I get a lot of questions about the two sides of the feelings coin.
Either ‘I don’t feel anything, how do I go about doing this again.’ or ‘I FEEL EVERYTHING SO MUCH HOW DO I MAKE IT STOP’.
Both of them are a question about learning how to feel again- usually in appropriate amounts. And the advice is pretty much the same for either side of the coin.
1. Check in with yourself regularly.
Right now, how do you feel? Are you tired? Are you hungry? Are you in pain? All of these things could contribute to how we feel emotionally. Some people, especially survivors of childhood abuse, have learned to turn off their emotions when they are in physical pain. They learned to ‘turn off’ physical needs because it wasn’t safe to need them and because they learned early on that they would be denied if they did speak out.
Checking in and recognizing both our physical needs and how we feel allows us to address these things early on before they either get locked down and tucked away- or bubble out in a way you’d prefer they not.
If you aren’t used to checking in with yourself, make it a habit and decide on what should trigger it. Do you want to check in with yourself every time your phone buzzes? Every time you fiddle with that necklace you wear? You enter a new room? It may feel odd to consciously check into your emotions all the time- but it will enable you to start doing it subconsciously.
2. Increase your emotional vocab.
A common problem is that people don’t know what to call what they feel and that makes it easier to feel out of control.
Experiment. Find what works for you.
Some people use code words to deal with their feelings. I talked before about a friendship in which ‘Turtles’ was a word that kind of represented bad feelings. This was nice in terms of talking about emotions- because as a survivor of childhood not goodness… I still struggle with connecting to my emotions sometimes. Being able to say ‘The turtles are acting up’ instead of ‘I am feeling triggered/agitated/angry’ allowed me to acknowledge the feelings but also give me a safe distance.
Others make up new words. Which is kind of like codewords- but the word doesn’t exist in the first place. Consider people saying that they feel ‘Hangry’, a mixture of hungry and angry. Or I used to say I was ‘Fucktional’ which meant I wasn’t doing well but I could handle what was going on. Smash together words, take things out- do whatever works for you.
Or there are things like this chart, which gives a lot of different emotion words- as well as where they typically fall in intensity.
Having words to describe what we feel helps us better cope with them.
This is one that really works for visual learners. As a teen whenever I had a break down, I imagined a shattered bottle. I mentally put back together the bottle in my head, put everything back inside of it- and stoppered it up. I don’t advise stoppering up your emotions anymore, but as someone who was ricocheting between two abusive situations- it was one of the ways I survived.
Now when I’m in a place where I feel like breaking down, but it isn’t safe yet- I mentally envision putting my emotions into a box with a lock and putting them under a bed. I promise myself that I’ll come back to them later when it’s safe to do so.
I know someone who envisions her anxiety like a hurricane. Whenever she gets really anxious she allows herself to recognize the hurricane, and then envisions it slowly calming down and pass over. This enables her to calm down panic attacks before they happen.
I know someone else who imagines her anger as a fuzzy monster. She has a policy that she is allowed to be angry and that anger can be productive- but that she needs to be aware that a lot of people are afraid of anger, and sometimes rightfully so. She uses her imagery to remind herself of that- and to remind her to keep it on a leash and never take it out on innocent bystanders.
An older woman I once talked to told me that happiness and contentness grow in gardens. That happiness is bright flowers and contentness is sprawling vines. Both are beautiful, but contentness a little easier to grow and tends to stick around longer. They require work to keep around, but sometimes, even with no effort at all, they will pop up unexpectedly. Sometimes people get annoyed when all they have is greens and their flowers don’t grow, but it’s important to recognize that the greens are good too and that seasons come and go and that the flowers will come back with a bit of hard work and a bit of good luck.
4. Create plans of action.
What will you do when you’re sad?
What will you do when you’re angry?
What is a good way to celebrate being happy?
What will you do when you’re scared?
Taking time to problem solve and know what will happen, can make it easier to manage emotions in the future. Instead of blocking them out, honor that they are there and respond in turn. If you’re scared, there probably is a reason- even if it is only ‘it reminds me of the part’. Remind yourself that you aren’t in the past, and take a second to consciously go over why you’re safe now. When you’re angry, find constructive ways to deal with that. Make art. Talk it out. Find something to do to get rid of the excess energy.
5. Give yourself time to feel things.
When I was first learning to cry, the only time I cried was at poetry readings. I could feel sadness and I could cry over other people’s pain, but not so much my own. Doing things like attending open mics, or watching movies that make you cry, is often a first step for those who have spent time ignoring their emotions.
For those struggling to get angry at those that hurt them, find it gets a little bit easier when they connect with others and get angry at someone else’s situation first.
Make a specified time where you can feel things. It may be daily or weekly or monthly. It could just be fifteen minutes a day or going to an event each month or a few hours on the weekend. Find something that works for you.
Allow yourself time to get angry. To get sad. To cry. To hurt. To feel.
and yes, often times in the beginning, it’s a lot of negative emotions. But we’ve been bottling this negative emotions up for years. They need to be released. Once they’ve been dealt with, or at the least, the brain recognizes that you’ll take time to deal with them regularly, it becomes a lot safer and easier for the more positive emotions to come up.
Respect your emotions because they are a part of you. And you, you are wonderful. You don’t need to be fixed, you just need some more tools so that you can show off a better version of yourself and so that you can spend more time feeling good about who you are.
6. Take time to self-soothe after letting off excess bad emotions.
Some people feel better right after they cry or make art or talk about what happened.
For a lot of us though, it releases the pressure but we still feel shaky. And sometimes we use this as a reason not to deal with emotions in the future. It’s important to set time aside to feel, but it’s also important to take care of ourselves afterward. Especially in the beginning.