What You Feel

“White supremacy has used the suppression of feelings to hold down communities.

If you block the pain, you’ll likely block the feelings needed to fight back against oppression.”

—Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement

 

Your body is your compass.

I invite you to imagine that you’ve just been dropped into the middle of a vast wilderness.

What do you want to make sure you have in your backpack?

Sure, water, snacks, and bear/snake/tiger repellant would be great, but your number one tool, by far, is a compass. Without it, you’d wander in circles until your supplies ran out.

On the path toward creating a life of justice and joy, there are many moments where we feel like we’ve been unceremoniously dumped in a vast wilderness. Lost. Stuck. Hurting. When the stakes feel high, it can be hard to discern which step to take next, let alone see possible paths forward.

And yet, we each already have an internal compass. Beneath all the swirling thoughts, there is an inner wisdom that can help us discern our next steps even when we don’t know our final destination.

Your body is your compass.

Our bodies are extraordinarily sensitive navigational systems. When we come to a fork in the road on the path through life, our bodies offer sensations that indicate which direction is a yes, which is a no, and which is a maybe. Like tuning forks, our bodies say, “Don’t go that way. Go this way. Turn that way. Yup. Nope. Not yet. We need more information. Nope. Yup. Maybe.”

Although your conscious mind may not know how to explain or justify your body’s signals—and may not yet even be consciously aware of them, your body is nevertheless processing and communicating all sorts of information below your conscious awareness. Every cell in our bodies is continuously tracking what’s happening in its own way and relaying information back to our brains.

But what if you don’t quite trust your body’s signals? What if you feel dread about doing something that you know is good for you? Or what if you know that you need to get more comfortable with discomfort?

Our bodies’ messages are often not simple. Discomfort doesn’t always mean stop. And comfort doesn’t necessarily mean go.

Our sensations and emotions are information.[1] If you feel tension, constriction, or other uncomfortable sensations, your body is trying to tell you something. If you feel excitement, peace, or deep engagement, your body is sending a signal.

Our feelings are like spokespeople for our needs. But it often takes practice to decipher the messages.

Our first task is to notice what we feel without jumping to immediate reactions or conclusions. Then, after we notice we feel a feeling, our next task is to get curious about what we really need, which we’ll focus on in the next episode.

For now, in this episode we’ll focus on how to discern what we feel in the first place and why noticing and discerning what we feel can be so hard.

Why We Might Struggle to Feel & What Happens When We Don’t

Perhaps you learned at an early age to negate your body’s signals. Maybe someone insisted that you stop crying when you felt sad, that you were fine when you felt sick, that you were making things up when you felt grossed out, or that your emotions or desires were destructive or irrational.[2]

To protect yourself from rejection and meet your needs, you may have made unconscious agreements with yourself to not feel certain emotions, to ignore or suppress these feelings if they ever arose, or to believe that some feelings were wrong, weird, meaningless, dirty, excessive, or shameful. As a result, you might say that you’re anxious when you actually feel angry or that you’re frustrated when you actually feel sad.

If your body holds a lot of unhealed trauma, it can feel excruciating to tune in to your body, so you might dissociate and flee to the apparent safety of your brain’s left hemisphere, that fix-it part that tries so hard to help you get over the pain. We each have our own unique styles of numbing.

Even if you were raised by the most loving parents, you may ignore your body in an effort to cope with the pain of injustice, oppression, and collective trauma. It can seem like an indulgence to dwell in heartache, or you may not see the point of hanging out where it hurts. It may seem to make more sense to head straight into action instead.

And yet, emotion is energy that wants to move through our bodies; think e-motion. When we ignore or try to suppress our bodies’ messages, the energy doesn’t go away. Instead, it can get stuck inside us, the stress accumulating.

In an effort to receive our attention, our bodies may amplify the sensations—neck pain, fatigue, back pain, irritable bowels, headaches—or intensify our emotions—irritability, anxiety, despair, overwhelm, depression. Let me be clear, however, someone can be in absolute alignment with their inner guidance and still be disabled or sick.

When we disregard our sensations and emotions, we miss out on the wealth of intelligence from our hearts, guts, and bodies. We become more likely to react in ways that don’t serve us or have a harder time trusting ourselves and others. And because the same physiological receptors in our bodies that feel pain also feel pleasure, when we vacate our bodies, we dull our joy.

To discern what’s most important, what we long for, and what next steps might meet our needs, our task is to turn toward our bodies with warm, gentle attunement and try to put words to what we feel. Let’s discuss why naming our bodies’ sensations and emotions can be so helpful.

