Feelings. I talk about them a lot in this blog. I often hear the word from my coaching clients, I see the word in the emails I receive, and yes, I have my own feelings. 🙂 Anxiety itself is a feeling, and it is often the seed of other feelings – anger, rage, sadness, depression, grief. To be afraid is to FEEL afraid, anxious, worried, scared. To be anxious is to be, too often, at the mercy of our feelings.

In this Fear Mastery work I say all the time that one of the skill sets we need to break free of anxiety is to “discount” the meaning of our feelings – specifically, the emotional (and physical) responses we have from Flight or Fight when we’re anxious. Some people have taken that to mean that they shouldn’t HAVE those feelings –that they should squish, bury and hide away those feelings from themselves.

Don’t do that. “Discounting” isn’t the same as shutting away. And shutting away our fears (and the thinking that generates those fears in the first place) is at the heart of why we’re anxious in the first place. No, our mission is to HAVE our feelings – let them surface, look them in the eye – but also dispute what they heck they seem to be saying to us.

HANG ON – You’re Saying it is GOOD to Feel Anxious?

symbols emotions

We anxiety-fighters don’t have a great relationship history with our feelings. It can, for many of us, seem like our feelings are petulant children or, worse, terrible slave-drivers, throwing us around the room, trashing our days, ruining our time with friends and family, making a mess of our lives. Our feelings can come to be unwanted house-guests that we just want to go away…

Part of the problem is we only poorly understand what the heck feelings ARE. Feelings are, among other things, ways to motivate us to take action. When we feel hungry we eat. (I know I do.) When we feel sleepy we find a flat surface and lie down. (Or, if you’re at work, put your head on your desk.) When we feel angry we want to DO something – break a dish, shout, take action in some way to deal with the thing that is making us angry.

All of that makes a ton of sense. Emotions/feelings are much older than conscious thought – way, way older. Like hundreds of millions of years older. Smart came very late in the game. Animals need to take action, and in the absence of clocks, calendars and appointment books feelings are what motivate them to take action in different situations.

So emotions are STRONG. They need to be. You can’t, if you’re a water buffalo, ignore those hunger pangs. Not eating is a bad idea! And this applies even more to immediate, physical danger. Living things need to be alert and responsive when their lives are threatened, yes?

Enter human beings and anxiety. We didn’t lose any of the feelings that helped our ancestors survive before humans had the bulging brains we have now – we just stacked those smarts on top of those feelings. That can be a tremendous strength, if we understand the relationship between feelings and thinking. It can also a key element of anxiety – which is why I’m writing and you’re reading this blog.

When we start to imagine/picture something bad happening in our future, and that bad thing scares us in our thinking, well, we’re going to have feelings. We’re going to have feelings because we’re triggering Flight or Fight. We’re hard-wired that way. As I keep saying here that’s a GOOD thing – we need that system to stay frosty in case of real danger.

So you are going to have feelings when you’re anxious! And they won’t be the happy, fuzzy feelings you have when you see a bunny or the face of someone you love. (Or, in my case, a container of Baskin-Robbins ice cream – Vanilla, please, or I’m also good with Cookie Dough.) Nope, they will be anxious, lets-get-the-hell-out-of-here kind of feelings – the feelings that would get you moving in the presence of real, physical, life-or-death danger.

Which means yes, you do need to feel your feelings, if only because you’re going to, whether you want to or not. And it won’t serve you at all to simply try and squish those feelings. It isn’t like you have a big box you can shove your feelings into and lock the lid. We’d like to THINK we can do that – but the end result of all that attempted squishing is, in fact, anxiety.

But I Don’t LIKE These Feelings!

Disputing feelings 3

Yup – I hear that. Then again, those feelings really are not the problem. It is the thinking behind them that are the problem. Feelings are simply the messengers of your thinking or, more accurately, your mental responses to your environment. In non-self-aware creatures (like that mouse in your basement) that thinking is mostly learned experience. Don’t eat cheese sitting on wood platforms that smell of metal. Do chew open bags that smell like flour. Run away from large furry things that purr.

