Welcome. In this space, I interrogate questions of existence, examine why we are the way we are, and wonder aloud about what it means to be human, all to encourage answering the question: How do I want to live? Past posts can be read HERE.
“Although many of us think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think.” —Jill Bolte Taylor
Emotions have always gotten a bad rap. They’re like New Jersey to native New Yorkers: You know it exists, but you don’t want to go there. Sure, there’s beauty in New Jersey, but you have to spend time there to find it.
When it comes to expressing emotions, even the positive ones can earn you some eye rolls. Those who can’t contain their joy and pride are often accused of earnestness, or worse—sentimentality, as if gushing weakens us as people. But it’s the bleaker emotions I’m here to talk about, because those scare us even more. Despite how much we think we understand about our interior universe, we often confuse emotions with feelings, but they are not the same thing—and knowing the difference might just change your life.
The often overwhelming shadows that emotions cast inside our bodies, darkening what was light just seconds earlier, are so uncomfortable and frightening, it’s no wonder we try to avoid feeling the sensations. We’re so adept at dodging out of discomfort’s way that we spend years hiding our emotions, not just from other people, but from ourselves.
Yet, this withholding—from ourselves, and from one another—only exacerbates our feelings of loneliness and alienation. Being honest about our interior world, and the private struggle that comes with it, can be terrifying. Being truthful means bracing ourselves for the sickening backsplash of reality rising up our throats, reminding us that we exist inside of an unresolved uncertainty—who wants that?
But what is emotion? Why are we so reticent of its expression? And how is emotion different from a feeling?
To put it plainly, emotions are unconscious, active, and physical. Emotions come before feelings. They are instinctual, biochemical reactions created in the brain that can be objectively measured in a doctor's office. Our brain is a feedback loop of reenactments and re-dramatizations that create a unique sensory world. This means that the very world we experience is the world that we create. This can be great if we understand how to listen and work with our emotions, but much less so when we don't.
Feelings on the other hand are conscious, mental, and can only be generated after emotion is activated. Emotions are like vibrating strings that live within us all and strum mournful or joyous chords that reverberate inside our skeletons like the belabored notes of an organ bouncing against church walls.
When we grow up with trauma, an anxiety and/or mood disorder, we're on high alert for danger. Our brain mistakes the minor puzzle pieces of daily life that feel worrisome as a threat, and our bodies absorb—as physical sensations and symptoms—the pain of this mistaken message. An accidental snubbing from a friend, or a dismissive tone can trigger a smothering sensation, heart palpitations, or a feeling of faintness. These flares signal danger, activating our sympathetic nervous systems to prepare for impending annihilation. It is a physiological reaction—what we know as fight, flight, or freeze.
If you experience fight, flight, or freeze reactions as a child, as I did, you don’t understand what they are, and so you believe (and fear) that you’re inalterably broken, that a part of you is wrong, and has been incorrectly set inside your body by the gods who assemble people.
Those with highly charged emotional reactions bear an invisible burden. Everything takes on meaning: Smells, temperatures, and tastes stick to the sensations they conjure to become one entity, so that the aroma of chicken and rice soup simmering on the stove will trigger that same Sunday melancholy every time you smell it, for the rest of your life. This meaning we make is feeling.
Feelings are not biochemical or physical states, they can’t be objectively measured. Instead, they provide a mental portrait of what is going on in your body when you are having an emotion. Feelings are the context, emotions are the content. Feelings are the words we use to make sense and articulate the emotional sensation our body experiences.
Just as we’re conscious of watching a movie, we are conscious of our feelings—while our emotions don’t always reveal themselves to us on the same level, much like the actors in a movie make subconscious decisions that we as an audience aren’t privy to.
Emotions form our feelings. The body is constantly making notes about the various sensations (emotions) inside of us and sending these notes to the brain, where the notes are transcribed and then read (feelings).
Often we don’t know what we're feeling, because we don’t go to the right place to find out. Instead of wandering into the body, we head to the brain. We go there because we know and understand the language that’s spoken, but instead of accessing the language of feeling, we access the language of thought to describe the feeling, which often leads to rumination (which we will learn about in a forthcoming piece) trapping us in a state of inaction.
If we want to increase our self-awareness, it’s better to know what we’re feeling, and we can only do that once we can identify our emotions. That means learning to read the language of the body. It’s there that emotions get trapped, and where unprocessed trauma is held, creating more pain as time passes. Once we understand that the sensations in our bodies are also a language that we can learn to speak, we can begin to identify our emotions and know how we feel, so that we can process and move through what has been keeping us stuck and in place.
One way to begin understanding WHAT emotion we’re having is to isolate WHERE in our body the sensation is performing. Emotions occupy specific parts of the “stage.” For instance, in my body, dread performs in my stomach, chest, and throat; anger is in my chest, head, and face; worry is full body and paralyzing, but I feel it most intensively in the same place I feel dread.
For a long time, those physical sensations were so frightening to me, I avoided them for as long as I could. If a situation kicked up a percolating terror in my chest, I simply avoided the situation. Problem solved. Only, the problem was not solved. It grew and took over my life. It was when I was entirely controlled by my fear and couldn't fully operate that I was forced to face what for years had been so frightening. I began to tip-toe inside my body, to meet the fear and learn what it truly wanted to tell me. Only then could I begin to change and face the things I'd spent years avoiding. It was powerful to discover that going toward my emotions was less life-draining than living life as their hostage.
A good practice is to begin isolating where you feel sensation in response to things throughout the day. You'll discover what triggers you. Does listening to the news upset you? Where do you feel it? What texture, temperature, shape, sensation do you experience? Touch that spot with your hand. Make a note. Does checking your email irritate you? Where is that irritation in your body? Touch that spot. Make a note.
Every emotion correlates to a place in your body. Once you learn to identify it, you’ll notice yourself becoming more and more attuned to your feelings, desires, fears, and worries. You’ll start to recognize that the tightness in your chest when you’re in a fight with a friend means you feel anxiety. That the flush of heat that splashes in your face when you speak in public is the feeling of shame. Once you can name what you feel, you can begin to feel more in control. You can navigate tough situations and devise strategies for how to cope. Best yet, you might even start listening to your gut after ignoring it all these years.
If we can practice listening to our body and the circumstances that leave us feeling upset, or enraged, jealous or filled with dread, then we can begin to figure out how certain situations make us feel, what we need and don’t need, and whether we should stay or go. We can address and shrink emotions that are chronic, and interfere with our everyday life. When we listen to what our emotions are telling us we feel, we can grow and live in congruence with our values and beliefs, and when we live in congruence with ourselves, we might just experience a strange, new emotion in our body. I’ve heard it’s called contentment.
And you? What do you think of all this? Where do you feel your emotions? Let me know in the comments!
Until next week I am,
P.S. Native New Yorkers are raised to give New Jersey a hard time. I’ve since grown up, and spent some time there. It’s lovely. Please don’t send me hate mail.