Naming Feelings Soothes the Nervous System & Points Toward Clarity

In the 1960s, a philosopher at the University of Chicago, Eugene Gendlin, set out to discover what made some types of therapy more effective than others. After researching many methodologies, Gendlin eventually discovered that the most significant factor was not what the therapists were doing at all.

The most significant factor contributing to healing was something the clients were doing.

The therapy clients who transformed their lives were the ones who were able to bring awareness to the hard-to-articulate sensations in their bodies—what Gendlin later named their felt sense—and to slowly give words to these feelings.

Here’s part of why that is:

Although research shows that most people don’t believe that naming feelings helps them feel better, fMRI imaging shows that when people find a word that matches their physical sensations and emotions, their amygdala—the emotional center of our brains—becomes less active and their nervous systems settle.[3]

The body is continuously processing sensory and emotional information and sending raw emotional charges first to the amygdala and then to a part of the brain called the insula, which is responsible for matching emotions to words.[4] When the insula finds a word that matches what we feel, the amygdala and the rest of the body can experience a sense of soothing because the message has been received.

However, if the insula is inactive, as it often is when people dissociate or are recalling trauma, or if we simply don’t know words that match what we feel, the body can be left carrying the message and stay in a state of ongoing anxiety, sometimes for decades.[5] We might not even know that we’re feeling a certain way until we receive resonance.

For example, Sarah Peyton coined the term alarmed aloneness to describe the feeling we experience when our cortisol levels and heart rate elevate after someone important to us disappears, either physically or emotionally. Just being able to name alarmed aloneness helps me feel a settledness in my body, one that was harder for me to access before I learned this term.

When we give words to our subtle sensations and emotions, it’s as though we let our bodies know that we’re listening and our bodies can feel heard and relax. And, what’s more, when we name what we feel, we more easily access a plethora of information that helps us make sense of challenging experiences, get clear about what we need and want, discern our next steps, and communicate more clearly with others.[6]

As Eugene Gendlin’s research demonstrates and as I’ve seen with my clients, listening to and naming our bodies’ messages is a skill that almost everyone can develop.

So back to that question—What if I don’t know if I can trust my body’s feelings?

Our task is to not necessarily trust or not trust our feelings but, rather, to pay attention and then get curious about what our bodies are trying to communicate.

Many of our feelings arise from habitual responses, which can feel like urges or pulls, like itches that want to be scratched, like we’re compelled to do something. Sometimes, our habits pull us toward behaviors that would meet our needs well. Sometimes, they do not.

What most of us do, most of the time, when we feel a feeling is that we react immediately, almost automatically following the sensation’s impulse to move toward or away from a certain direction. And this can lead to actions we later regret or don’t quite understand.

In contrast, radical discernment is the practice of shifting from those unconscious reactions to conscious choice. Rather than impulsively following our sensations, with radical discernment, we become aware of the sensations that arise within us, and take them as cues to pause, discern what we need and what our situation needs, and consciously choose our response.

When we practice noticing what we feel, over time, we cultivate the ability to discern between the urges of habit and the deep-bellied, matter-of-fact yeses, nos, and maybes that arise from a deeper sense of calling.

And, bear in mind, it’s not always either/or—your wanting to do something can arise from more than one place within you, from both habit and a more true longing or calling.

In the next episode, I will guide you to decipher the needs and longings your body is trying to communicate. First, our task is to turn our attention toward our bodies and look for words to name our sensations and emotions.

Attuning to Your Body Sensations & Emotions

Keep in mind that receiving our bodies’ messages is often not as simple as insisting that we “listen to your body.”

If you find yourself not feeling any sensation, please don’t pressure yourself. You may have experienced trauma early in life and shut down the feeling parts of your body-brain in an attempt to find safeness. Perhaps no one acknowledged your feelings while you were growing up, and so you never learned to recognize or name them.[7]

Besides, it can feel scary to bring our attention to our vulnerable, uncomfortable feelings, especially when we’re burned out, hurting, or have a loud inner critic. Whatever the reason, you make sense.

Although it can take time, practice, and healing to identify what we’re feeling, each time we practice naming what we feel, we begin to wake up and reconnect parts of our body-brains that have been dormant.

To help you expand your emotional literacy and ability to find words that match your feelings, I recommend printing out the Body Sensations List and Emotions Wheels below and grabbing a pen.

Then, if you’d like, I invite you to practice finding words for how you feel. I’ll guide you now.

