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“I’m not asking you what you think, I’m asking you how you feel,” I told him.
He looked at the ceiling.
It’s the hardest question to answer when nobody has ever asked it of us before.
When we share details of our lives in the quest for support from others, the scenario usually goes like this: we give the details, the other person tells us what they think, what they would do in our shoes, and what they think we should do.
We are collectively obsessed with solving problems and ignoring feelings.
Most of us circle around the same unsolvable problems, never sure why we are constantly finding ourselves with different versions of the same issue or in repetitive anxiety or avoidance spirals with the problems we already have.
All the information we need is inside us.
We need to break the habit of soliciting advice and ask for support instead. And we need to gently reinforce to those around us to give us that support, minus the advice.
Our friends are there to be empathetic, abiding witnesses to our process, but that means we need to look inside first.
And most of us were never taught how to do so.
As a child, I didn’t have someone to guide me through my feelings.
When something upsetting, confusing, scary, or overwhelming happened, I don’t recall that I was ever asked to describe the sensations in my body, nor do I recall being helped through the process of understanding what feeling that embodied.
I do, however, recall the time my sister poured milk atop my head one morning at breakfast. No doubt an idea she garnered from a movie and held in wait to enact in real life when the moment arrived after a sibling squabble over Cheerios—I remember my body going into shock.
It felt like a violent act. My stomach dropped and my heart started thumping. I was helplessly glued to the seat, furious that the response to her actions was not only a lack of support but also a lack of retribution. Instead, my mom started to laugh.
I was covered in a milk slime of shame.
Not only did I have nobody to talk to about my feelings, but I was also now the subject of laughter and family jokes.
The next parental guidance I received was an instruction: I was to stand up and get in the bath, and “not let it bother” me.
I remember sharing this with my BFF, who knew just as much as I about emotions, and provided me with a then-satisfactory: “Uh, your sister sucks.” We found ways to blame her for my bad feelings and plot imaginary revenge.
Validation became synonymous with “support.”
And emotions and body sensations became synonymous with “I guess I better wait for someone to tell me what to do.”
Many of us can recall similar moments.
We learned to rely on these dangerous-as-adults coping mechanisms, all of which stemmed from ignoring our pounding hearts, pits in our stomachs, and other sensations of our bodies.
And when we are struggling or triggered, we turn to others for solutions and validation, confusing it for “support,” and subconsciously recreating the model we were all collectively taught.
We didn’t realize other possibilities existed.
We end up forever frozen in our childhoods, emotionally.
We need to break the habit of seeking out advice and learn to look inside ourselves before approaching others.
We need to learn to trust that every solution we seek is already inside of us.
We need to hear our body’s signals and lean on these as our most trusted source of wisdom.
We need to re-evaluate what support sounds or feels like.
And we need to transmute our relationships, which entails learning to ask for what we need from our friends, rather than letting them tell us what we need to do.
Our community is essential to our mental and emotional well-being, so we have the power to transmute others into our most powerful tools of connection and authenticity: there is strength in being witnessed. But when we rely on others to tell us what to do, we end up disconnecting from our own gut feelings.
Before asking for advice or recounting a story to a friend, we can walk ourselves through the following process to get information from within:
>> What physical sensations do we have in the body? What is arising?
>> What do we feel and where do we feel it?
>> What emotions do we associate with the physical sensations we are experiencing? (If we are struggling to name our feelings, a helpful tool is the Wheel of Emotions.)
>> Are we able to sit with those emotions or do we feel tempted to escape into our brains to find a solution?
>> Are we using our friends as an escape mechanism to avoid feeling our feelings?
Once we decide to share details of a difficult situation:
>> Can we let someone know if we are looking for advice or looking to be heard?
>> Can we be clear with others about how we feel about what happened?
>> Can we share what we feel in our bodies and our emotional interpretation? Do we know what it is?
>> Can we break our habit of getting enmeshed in “the story” and pull ourselves back to recounting the sensations in our body or the feelings we are experiencing?
And if we get advice instead of support:
>> Can we listen to what our bodies have to say more than what our friends or culture have to say?
>> Can we trust the information from the inside instead of from the outside?
The solutions we need are not about recounting the details or finding nuances in the story that we hadn’t considered. Instead of asking ourselves, “What happened?” we should be asking, “How do I feel about it?”
We may find that once we do so, we’ll need to look for a new support system as we learn this skill. We need to find others who can hold our sensations and feelings and act as witnesses. We need people who can serve as an empathetic, abiding presence in our lives, rather than as experts in matters of our heart or emotional conundrums.
Who do we have in our lives who can serve that role?
We want to seek those who can ask us questions rather than making statements:
>> What is it that you want to do?
>> How do you feel about it?
>> What is your gut instinct?
>> What is causing a conflict internally?
>> What are you making this mean?
>> Is this a familiar scenario?
>> Has this ever arisen in your life before?
And we need to practice being that kind of support to others, and catch ourselves when we find ourselves saying, “I think you should…”
The only expert on our lives is us.
And the only source of information during a conflict is our body: how we feel and what we feel.
With practice, we will find that our strongest source of information is within. And the others around us become the source of support to let ourselves feel, be, and act our truths.
I had to reframe the question multiple times: each time, directing it back from what he thought onto what he felt.
“I feel guilty, sad, and scared,” he said.
And I gave him a hug.