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Feel What You Feel
Feeling and longing are the motive forces behind all human endeavor and human creations.
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The first thing you should do when you find yourself facing a challenge may not be what you expect ...
When you first find yourself dealing with a situation that will take some work and effort, feel what you are feeling. Before trying to get some distance in order to analyze the issues, allow yourself to feel your emotions in the moment.
We are all emotional beings. Whether we are always aware of them or not, we have feelings. You are feeling something right now while you are reading this chapter. It may be slight, perhaps a little anticipation or interest; hopefully it's not boredom. Like an underlying current in the ocean, your feelings are alive and well, whether below or above the surface. And it benefits you to become aware of what your emotional state is whenever you run into a roadblock.
Most of the time, obviously, the feelings that come with roadblocks are more negative than positive. You may feel anxiety, anger, fear, or sadness, for example. Problems, being essentially negative in nature, bring about the darker feelings in us. And challenges—often unexpected and many times quite daunting—may also stir up these darker feelings.
Suppose you're single and can't find a decent dating relationship. You've tried the normal circles: friends' referrals, online sites, church singles groups, and the like, but you can't find anyone you really connect with on any sort of a satisfying and meaningful level. If that's the case, it is pretty normal to feel frustration, emptiness, and discouragement. To feel nothing at all would mean that something in you is frozen, and to feel happy wouldn't match the reality you are dealing with. Clearly, your feelings mirror your situation.
FEELINGS: A HELP, NOT A HINDRANCE
This first step in dealing with life's challenges may not make any sense at all to you. You might be thinking, What good would feeling what I'm feeling do? I'll just end up wallowing in self-pity, freezing up in anxiety, or pounding my head against the desk. To solve a problem, I need to think clearly. Aren't my feelings the last thing I need to be paying attention to? It certainly does seem that in a time of trouble, you need a plan, decisiveness, and action. If you are a commercial pilot and you have just lost an engine, you need to be much more focused on your emergency protocols and your hand–eye coordination than your emotions.
You may also be concerned that your feelings will either guide you into a rash decision or make you act in an out-of-control manner. How many times have you heard someone mention a sexual indiscretion regretfully, saying, "The feelings got out of hand"? It is true that feelings can be intense and powerful. But my experience of emotions is that when they are balanced by good judgment and values, and when we are around good and safe people, our feelings won't rule our lives. So don't shut them down and don't let them take over. Above all, don't be afraid of emotions. Your feelings are your servants, not your masters.
Aside from urgent situations like the one our hypothetical pilot was in, there are three very good reasons for feeling what you feel when you face one of life's challenges.
You need emotions for the information they provide. Feelings, whether they be happy or sad, have purposes, meaning, and reasons for existing. Feelings don't simply exist to make life interesting or make you miserable. In fact, feelings are a valuable source of information for you. If you pay attention to them, you will learn a lot that can help you crunch your problem.
Let's understand a little about what feelings tell us. I have written about this before in a leadership context, but the message applies to us all: emotions are a signal. They tell us that something is going on that we need to pay attention to. Feelings are part of how God helps us look within ourselves: "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts."
For example, anxiety is an emotion associated with concern, fear, or panic. The message of anxiety is that there is some danger to avoid or be aware of. Anxiety directs us to look around for dangers. The danger may, for instance, be a toxic person telling you he is safe for you. It may be an investment that looks great, but you don't like some of the deal points. It may be the awareness that you are drinking too much and cannot control yourself.
Do you see how valuable anxiety is when you are in the moment with whatever challenge you face? Here is an example. I was coaching a man who was your basic "take the hill" executive. He loved the action of business, the strategies, and the hunt. And he was very good at what he did. But he often made commitments to people and projects that weren't good for him. If he liked what he saw, he went for it. And he found himself not getting ahead in his career because he kept having to recover from bad deals and interactions with the wrong people. He came to see me because he was not where he wanted to be at his age and stage in life.
Once I saw the pattern, I told him, "You don't like to feel anxiety, because it doesn't fit your self-concept of a banzai, go-for-it guy." He reluctantly agreed. I explained, "Your enthusiasm and action are great, but you aren't checking for anxiety. When you hear a pitch or talk to a candidate for a position with you, take a moment to see if you feel any anxiety." When my client combined sensitivity to his anxiety level with his banzai nature, he eventually began to understand that some people and some deals were too good to be true. The lack of integrity, truthfulness, or soundness caused an anxious vibe within him. He didn't enjoy feeling that, but he used the information those feelings provided. Gradually, his career took on the upward trajectory he had been wanting. (Anxiety is such a critical aspect to approaching challenges as opportunities that it reappears as its own step, number 4. We will go into depth on anxiety and fear there.)