  1. To begin, do your best to shift into your resonant self, viewing yourself with a compassionate witness perspective, through the eyes of the part of yourself who loves and accepts you, exactly as you are and exactly as you are not, the part who accompanies you with warmth and welcome.If this is unfamiliar or challenging for you, you can find support for self-resonance in the last two episodes. It can take consistent practice over time to see ourselves through this loving lens, so as you learn, just do your best. If you find a harsh, critical voice jumping in, play with shifting back to compassion or just pause the practice for now.
  2. Then, slowly, gently turn your attention toward yourself, and notice the sensations that come to your attention, saying hello to each one that arises, and look for words on the Body Sensations List and Emotions Wheels to describe what you feel.If your first reaction to the question “How are you feeling?” is “I don’t know!,” do your best to stay curious without pushing yourself to find some big, brash feeling. Instead, just notice any subtleties that are present. Finding words to describe our feelings is often slower, subtler, and more slippery than many expect. Even a “nothing” is something.
  3. When you find a sensation word that you think might match what you feel, ask your body if the word resonates.Making attunement guesses might sound something like this: “Hmm . . . What do I feel? Is that a knot in my stomach?. . . No, that’s not quite right . . . It’s like a tightening . . . A heat? No, a tightening . . . I’m not quite sure what sensation it is . . . You know, I think it’s a hot clenching . . . Do I feel a hot clenching, right below my ribs? …Yeah, that’s right, I feel so clenched… yeah, it’s a hot clenching in my solar plexus (that area where the adrenal glands live, right at the bottom-center of the ribs) . . . ”

    You might also gently place a hand where you feel the sensation to help you attune to what you’re feeling.

    Check out different sensations words and see if you can find a sense of resonance, like a ping!, a yup! a sigh of relief, or an inner relaxation. And sometimes, a sensation may become more pronounced now that you’re finally listening.

    That said, we aren’t listening in order to change how we feel. We’re listening with genuine curiosity to hear what the sensation wants to tell us. Changes in sensations are just part of the conversation.

  4. Once you find a body sensation word, see if you can find an emotion word to match. That might sound something like this: “Hello to the hot clenching feeling… Hmmm, do you feel pissed off?… No, I don’t feel angry… Do you feel tired… Yeah, there’s definitely some of that… Do you need acknowledgement of sadness?… Yeah, there’s a little bit of sadness… Hmmm… How about concern or fear?… Yup, there’s some concern there… Hmmm… Anything else?… Any shame there?… No, not shame… Okay, so there’s a tired, sad, concern… Yup, that’s right… Huh! I had no idea I felt sad . . . I wonder what the sad part needs. . .”Play with different words until you find a sense of resonance.
  5. Once you find words that you think match your body sensations and emotions, bring your attention back to your body with curiosity to see if there are any other feelings that want your attention. If there are, do your best to greet each new sensation with warmth and affection, repeating the process of attuning and looking for a matching word.Keep asking your body if there’s anything else until you feel complete. Then, thank your body for spending time with you today, and bring your attention back to your day.

I encourage you to place the Body Sensations Lists and Emotions Wheels somewhere you’ll see them frequently. Then, refer to them often.

I also recommend listening to Episodes 58-63 of the Feminist Survival Project podcast in which Amelia Nagoski—who has autism and alexithymia, a neuropsychological phenomenon that makes it challenging to recognize, express, and describe emotions—shares how she learned to listen to her body.

To discern your body’s messages, the next step is to get curious about what you need. We’ll do that in the next episode.

Body Sensations Lists 

Keep in mind that the Body Sensations and Emotions Wheels are not comprehensive or definitive. Words are codes that resonate differently for each of us, and so words like sensitive or insecure may elicit different connotations for you than for me.

And although I find it helpful to distinguish between sensations and emotions, even researchers don’t quite agree about the difference. Just look for the words that resonate for you.

