A little bit or well into our growth journey (that is, life), some people realise that their gut feelings aren’t always that well informed — that previous experiences have warped their instinctual sense of what’s a threat and what isn’t. Of what’s an actual need and what’s a off-balance craving. Of what’s true joy and what’s just an adrenaline rush or hysterically funny. And so on.
When this happens, it‘s easy to dismiss our gut wants and attractions, and even our more heartfelt longings and wishes. We start getting ideas about what “evolved” or “mature” wants and longings look like, and we feel embarrassed when we exhibit what we have come to think of “childish”, “needy” or “co-dependent” tendencies within. Of course we don’t need someone to hold space for us — we’re adults, and we should be perfectly capable of holding space for ourselves. Obviously we don’t really want to eat the chocolate — it’s just a stupid craving. And clearly, our well-being doesn’t depend on our boss’, mother’s, friend’s or children’s approval. So surely, entertaining those sensations and feelings would just be feeding a ghost, or at least be a complete waste of time?
Well. Not necessarily. The key to whether a feeling, impulse or sensation is worth your time, your exploration, or not is simple: if you have it, it’s worth exploring.
The key to whether a feeling, impulse or sensation is worth your time, your exploration, or not is simple: if you have it, it’s worth exploring.
Many of us have a tendency to believe that if a feeling — for simplicity’s sake, let’s include emotions as well as instinctual impulses and somatic, felt-sense impressions in the word feeling here — is based on immature or otherwise faulty ground, it’s not worth our time and should be ignored. Giving space for your feeling of disappointment when your boss completely overlooked your contribution to a successful project seems childish, humiliating, and useless. Paying attention to your fear of someone, when you know for a fact that this particular fear is just a projection that stems from this person’s physical similarity to someone else you once knew; equally pointless. After all, you know for a fact that the fear interpretation is faulty, so why engage it? And to give compulsive impulses and obsessions the time of day when you know with still equal certainty that they aren’t productive can feel borderline dangerous.
A word of caution
Being aware of is not acting on
But the huge majority of feelings, impressions, emotions, impulses, and physical sensations, for most people, don’t fall into the warning-flag category just above here. What’s interesting is, we often act as if they did. That is, we act as if we weren’t equipped to deal with the experience of disappointment or loss or anger or urges. We don’t know what to do with them. Or we believe that to feel them means to act on them, and if we already know we don’t want to do that, it feels safest to just try and disregard them. What good would it do to give space to them? Stepping closer to that which we ultimately want to avoid anyway doesn’t make sense, right?
As it turns out, the answer is: a lot. Because they are a part of your experience. Shutting off bits of your experience is very rarely helpful — and yet, it’s what we have been taught to do since we were little kids. In the interest of turning us into well-adjusted, social adults, we were taught to swallow our rage, camouflage our disgust, smile through our grief, and hide our fear as best we could.
Parents can’t teach what they don’t know
A lot can be said for this, obviously. Often, the world is a nicer place when people don’t readily punch offensive-looking others in the face or made retching noises to illustrate revulsion. But the people who were teaching us this missed a key point: in these examples, it not having the reaction that is bad. Sometimes expressing it in action is frowned upon. In some cases, it’s even illegal. But that doesn’t mean you aren’t better off being aware of what goes on inside of you.
So most parents weren’t able to teach their kids to behave nicely without also teaching them to suppress their authentic responses — because no one had taught them, so how could they? We can’t pour from an empty cup. So most parents, then, do the next best thing: they teach us, like they were taught, the ways they know of to not end up being rejected from society. If they were taught by painful experience, and if we’re lucky, they teach us in more humane and kind and emotionally present ways. But they will still teach us to hide those feared or unwanted aspects of ourselves from others (and often, from ourselves, too), as they never realised that the hiding creates more pain than it spares us from — just in a different format. Only a very lucky few might have had parents who were either raised by very psychologically well-balanced people, or by people who did a substantial amount of their inner work before they got kids. And even those parents might have realised that quite despite themselves, they resorted to tactics from their own childhood when raising their own children. It’s not their fault — childhood conditioning dies hard, and the last area it will stain is our own conditioning of our own children.
So “listening to our feelings” — yay or nay?
In my experience, listening is only ever good in this kind of context. Automatically acting upon, not so much — equally consistently. That is, in time, it’ll become automatic: your way dealing with yourself and others, of handling disappointments, flares of rage, sadness, frustration or whatever it might be. It will be “automatic” in the sense that you learn to trust yourself. You learn to distinguish so clearly between listening to your inner sensations, reactions, and impulses on the one hand and acting blindly from an unconscious motivation on the other. In short, you get to know yourself.
Getting to know ourselves isn’t selective
So here’s the rub: We can’t “get to know ourselves” cherry-picking which aspects we want to be aware of or not. We need to be open first, experience what we opened to second. Of course, this unfortunate (at least, from the ego’s point of view) catch is why we unconsciously decided to not be too aware of these inner responses in the first place. I mean, who knows what they might turn out to be? Maybe we’re horrible, stupid, selfish, mean, or otherwise nasty human begins under there? Perhaps best to just go with what we can control (or so we think 😉).
If you’re reading this blog, my guess is that you have already realised you do in fact want to know what’s going on in there, and you are willing to open to all of it. Then, for many people, the next problem arises: It seems like what goes on has gone into hiding all by itself, quite automatically sliding under the radar of our conscious awareness. What then — and why is that, even?
Well, actually, it’s no great wonder. As I said above, childhood conditioning goes deep. Most of the strategies and habits we established in our formative years survive quite unscathed long into adulthood. For those who don’t do active inner work, they might follow us to our grave. (That’s not meant as a threat or to shame or scare you into doing such work; it’s just that society isn’t designed to point these patterns out to us. In fact, a lot of structures of our society relies on us still being children inside, much like a domestic pet remains much more like a puppy or kitten even in old age, courtesy of having their owners fill the “parent” role.)
So how, then, do we work on it? How do we start making conscious that which is habitually and automatically made unconscious? We start taking an interest. We start being curious, non-judgementally exploring sensations, responses, impulses and reactions. If we’re not used to doing that, we might want to start initiating a new relationship to our body as a partner in inner work. (If that’s what you want to do, you might want to check out the book Body Wisdom). We might also want to do a structured course looking at patterns and habits and how to start shifting them (in which case The Crash Course on Patterns might be what you’re looking for. Other possibilities involve taking sessions with me or someone else or reading other material about befriending yourself, your body, and what goes on in your system.
Either way, it’s a sweet, rewarding, and often fun journey. I wish you the very best on it.