By Daron Larson
I used to think I was was in touch with my feelings. I guess this assessment was based on my strong emotional reactions to things like Baptist sermons, tragedies (real or imagined), and carefully crafted coffee commercials.
The truth is that I've just always felt my feelings strongly.
When I was a boy, I noticed that when animals played a significant role in the plot of a book or movie, they were rarely alive by the end. So I steered clear of those stories to avoid the painful feelings they might evoke.
Once for a music appreciation class in college, I listened carefully to a recording of Pachelbel’s overplayed Canon in D Major with my eyes closed, and it’s simple yet inevitable beauty made me weep.
When I became a social worker, I wasn’t yet able to realize how much my career decision had been based on an inability to imagine the pain of others without experiencing it as my own. It also provided a way to avoid the risk and vulnerability of pursuing a career in music or the arts.
Emotional sensitivity can be a gift, but it creates a lot of problems when we don’t have any tools for incorporating it into our lives.
It wasn’t until I stumbled clumsily toward a daily mindfulness practice in my mid-thirties that I discovered there were ways I could get better at feeling my feelings.
Before intentionally working on my attentional skills, I had no idea how often I escalate my unpleasant feelings and zip past the pleasant and subtler ones.
The kind of self-awareness that mindfulness exercise develops has helped me become more objective about my subjective experiences. I still have a talent for freaking myself out, but now I also have tools for de-escalating myself and even bypassing some freak outs altogether.
Getting better at recognizing feelings as they appear and play out in real time has been a game changer for me. Instead of feeling defined by my emotions or always being at war with them, I'm better prepared to take them less personally. Instead of always feeling defined by them, I’m getting better at experiencing them more like passing weather patterns.
I'm not a sad person. I'm a person with the capacity for feeling sadness.
I'm not a lonely person. I'm a person with the capacity for feeling loneliness.
I'm not a happy person, either. I'm just a person with the capacity for feeling happy sometimes.
This has required an enormous amount of practice, but the daily investment required can been surprisingly minimal. But small, repeated investments accrue into liberating skills over time. And when I stay curious about the feelings that I'm able to detect during periods of overwhelm, the ROIs are much greater than during periods of relative calm.
In the same way I thought I could outsmart grief by avoiding stories where the emotional stakes felt too high, I think it’s easy for all of us to assume we don’t have the capacity to handle our difficult emotions.
But we don't need to rid the world of what triggers us. It’s never going to happen anyway. We need to expand the scope of what we’re capable of feeling.
The development of this capacity can be practiced while sitting still in a quiet room, but you can also strengthen it while listening to music or watching movies – even difficult ones you suspect aren’t going to end well.
One of the most empowering applications of this approach that any of us can do right now is to really feel our real-time emotional reactions to the news – bonus points for trying this with programs that don’t reflect your views.
It helps to remember that feeling our feelings doesn’t mean that we condone what generates them. Our minds hate this part but our bodies are equipped to regulate complicated feelings when given lots of opportunities to practice.
Staying curious about a more robust range of emotional flavors and intensities has made my life and my relationships better. It’s a messy, ongoing project that I’m committed to working on for the rest of my life. It seems like a better strategy than waiting for the world to stop provoking me.