Anger is another helpful feeling. Your anger doesn't mean you are a bad, violent, or out-of-control person. Anger simply says that you need to address a situation. It is an emotion that, instead of moving us to avoid something like anxiety does, moves us to address and confront something. Anger helps people take action against injustice and poverty. It motivates us to confront someone who is being destructive. It helps us determine not to repeat the same mistakes we've already made.
Suppose your problem is a rebellious teen, whose disrespectful words and conduct are wreaking havoc in your home. It is common for parents to suppress their anger at the adolescent, for fear of escalating that negative emotion and to avoid having two or three angry people lock horns. So instead these parents try to be reasonable, mature, and patient, all good qualities for moms and dads to have. However, we parents need to understand that bad behavior that disrupts a loving home should make us angry. Anger says, "Enough! We have to confront this situation directly, with conversations, consequences, a counselor, or some plan. I can't have this anymore." This realization doesn't mean that you spill your anger onto your teen, an act that really could make things get out of control. So you may need to talk about your anger and share that emotion with someone safe in your life. The point here is, learn from your anger and use it.
You need emotions to connect you to supportive people. Emotions are great connectors. When you are in love, there is a person on the receiving end. Often when you are frustrated, you are disturbed by another person's bad behavior. Emotions do keep us relating to one another in deep and meaningful ways. And if there ever is a time when you need that kind of connection, it's when you encounter one of life's challenges.
Once I was working with a father who felt an enormous responsibility to be strong and never show weakness. He wanted to keep his family safe, happy, and secure. Even when his business was struggling, he wanted to protect his family, so even though his kids were teens and fully capable of dealing with financial realities, he kept quiet. Over time, he distanced himself from his wife and kids. He didn't know how to convey the anxiety and insecurity he felt to the ones who loved him, so he just shut down and would hardly talk. His family missed him, but they didn't know what to do.
I listened to the whole family for a while, and then I said, "I'm concerned that you're going to have some sort of a breakdown if you don't let your family in." His eyes filled with tears, and he said in a surprised voice, "I think I might be breaking down now." I watched his wife and kids move toward him and support his sadness and his sense of being overwhelmed. They loved him, comforted him, and connected on a deeper level with him than ever before. His wife responded, "I want you to always let me know when you feel this way."
This man had a long road ahead of him to put his professional life back together. But, fueled by the grace of the people he loved, he was able to better persevere. Just as this man learned to do, you need to use your feelings to gain the support and love of those who will help you deal with, if not overcome, the challenges of life. (In the next chapter we will deal more fully with the importance of others in crunching problems.)
When you ignore your emotions, you deplete energy you need to deal with the situation at hand. Attempting to "unfeel" whatever you feel is a huge drain on your energy, and that effort can siphon off the power you need to address the pressing circumstances. Trying not to feel what you feel is like telling an earthquake, "Just stop that!"
Have you ever said any of these statements?
Forget the feeling and get moving.
I need to stop feeling this.
I need to just get busy, and the feelings will go away.
I'll tell myself the truth, and that will fix the feeling.
While there are times when we do need to get moving (remember the pilot!), that approach will never work for the long term. God intends for feelings to help us search, with him and with one another, for truth in our innermost parts: "The purposes of a man's heart are deep waters, but a man of understanding draws them out."
The Hebrew word for "heart" means "inner person," which includes our passions, emotions, and values. All emotions are meant to be expressed and "drawn out." That is the nature of feelings. So we are acting counter to God's design when we pretend our feelings don't exist.
Furthermore, any attempts to not feel what you feel, or to ignore your feelings, or to simply deny that you have feelings will take energy to maintain. That is why, in counseling, when a person who has stayed in her head all her life and not dealt with her heart finally senses she is safe enough to feel things, that experience can be overwhelming. The years of emotions catch up with her, and she has to go through a season of feeling what she never allowed herself to feel. It's just better to keep short accounts on feelings and save the energy for the challenge you are facing.
