Feeling Feelings

"There can be no transforming of darkness into light and of apathy into movement without emotion."
Carl Jung
How free is your emotional life? Do you respond to opportunities for emotion freely and spontaneously with a broad range of emotional options? Or are your emotions restricted, constricted, or held at bay? Are you able to express tenderness? How about anger? Can you cry when you are sad? Are you able to feel the pain of life’s wounds without retreating from the horror?

Some of us get caught up in gender roles, and the emotion is squeezed out of us. "Boys don’t cry," we are told. So we learn not to get too close to feelings that might make us cry. Others of us have had role models that taught us to reject some of our emotional options. Growing up with rageful parents, we might decide, without thinking there was a choice, that anger is not an acceptable emotion. On the other hand, we might have learned how to express anger, but not learned other emotional options.

If we grow up neglected or abused, the pain of that emotional abandonment can be so great that we will use all sorts of defenses to avoid feeling it. The terror of that emotional abyss may cause us to act in ways that are ultimately self destructive, but which direct attention away from the pain. For many, the energy behind addictive behaviors lies in their ability to, at least temporarily, take awareness away from emotional pain.

The way to be healthy and whole is not to abandon the ugly parts of our experience but to incorporate them into that lumpy collage we call our life. When we give up our fear of expressing authentic emotions, we become more flexible and adaptable. We open up new possibilities for experiencing the world and for deep and satisfying relationships.


Become an observer of your emotions. Practice this as a sitting meditation, but also as you go about your life.

Sit still and examine your emotional states. Attend to the sensations in your body. Notice where you carry tension. Notice feelings of heaviness or warmth. Scan your body for sensations, paying special attention to your head and face, your shoulders, neck, chest, abdomen, and lower spinal area.

What do you sense in each area? Are there areas where you feel nothing? Spend more time on those areas and see if something subtle comes into the range of perception.

As you focus on each area of your body, do you sense colors associated with that part? What colors do you associate with the area of your stomach, for instance? What emotions do you connect with those colors?

Do you perceive emptiness or fullness?

How is your breathing related to what you feel? Are your chest and abdomen tight and constricted, or do you breathe freely and easily?

Notice how your emotional state depends upon your physical sensations. What happens if you breathe more deeply?

What happens if you relax your muscles?

What happens if you visualize bright light in the dark areas of your body?

Now attend to the thoughts that go with your feeling states. What thoughts might be contributing to your feelings? What are the background thoughts you hold, possibly just out of the focus of your awareness, that set the tone for your emotional life? These may be related to your sense of self worth, your capabilities, and your basic assessment of yourself as a person.

What happens if you modify those thoughts? How do your body sensations change if you change a self critical thought to a self affirming thought? "I am lonely" might change to "I am loved." What happens in your body?

As you go about your daily life, pay attention to your emotional states. Notice the physical sensations that go with your emotions. If you think a particular emotion is intolerable, break it down. What is intolerable? Is it the tightness in your chest? The feeling of emptiness in your gut? Is it that you feel the energy flowing out of you? Or maybe you feel too much energy in some part of your body. Is it true that you can’t tolerate these sensations? What if you change that thought? What if you create the belief that you can tolerate any emotion that flows in you, because, after all, it is an impermanent condition. Emotions come and they go.

Pay attention to how you are feeling. When you feel badly, ask yourself, "Is this a genuine emotion I’m experiencing?" For instance, if you feel sad, are you sad because you are in a sad situation, or are you making yourself feel sad by dwelling in negative thoughts? If your thoughts are generating the emotion, consider that you have the power to change your thoughts.

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© 2002 Tom Barrett