In us it is a much richer (and potentially more anxious) universe of mental activity. We can conjecture/speculate about the future – and in having that ability we open ourselves up to some serious worries, if we’re not clear on the difference between crisis and problem. All it takes for us is to think we’re in the middle of a crisis – life-or-death – and that’s enough to power up Flight or Fight.

Which means we’re going to have feelings! And their mission is to GET US MOVING – either running (best choice) or fighting (remove this scary thing from my life right now!) Like them, don’t like them, try to bury them, knock yourself out – you’re going to have feelings.

So it isn’t about liking or not liking our feelings, any more than it is about liking or not liking your eye color or your height. They just ARE. The real question is what do we DO with those feelings as we’re having them?

I have two answers for you –

Don’t Start the Wave / Ride the Wave

Disputing Feelings 2

The first answer is, of course, to avoid firing up Flight or Fight in the first place. And that’s the eventual goal of this work – to learn to NOT let our thoughts scare us the way they do now. As we get more and more skillful in our practice of converting crises back into problems in our thinking we will be less and less likely to get anxious in the first place.

Along the way, however (and essential to the work of reaching that end goal) we need to learn to ride the wave of our emotions once Flight or Fight is engaged. This is the perfect place for a surfing metaphor, so grab your board shorts…

Surfers understand that waves are NOT, by their nature and size, controllable. You don’t paddle out to surf with the expectation that you’re going to control ANYTHING but your reaction to the wave – period. When you’re starting out you pretty much suck at wave-riding. You get tossed around a lot, you feel helpless a lot of the time, and you’re convinced you’re never going to get it right.

But you do get better at it, with practice and determination, and part of what helps you get better is learning to just ride the wave rather than fight it. And that’s a great parallel with the feelings of Flight or Fight. Once we activate that mechanism, no matter HOW much we want to control it, it is going to do its thing.

And, as in surfing, the more we get freaked out by the wave of our feelings the worse we make it! Which, at the start, makes us even crazier. And even after we learn this crucial lesson about feeling our feelings, allowing them to just happen, we still have to practice discounting the meaning of those feelings.

That’s why discounting the MEANING of those feelings is so central to this work. Those intense feeling amplify our fear for two reasons: 1) we label them as bad, scary, evil, linking them to the thoughts that start those feelings in the first place, and 2) we’re afraid that they are never, ever going to stop/leave us alone.

ALL of that fear is about the future – yes? Every last bit of it. The future is the problem – not the feelings. The heart of all of this is the meaning we give our feelings. And meaning is a mental process, a learned process.

That doesn’t mean we set out to makes ourselves fearful, it just means that, with a combination of lack of understanding and worry about the future, we’ve learned to scare ourselves silly with our thinking and our physical and emotional reactions.

Here’s some really good news: you only need to get a little ways down the road of this work to see the results start to happen. That doesn’t mean you’ll turn a corner and suddenly it will be easy.

You have to do the work, and that means ups and downs, good days and bad days. What I mean is that you’ll begin to get it, begin to feel yourself NOT making it worse, begin to get skillful at both allowing your feelings and discounting their importance to you (when you’re anxious.)

Please don’t take my word for any of this! Nope, paddle out yourself and start the work. The waves are not good or bad – they just are. Your feelings are not good or bad – they just are. They are not prophets of doom, they don’t have certain knowledge of the future (any more than you or I do), and they can’t hurt you.

But they can scare you – until you begin to reframe what they MEAN. Then they start to become less and less frightening. There will be definite bumps – days or even weeks where the work seems endless and deeply frustrating. Which is to be expected. We, most of us, have spent a lot of time (years or decades) scaring ourselves witless with our thoughts AND our feelings.

Just don’t forget there will also be victories, and slow and steady progress, and you’ll reach a point where you’re aware that you just tried to scare yourself, and it didn’t really happen. You’ll have found that you’re starting to learn to ride the wave.