BEFRIENDING YOUR FEELINGS
Several skills will enable you to maximize the help your emotions can offer as you tackle life's challenges. Here are some practical steps to follow.
Add emotions to your vocabulary. What you can talk about, you can better feel and understand. When we have a word for a feeling, we give that feeling permission to be experienced and talked about. One of the jobs of parenting is to put words to experiences for one's children. For example, "You didn't play a lot at the soccer game today. You must be sad, and I am sad for you. Come on, let's get a yogurt and talk about what you learned about soccer." Without a word to use for her feelings, your child is left with some vague "down" experience inside her head and nowhere to go with it. With words, though, she can talk to Mom, know that she has expressed herself, feel understood by Mom, and get on with solving her problem.
To put this step into action, find a list of feelings online or through the American Psychological Association that categorizes emotions, with various shadings and nuances, from positive to negative. For example, anxious and terrified are cousins, but they are different in what they convey. Review the list and try to use three "feelings" words every day in a conversation with a person who understands feelings. Do this until you have gone through the list. After this exercise, you will be surprised at how much more comfortable you are with your feelings.
Spend five minutes a day alone thinking about your situation. During that time, be open to your emotions. List whatever feelings you notice. Most of us aren't even aware of what we feel because we are frantically busy, we are never alone, or we are a little afraid of what is down inside. But bite the bullet and open up some RAM space in your mind for your feelings. Sit down at your desk or the kitchen table when no one is around. Turn off your cell phone and think to yourself, I have a medical issue, or I can't stop overeating, or I don't have a passion for my job, or I am falling out of love and I don't want to.
This kind of simple focus is a message to your feelings: It's OK. I want to hear from you. You may be surprised by your feelings, and that's all right. You are on a hunt for information.
One woman I worked with was in the last category listed above: she didn't feel love for her husband. When she allowed herself to identify her true feeling about this situation, it was relief. "This is weird," she said, "and I feel a little guilty. Shouldn't I be feeling bad about not feeling love for my husband?" I told her, "Not unless you've been pretending you felt something else for him and have been disconnected from yourself for years." She understood that, for that is exactly what she had been doing. And her awareness of her pretending helped her reenter the marriage and learn to authentically love again.
Record the information that you learn from your feelings about the challenge you are facing. Remember, your feelings are telling you something about yourself. Listen to your feelings and note what you learn. You will find value there, as these examples illustrate:
I feel helpless in my marriage: I can't change how he behaves toward me. Helplessness tells you that you don't feel you have choices. It suggests a sense of powerlessness and impotence, but that unfortunate feeling can lead to one of two positive solutions. First, you may be trying to control something you can have no control over, such as your spouse's feelings or behaviors. If that is the case, give it up. You have nothing to gain. Your efforts to control the uncontrollable will only make the situation worse, even if you feel you are in the right. Second, you may be neglecting to control something you can and should take charge of.
When people feel helpless in a relationship, they often give a great deal of power to the other person, and it really helps the relationship for that person to take back the power. You may, for instance, decide you need to learn to make your own choices in life—choices that move you closer to your goals—whether or not he understands or fully supports you. Or you may decide you will not allow him to speak to you in a certain way, and when he does, you leave the room. These examples drive home the point that your feelings are your friend, and they can help you make choices and approach a challenge as an opportunity to grow.
I am frustrated with my job. My boss expects too much of me and doesn't support me. I recently talked to a man at a leadership conference who works for an energy company, and apparently his boss is pretty clueless. When he expressed his frustration to me, we used that frustration to get him moving down a road he needed to travel. He wanted to be productive and successful in his position, but he got no good direction or clarity from his boss. So the plan we worked out was to tell his boss, "I want to make you successful. I want to help you meet your goals. But I need more clarity from you. Can we meet and come up with some plans?" The conversation didn't immediately solve the entire problem, but it was a good start.
The point I am trying to make is a simple one: feelings are not just window dressing in life. They are vital to understanding the nature of a given situation so that you are more informed, and feelings are good for your wellbeing. What is more, your emotions are a tool that will help you wisely address life's challenges. So embrace your feelings; pay attention to them and learn from them. You will be the better for it.
Excerpted from You Can Do This by John Townsend. Copyright © 2013 John Townsend. Excerpted by permission of WORTHY PUBLISHING.
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