feel your feelings
we're all just children inside
Something I have noticed in myself (and many of my smart, self-aware friends) is that we sometimes try to outsmart our emotions instead of just surrendering to them. This “adult way” of dealing with emotions can both help and hurts us. We like to intellectualize, understand, and identify the source of our feelings. We like to pattern-match, notice similarities and differences between them. We like to categorise and explain our feelings. What we don’t like to do is sit with them—feel them, in all their vulnerable, gripping and inescapable glory.
Our tendency to over-intellectualize our feelings detaches us from them, characterizing them as data or a science project instead of a valuable personal signal. It sanitizes them of their humanity and puts them in a box as far away from our identity and ego as possible.
It is startling to be taken over by emotion as an adult—we feel as though we should be past that! Beyond it! We should be grown ups, able to rein in our emotions on command! The mistake most of us make, though, is that in the attempt to “control our emotions”, we usually just suppress them, instead of dealing with them healthily. Ignoring or pretending our emotions don’t exist is not the same as controlling them. To control our emotions is to acknowledge them, confront them, and identify the flavour attention they are requesting from us, if any (sometimes the feeling just needs to pass!)
This detachment from our emotions and the disbelief we can be gripped by ‘childish’ feelings like anger, jealousy, selfishness, or fear leads us to spend more time trying to package those feelings into something we can understand/explain/come to terms with and less time actually feeling them deeply enough to identify the need they are communicating. Our attachment to the labels we place on emotions as adults is very similar to the labels we place on our personalities—we associate closely with labels like INTJ, enneagram 4, and other categorizations that, while helpful in mirroring some of our traits and predispositions back to us, can prevent us from doing some of the earnest self-examination necessary to illuminate who we are as individuals. The same can be true for emotions: putting them in a box doesn’t free you from needing to feel them in the moment they arise.
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When we’re a child, we feel things fully—we laugh, cry and everything in between. Shamelessly. Openly. Honestly. We don’t yet have the tools to numb or suppress our emotions. We don’t cover up what we are feeling so the adults in our lives can understand them better. We just feel what we’re feeling, communicate the essence of that feeling to the best of our ability, and let it pass once we are through with it.
emotions aren’t rational
On a personal level, I skew cerebral and have an innate interest in my own mind that borders on excessive (okay, maybe it’s past the border). This sometimes leads me to treat my emotions more like research or data for an experiment than as the internal signal they are. Emotions say: pay attention to this feeling, this need, and communicate it. They are our internal alarm systems ringing for whatever reason. And sometimes we get so caught up in their abstraction that we forget to pay attention to the essence of their signal.
‘me vs. you’ vs. ‘us, together’
The root of most adult disputes lies in a failure to acknowledge what both humans are feeling at their core in those moments. Instead of admitting we experienced an inexplicable emotional response, we pile on complexity to our reaction and attribute unfair blame to the person that might have triggered it, convincing ourselves it means something it probably doesn’t—just to avoid facing our feelings.
We end up spending a lot of time antagonising the other person for the way we feel—we say, “You made me feel X”, or “You always do Y.” As a basis of understanding for the issue these can be helpful, but what they lack is the raw, honest vulnerability that helps you level with yourself and the other person to actually address the issue.
I recently got in a disagreement with someone close to me that acted as good case study for everything I just described. In a not-so-unfamiliar moment of tension around a specific recurring issue, we got into a back and forth that left us speaking more from a “me vs. you” perspective than a “let’s figure this out together” perspective. After a series of wordy texts back and forth, the conversation finally came to a resolution when we both stripped away all of the cerebral components of what we were feeling and expressed our emotions in the most childlike, simplistic and vulnerable way possible. I was struck by how hard this was to do. It was confronting to totally own the fact that, as an adult, I can be made to feel like a child, reacting to something I don’t think is “worthy of agitating me.”
On the other hand, though, it makes complete sense to me that our initial emotional reaction is that of a child. As I love to remind myself so often: adults are just children that have aged. We don’t become immune to the emotions we felt as children once we reach adulthood, we just become more competent at dealing with them—which is great! Labelling and understanding our emotions is important, but pretending that we can get so good at dealing with them as to not feel them at all is foolish. We are human: to feel is to exist. To emote is to experience love, joy, beauty, pain, pleasure, and everything in between. The human condition is informed by our emotions.
feelings only pass when you let them in
They say that the solution is often nested inside the problem, and in the case of emotions I think this holds incredibly true: you can only see what can save you from a feeling when you let yourself fully be in it—when you feel what you’re feeling without intellectualizing it. When you surrender to the emotion, you give yourself the power to communicate it honestly, with no frills, without the self-importance we love to assign to ourselves in adulthood. By feeling the feeling fully, we experience it like a child: in its simplest, purest form, with the awareness that as long as we let the feeling flow through us, it will only be temporary.
As adults, we often get farther away from the solution when it comes to emotional reactions by trying to rationalise or abstract our emotions. Emotions are not rational! When we submit to our inner child and let ourselves exist in the feeling itself, we can identify it and understand the path out, with the refined navigation system we have developed in adulthood. We can also articulate the essence of that feeling in its simplest form with whoever it might concern, which, surprisingly, works much better than the over-cerebral adult packaging we love to put feelings in, only making it harder for others to understand and relate to us.
If someone hurts you, instead of saying “you always make me question whether you really love me, can handle me, or would every want to really be with me” you can just say “I feel really lonely right now, and I don’t know what to do.” One antagonises the other person and puts them on the defensive. The other invites them to comfort you, and share all the ways they see and appreciate you.
to feel is the most mature act of all
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand my feelings—I spend most of my time labelling them and articulating them here. But despite all that, I still sometimes struggle to admit I feel these seemingly childish, vulnerable, raw emotions which I can’t explain logically, which I feel too “mature” to feel (whatever that means), which I think I should be past at this point in my life. But these mindsets do nothing to help me, and certainly do nothing to resolve these feelings. The best way to resolve the feelings, I’ve learned, is to simply submit to them, to let them in. In the wise words of Robert Frost: the only way out is through.
Feelings must be confronted head-on, earnestly, with the humility to recognize that despite being a self-aware adult, we all still experience the same emotions we did as kids. Because we’re all just children with a bit more life experience and occasionally better self-regulation. And that is perfectly okay! Emotions are nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, when we release ourselves from the shame we associate with them, we are free to feel them fully and resolve those feelings much more efficiently than when we try to just “be a grown up” about them—which often leads us to bury them deep in our subconscious only for them to cause more problems later on.
Being too cerebral about emotions only gets you farther from the solution. Sometimes the right answer is also the simplest: feel your feelings fully to find your way through them.
PS—Most of my thoughts make it onto Twitter before they arrive here. If you liked this, you might enjoy my piece comfort, about self-trust. Thanks for being here :)
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This reminds me of a thought I often have - labels both define and constrain us.
Using TinEye, I found this for the image source https://www.reddit.com/r/Art/comments/gv5dim/no_name_sakoasko_digital_2020/