Sensations that are usually more pleasant

Airy, Awake, Bouncy, Bright, Bubbly, Calm, Centered, Cool, Effervescent, Energetic, Expansive, Flexible, Floating, Grounded, Light, Mobilized, Relaxed, Open, Ready, Released, Smooth, Soft, Spacious, Still, Warm

Sensations that might feel either pleasant or unpleasant

Big, Buzzing, Cold, Electric, Fluttery, Full, Hard, Held, Holding, Hot, Leaning Forward, Leaning Back, Little, Moving, Numb, Pressure, Pulling, Pulsing, Pushing, Radiating, Sensitive, Squeezing, Streaming, Sweaty, Taking up space, Tender, Tingly, Urge, Vibrating, Wound up

Sensations that are usually less pleasant

Achey, Antsy, Barren, Bloated, Blocked, Breathless, Brittle, Bruised, Burning, Choking, Clenched, Closed, Congested, Constricted, Contracted, Cramped, Craving, Dark, Dense, Disconnected, Dizzy, Drained, Dull, Edgy, Empty, Fidgety, Frazzled, Frozen, Hard to Breathe, Heavy, Hollow, Hungry, Icy, Imploding, Itchy, Jittery, Jumpy, Knotted, Nauseous, Painful, Pounding, Pressure, Prickly, Queasy, Raw, Restless, Rigid, Shaky, Sharp, Shivery, Short of breath, Sinking, Slunched, Sore, Spacey, Spinny, Stabbing, Stiff, Strain, Suffocated, Tense, Thick, Thirsty, Throbbing, Tight, Tired, Trembly, Twitchy, Unsettled, Vacant, Wobbly, Wooden 

False Feelings

I include false feelings as a red flag. These words masquerade as feelings but are not actually feelings. Instead, they’re projections, stories we make up about another person’s actions or our own. If you feel compelled to use these words in conversation with another person, pause and get curious about what physical sensations or emotions you’re actually experiencing.

Here’s a partial list:

Abandoned, Abused, Accepted, Accused, Alienated, Attacked, Belittled, Betrayed, Blamed, Boxed-in, Bullied, Cheapened, Cheated, Coerced, Condemned, Controlled, Cornered, Criticized, Detestable, Devalued, Diminished, Disapproved of, Discredited, Dismissed, Disparaged, Disrespected, Distrusted, Excluded, Harassed, Ignored, Important, Inadequate, Inferior, Insignificant, Insulted, Interrupted, Intimidated, Invalidated, Isolated, Judged, Let down, Manipulated, Micromanaged, Misunderstood, Mistrusted, Neglected, Offended, Oppressed, Patronized, Pressured, Provoked, Put down, Rejected, Ridiculed, Ripped off, Scapegoated, Shamed, Taken for granted, Threatened, Tricked, Trivialized, Unappreciated, Unheard, Unloved, Unseen, Unsupported, Unwanted, Used, Victimized, Vilified, Violated, Worthless, Wronged

Emotions Wheels

Emotions that are typically pleasant:

Emotions that are typically unpleasant:

 

 


[1] My graduate school advisor and friend, Beth Tener first articulated this to me: Emotion is information.

[2] The message that emotions are treacherous is an old one. Decree XXII of The Third Council of Toledo, written in 589 AD, demonstrates how the Catholic Church outlawed emotion in favor of linear, precise, packaged thought by forbidding burial songs and public mourning: “The bodies of all religious who, called by God, depart from this life, should be carried to the grave amid psalms and the voices of the chanters only, but we absolutely forbid burial songs, which are commonly sung for the dead, and the accompaniment [of the corpse] by the family and dependents of the deceased, beating their breast… For the Apostle forbids us to mourn the dead, saying: ‘I do not wish you to sadden yourselves about those who are asleep, as do those who have no hope’ [1 Thess. 4:12]… Therefore if the bishop is able, he should not hesitate to forbid all Christians to do this.” Translated from the Latin by David Nirenberg, “The Visigothic Conversion to Catholicism: Third Council of Toledo,” in Medieval Iberia: Readings from Chistian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources, ed. O.R. Constable, [Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997]. Quoted from The Smell of Dust on Rain, Martin Prechtel.

[3] Tabibnia, G., Lieberman, M.D., & Craske, M.G. (2008). The lasting effect of words on feelings: Words may facilitate exposure effects to threatening images. Emotion, 8(3), 307-317. doi: 10.1037/1528-3542.8.3.307

[4] Craig, A.D. (2002). How do you feel? Interoception: The sense of the physiological condition of the body. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 3(8), 655-666. Doi: 10.1038/nrn894

[5] Daniels, J.K., Coupland, N.J., Hegadoren, K.M., Rowe, B.H., Densmore, M., Neufeld, R.W., & Lanius, R.A. (2012). Neural and behavioral correlates of peritraumatic dissociation in an acutely traumatized sample. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 73(4), 420-426. doi:10.4088/jcp.10m06642

[6] https://brenebrown.com/read-along-resources/ Brené Brown. Atlas of the Heart. (New York, NY: Random House, 2021.)

[7] Sarah Peyton- Beatrice Beebe

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