What are feelings? What purpose do they serve?
A while ago I came across this chart which attempts to give the function of feelings. I find it interesting and insightful, a good place to start if you’re experiencing a feeling which is considered negative and would like a more balanced view of it, to know that it also has a positive side to it.
The attitude that certain feelings are only bad or negative has always bothered me.
It bothered me as a child because it made life confusing for me. Feelings became a source of endless paradoxes, and those paradoxes became a source of difficult feelings, anxiety, fear, frustration, then sadness, then anger, then guilt. One leading to another with no seeming outlet or solution.
Over and over again my feelings were labelled and boxed by others. Mostly the message which I received was that my feelings were all bad, and the feelings of others were good. Therefore I was not allowed to feel anything as it might bother someone else. However I was required to express certain feelings whether I had them or not because others require an emotional reaction, but it has to be one which is acceptable and expected.
The list of what I was not allowed to feel grew longer with each passing year.
Both of my parents had exaggerated feelings. If they were annoyed, frustrated or angry they expressed it as rage. If they were happy, in love, they expressed it as euphoria, exuberant joy. If they were embarrassed they became aggressive and accusatory. If they were curious it became an inquisition, an interrogation. If they were hurt they expressed it as a dramatic death scene. Disgust required an exorcism. Sadness felt like the end of the world, being sucked into a black hole.
Their feelings were invasive, they needed an audience and audience participation in their drama, but the participation which they demanded had to follow the script of their drama. Their emotional pantomime needed cheers, boos, and gasps. Their confessions expected worship and prostration and a thousand mea culpas.
This was constant, and yet inconsistent. Sometimes their rages needed the witness of the rage to cry, the tears of another acting as an extinguisher of the flames of fury, but at other times tears fueled the rage like accelerant, and what was needed was a vacuum, for the witness to be nothing, say nothing, do nothing, cease to exist but be there. Then again a vacuum could make the rage explode causing a pyroclastic flow to rumble down the sides of the volcano exterminating everything in its path.
And that confusion did not happen only with rages, their joy was just as demanding of a precise and correct controlled reaction. Joy could very quickly turn into rage if it was not treated appropriately and recognised as being fabulous.
I did not have much time for my own feelings as a child when my parents were around. I did have quite a lot of time on my own, but I did not spend that time exploring my feelings, I used it to relax. The peace was my refuge, the calm port in a stormy world. I enjoyed the release from feeling, from not having to feel anything for anyone else.
As I grew older and began to interact with my peers, with people outside of my social circle of origin, the issue of feelings became even more complex.
By then I had sorted out a coping mechanism of being so detached from my feelings that I did not think about them. Of course I felt them, knew they were there, was aware of them and their status, but they were like breathing. They came and went, inhaling, exhaling, moving through my body, in and out. They flowed. No feeling was final. I expressed them too as part of me, as I breathed.
It only was a problem when someone would ask me what I was feeling. That meant actually thinking about feeling, rather than just being aware of it. And not just thinking about it but articulating it, putting what was wordless into words, and then explaining it. Other people seem to need explanations, especially if your answer does not satisfy their question. It was odd, but they thought I was odd because they seemed so concerned about every fluctuation of feeling, as though it was a matter of national importance, life or death.
I remember becoming self-conscious about my feelings when I was around others…
…so much so that I began to suspect that I was cold. I even asked a friend if he thought I was cold. He was the sort of person who told you bluntly what he thought and that is why I asked him. So many people tell you what they think you want to hear or what they would want to hear if they asked the same question which you have asked them… that’s not helpful. He looked at me as though I was insane and replied that I was the warmest person he knew. I argued with him and he argued back, stating that the argument was like two people trying to decide on the shade of a colour when one of them was colour blind.
To me the most confusing aspect of feeling occurs in the land of Shoulds. When other people feel that you should feel something which you don’t, perhaps because they do and want you to feel as they feel because that supports how they feel or because they have bought into the rules of Shoulds about feelings.
Such as if someone insults you, you should feel offended. But what if I don’t feel anything about the insult because I didn’t take it personally, because I knew that the person expressing the insult was just expressing their own feeling and their feeling does not belong to me.
When someone asks me – What are you feeling or how are you feeling – I often answer with an – I don’t know or a nothing. It’s true and yet not true. I do know, and I’m not feeling nothing, it’s just that what I’m feeling is so subtle it is like breathing. It’s there but not there. It is important yet not important, when it is it vital it will make itself very known and very clear. It will express itself in 3D.
When someone does not accept that, when they demand that I feel, or when their feelings invade my personal space…
…I withdraw into privacy. I’m not shutting you out or shutting myself in, I’m just retreating to that place where I can relax and enjoy the release from feeling, yet still feel what I’m feeling. Breathe without paying attention to every breath as though it was my last.
Don’t listen to the words, words are words, feel the feeling and let it flow…