When I am confronted with difficult feelings, or any feelings really, my tendency is to try to figure out how they can serve as lessons, make me more aware, and help me grow as a human being. I guess you could say this is my way of keeping feelings at a safe distance and under the control of my mind.
Some people create distance from their feelings by strategizing—focusing on how to change and improve them, or how to hold onto good feelings and stop them from disappearing. Others manage feelings by turning them into a story and continually narrating or describing them to themselves and everyone else.
There are also those who avoid their feelings altogether by projecting them onto others through grand schemes of blame and the like. The point is, whether we’re understanding, learning from, examining, manipulating, managing, fixing, projecting, interpreting, or narrating, we are quite clever at finding ways to not feel our feelings directly.
We are taught that we shouldn’t get too close to our feelings and certainly shouldn’t feel them in the flesh or inhabit them. We don’t want to experience suffering, so we keep our feelings a safe distance away through countless self-protective strategies.We believe that if we were to feel them directly, we might never come out on the other side.
But herein lies one of the greatest mysteries of life: Somehow, when we stop trying to change or manipulate our feelings and just experience the raw emotions directly (without any story to go with them), they tend to transform on their own. There is a natural process, a flow of grace that kicks in when we give ourselves permission to actually feel what we feel, without a narrative about what it all means or what to do with it.
I was not confident when I first started practicing this simple (but not easy) teaching. I did not believe any good could come from not analyzing or managing my feelings in some way. It seemed like a waste of time and that feeling what I felt directly would extend the bad feelings. Why would I need to feel it anymore or any more directly than I already did? How would that help?
When I began the practice of embracing my feelings directly, without an accompanying story or strategy, my mind kept telling me that without its help, nothing good would come of it. But in reality, what I experienced when I set the mind’s narrative aside was far better than anything I could have thought up.
Getting Out of the Way
Astoundingly, when my feelings were given permission to be experienced, from the inside out, they did change—on their own. As it turned out, the feelings themselves had a wisdom and an energy of sorts. I didn’t have to be in charge of changing them or of doing anything with or to them. All I had to do was get out of the way and give them an invitation to be felt. With that, my feelings relaxed and transformed on their own.
Once experienced directly, felt in the body and heart, with no “middle mind,” my suffering loosened. Ironically, the feelings could then actually become my teachers (as I had previously hypothesized). This was a revelation—that the feelings could transform on their own, without my pursuit.
Through this practice, I discovered that I can surrender to life and don’t need to intently pursue internal change or vigilantly manage my experience to fit a desired outcome. When I took the risk to let my heart simply feel what it feels, I was able to experience a larger, more magical, and mysterious process at work. I got to experience grace, which moves things forward on its own, me included.
Had I not taken the leap, I would never have trusted the river of life that is pushing us onward, no matter how much our mind tries to convince us that we are in charge. What I learned through this practice is that it is safe to sync up with my experience, to get inside it. Then, there remains only one entity, one experience, and one self, rather than a separate experience that I am having and must control.
So, too, I discovered that my feelings know how and what they need to feel better. They know this better than I ever could. I can then relax and trust life, trust grace, trust the process of change itself—all of which is happening on its own.
Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, author, public speaker, and workshop leader. A regular blogger for Psychology Today and The Huffington Post, she has also authored several books on mindfulness and personal growth. Colier is available for individual psychotherapy, mindfulness training, spiritual counseling, public speaking, and workshops, and also works with clients via Skype around the world. For more information, visit NancyColier.com