June 19, 2013

What if it’s Completely Safe to Feel…Everything?

“It’s just a feeling, Sara. That’s all.” I replied, “Yeah, easy for you to say! I think this ‘feeling’ might just kill me.”

This exchange from more than a decade ago is so clear in my mind, and now, I am often on the other side of it with my own clients.

“It’s just a feeling,” was something that I had to hear many times as I was starting into my own change process. As pockets of deeply buried feelings came up for me to unlearn, it felt like the sky was going to fall; but, I always survived, and I always emerged from that cycle of change feeling better than I ever had before.

Some people’s survival mechanisms let them feel every bit of their emotions from the time they are tiny. But, most of us have at least one area (and often several) in which we feel that to survive, we have to bury how we feel.

It sort of makes sense when it comes to the negative feeling that I call Learned Distress. Keeping the feeling that “there’s something wrong with me being just the way that I am” under wraps seems like a logical part of a strategy to keep moving forward in life.

But, believe it or not, some people’s survival mechanisms require them to also keep their good feelings under control. Early in life, their brain comprehends that in order to fit well with their parents and surroundings, they need to bury everything they feel—good or bad. What’s safe is to keep everything they feel under control.

People have various ways of coping with this need to keep their feelings buried. Many people stay very busy to avoid feeling. Others create strong boundaries in order to keep whatever triggers their feelings away from them. Some constantly find themselves sabotaging situations or relationships in order to avoid feeling whatever would be triggered by a success in that arena.

These behaviors are all automatically generated out of their survival mechanisms that say, “Just don’t feel anything. It’s not safe.”

The more buried people’s feelings are, the more I caution them that things might feel out of control at times as we begin our work together. Sometimes, they will feel like they are walking a tightrope as their buried feelings start to bubble up. If they could zoom up out of themselves for a moment, they might see that they are walking on a wide plain; to them, it feels like they might fall off their thin wire into the abyss at any moment. That’s just because their sense of what’s safe is to not feel at all, so when they do start to experience their feelings, it seems extreme.

Another way to understand this is to imagine that you have worn 10 layers of clothes all of your life, and suddenly, you take off all but a tank top and shorts—even the slightest breeze would feel pretty shocking to your bare skin.

There’s a huge payoff for those who dare to walk that seeming tightrope or do away with their thick layers of protection. Our most profound level of feeling is our pipeline to the core of who we are. This core, which I call natural well-being, is what allows us to feel good physically, mentally, and emotionally. It is the source of our creativity and uniqueness. And, it is what allows us to discover and fulfill our life’s purpose.

When uncovered and allowed to flow freely, our natural well-being works for us (not the other way around), allowing our lives to work more easily and joyfully.

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Ed: Sara Crolick

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