. However, when it came to my contentment and wellbeing — something I desperately wanted but was struggling to grasp— thinking wouldn’t get me there.
When I first started to try and find more peace in my life, I turned to thinking (as I always had). I read dozens of books and articles. I listened to podcasts. I journaled and reflected and revisited my past. I could tell you why I was the way I was, why the people in my life were the way that they were, and how my current lack of peace came to be. I knew the definitions and the science, and I’d often recite them to myself and others. I knew a lot. But being an excellent thinker wasn’t, in those moments, what I needed to be.
When you spend so much of your life living inside your head, you forget that thinking isn’t all there is. There’s also feeling.
Now, I may have been an excellent thinker, but I was a really awful feeler. (I say this with kindness; after all, I know why I was bad at feeling.) I’m really good at intellectualizing my feelings. Looking at them through a microscope, explaining them to others, and writing about them in essays (yes, I’m aware of the irony here). I’m still working on getting really good at feeling them.
If you‘re like me and learning emotional regulation a bit later in life, it’s an uphill-both-ways-in-the-snow-barefoot kind of journey. My nervous system has been in fight-or-flight mode for decades. Always on edge, always rushing, usually anxious, worried, or tired. I was still a teenager when I started to have elevated blood pressure readings. I was an excellent thinker that didn’t know how to relax. I didn’t even know what true relaxing looked like.
For most of my life, relaxation was synonymous with disconnection or numbing. When I was stressed or anxious or overwhelmed, I’d deal with these difficult feelings by escaping. Food was an escape. Video games or binge-watching TV was an escape (disassociating). As I got older, working became an escape, and so did drinking. There’s nothing wrong with these activities in moderation, but it was the frequency to which I was using them to escape that was the problem. I’d found a lot of ways to tell my body that it was time to relax, but was this truly relaxing? If I had to numb and avoid and disconnect to feel calm, was I truly relaxed? My constant anxiety and overwhelm and elevated blood pressure would say no. But that was all I knew how to do. How did relaxing work?
I have memories from my early 20s of being in bed, preparing to go to sleep for the night, when I’d notice my arm trembling. Why? Why am I not relaxed? The more I focused in on my arm, the more I realized that my body was a giant, tensed knot. I’d concentrate hard and try to unclench my muscles. It would take a few minutes, but, eventually, I’d be able to release the tightness in my body. It was confusing. Even lying in bed didn’t feel like relaxing.
Going to therapy and reading a dozen books and being an excellent thinker didn’t help me relax, but it showed me a path to get there. However, it’d require getting better at feeling, which — as I’ve already noted — I struggled with immensely. In order to get better at feeling, I first had to let my body know that feeling things was safe. So, I breathed.
The fast, shallow breathing I practiced day-to-day was telling my body that something was wrong. There was danger around the corner, and I needed to be alert. I began to practice slower, deeper breathing. At first, I’d find stressful moments in my day to practice deep breathing. After a couple of years, I now try to breathe deeply all the time. I focus on breathing deeply into the bottom of my belly. I let my body know that I’m in a safe place. Alongside breathing, I relax my muscles.
Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique where you go through every part of your body, from your toes up to the top of your head, and relax each part. You start by clenching a certain area (your toes, your feet, your shins, your thighs, so on and so on), holding it tight for a few seconds, then relaxing. After I’ve gone through my entire body, I realize how much tightness I was holding. Tightness and clenching told my body that something was wrong. There was danger around the corner, and I needed to be alert. Releasing the tension in my muscles let my body know that I’m in a safe place. Alongside breathing and relaxing my muscles, I meditated.
I know I talk about meditation a lot. It’s been a big part of my life the last few years (even if I don’t always get to practice every day). Being an excellent thinker meant that I thought a lot, but not all thinking is productive or helpful. Sometimes thoughts can spiral and feed on one another. One anxious thought leads to another, and it only takes a few back-to-back anxious thoughts to be on the edge of a panic. Meditation helped me to understand that I am not my thoughts. Quieting my mind and focusing on my breathing helped me to reconnect with my body.
As an excellent thinker, I was used to the idea that my thoughts would inform my body. However, through these practices, I learned that my body — the way it feels and moves and rests — can also inform my thoughts.
Preparing my body for relaxation took work, but it turned out to be nothing compared to the sensation of actually facing my feelings. Now that I’d learned how to relax, I had to learn how to feel. It turns out feeling things has a lot to do with just sitting with the sensations — an absolute nightmare for someone that had built up a routine of numbing or disassociating in tough moments.
What does it feel like in my body to be sad? My chest feels heavy. My arms feel heavy. I feel like moving less and doing less. I cry. I sit with it and know it’s alright to feel sad sometimes. Being sad is a normal feeling, and I don’t have to escape from it.
What does it feel like to be anxious? My heart beats fast. My skin feels hot. My arms feel like they’re twitching or being pinched. I feel like shaking or pacing. I sit with it and know it’s alright to feel anxious. It’s normal to be anxious sometimes, and it’s okay.
What does it feel like to be embarrassed? My face feels hot. My chest aches. I want to curl up in a ball. I sit with it and know it’s alright to feel embarrassed. We’ve all done embarrassing things at some point or another. My worth as a person isn’t determined by a single incident.
When you’ve been avoiding tough feelings for decades, there’s unfortunately quite a backlog of unprocessed feelings to go through. But, one by one, I’ve started to catch up.
I sit with anger and confusion and frustration and exhaustion and embarrassment. It’s simple, but just naming an emotion and recognizing how it feels inside of my body gets me pretty far. Then, it’s releasing the need to escape or avoid the feeling, and making it okay to just sit with it. I don’t have to be productive. I don’t have to pretend to be feeling okay. I can sit and feel as long as I need.
It’s going to take me a long time to consider myself an excellent feeler, but I can see how much I’ve grown the last several years. I am much more connected with my body now. I‘m no longer tense at night, and I can’t remember the last time I had elevated blood pressure. My breathing and heart rate are calm most of the time because my nervous system is no longer permanently stuck in fight-or-flight mode. I have a better idea of what relaxing looks like for me. I no longer need to turn to food, disassociating, or drinking to calm down.
While being an excellent thinker has opened a lot of doors for me, it was nowhere near the most important skill I’ve learned in life. To be a balanced human with the ability to experience contentment, I needed to learn how to feel, too. Emotional regulation was the key to my long sought after peace.