This may sound rather strange and almost a bit insulting! How could we not know what we’re feeling? The truth is that while we go through so many different experiences on a daily basis that arouse an array of feelings, it’s quite possible that some of these feelings can be kept a secret – even from ourselves.
This happens because there are at least two parts to our mental lives – a feeling self and an observer self. Sometimes the two are completely aligned. We are asked what we would like for lunch and the communication is immediate; we simply answer a Buddha Bowl! At other points, it is trickier.
We might be relaxing on the couch after a long day at work and we are under the impression that everything is ok and we feel quite calm. But suddenly an apparently minor remark from our partner arouses us to deep irritation. We quickly move into feelings of injustice and unfairness about a host of issues we hadn’t – until then, been aware we even felt strongly about – and soon we feel out of control and all worked up.
Why is it so hard for the “observing self” to report accurately on our feelings?
One reason is that we carry beliefs about the unacceptability of particular feelings. In order to know ourselves well, we have to rely on the level of self-awareness, courage and honesty that’s presented to us in our surrounding culture. We can be easily conditioned by what our families, peers, schools, and wider culture see as “normal”. Across childhood, we have it instilled in us, so subtly we don’t even notice, strong notions about what are and are not okay things to experience. Traditionally, this might have looked like boys were not allowed to admit they wanted to cry, or that girls were not able to grow up to do the same kinds of work as boys. We may have moved through these more naive notions today, but there have been equally as powerful ones to take their place.
What have we picked up over the years that have allowed us to suppress our feelings?
Is it a sense of shame that we view things like; not being able to cope at work, be tempted by an affair, or still upset over a break up from years ago? And while we may live in more sexually liberated times, what sexual impulses are impossible to admit to?
There seems to be a great deal of things we are not meant to “feel” in order to fit a desirable category.
When difficult or uncomfortable feelings do threaten to emerge, the “observing self” might take fright and look away! Rather than produce a more honest and accurate account of feelings, it may go numb, to try and file a report that is more acceptable that it is true: “I’m tired”, rather than “I feel abandoned and like you’ve let me down”; or “I’m depressed”, rather than “I’m furious”.
Our problems here are compounded by the way powerful feelings like upset, envy and frustration, can swirl through us by apparently trivial and unrelated things. It can be hard to admit to ourselves that something huge and impactful has been released in our inner lives when there appears to be no significant external cause there.
We might feel a deep sense of envy and no way to express this when we hear about our friend’s new relationship. Or our partner may look away three and a half seconds before we’ve ended an explanation about how a tricky meeting at work went, and we experience a sense of indignation that we haven’t got their full attention. We say nothing because to own up to all these feelings of upset involves acknowledging a humiliating degree of sensitivity and fragility.
Yet these feelings that haven’t been acknowledged don’t go away. They linger and spread their energy randomly to other issues. Envy might come out as spite. Anger of inattention might come out as a snide remark – though of course, by the time hurt has manifested itself as aggression, any chances of being comforted are over.
Emotions that we don’t have a handle on and are unprocessed weak havoc. They force themselves forward in troubling, furious and depressed ways and can put an unhealthy strain on our minds and bodies. We develop addictions, we suffer from anxiety, and we sit an overwhelm of melancholy in depression, we develop gut problems and autoimmune disease. Our sleep becomes troubled – insomnia and waking in the night is the feeling self’s revenge for all the thoughts that haven’t been properly catalogued in the day.
How might we be able to become better observers and be aware and process our emotions?
1: We need a language for our feelings, the words and how it looks. Novels and movies allow us to able to observe how the spectrum of emotions can look in others, and offer a window into what we may ourselves be experiencing.
2. Dedicated time for self-observation. While we don’t always allow ourselves the time and space to reflect and express, honest moments with our journals, or a pause and out- breathe in meditation are valuable actions to allow our observer self to catch up with the feelings that might have been too shy, ashamed or stressed to emerge.
3. Surround yourself with people who are aligned with our search to identify and catalogue our feelings. Good listeners are imperative. This might come in the form of friends, family or a therapist. Part of coming to know how we feel is having an audience that can be receptive to the truth about us. In the company of open-minded and accepting people, we are able to circulate more freely in our own minds. We remember the feelings that we may have censored and we become more in touch with ourselves.
While feelings are not always wonderful and we should be cautionary in which ones we follow, but if we allow ourselves to accept the fact that if we deny, ignore or overlook them entirely, the price is higher and worse; they can exercise a powerful dark inner influence across our lives. Learning to correctly label and take ownership of our own and others’ orphaned feelings is a key art in living well.