Fear of Feelings

Before I talk about the fear of feelings, let me start with an anecdote:

Like a microwave emitting unexplained sounds, sometimes our feelings can bring something that feels scary into our experience of life

Like a microwave emitting unexplained sounds, sometimes our feelings can bring something that feels scary into our experience of life

A few days before writing this article, I was microwaving some food, and as I was walking away from the microwave, I heard a strange sound, like something inside the microwave was breaking. I made a joke of it in my mind at first, but when I heard it again I became concerned about what was actually causing it. Was the microwave really breaking? Should I stop reheating my food?

I went to check and it turned out that it was just some paper towel that was in there on the plate, catching on the edge of the microwave’s walls as the plate was trying to turn. The sound was just the plate trying to turn when the paper towel was getting in its way. At this point, I knew that it probably wasn’t a problem after all, because a stuck plate  was something I had seen before. And from my experience, a microwave could handle that, so there was no cause to intervene.

It occurred to me that this was a great example for how fear works. From my experience with dealing with fear, it’s mostly due to a lack of information that fear takes and keeps its hold, especially in situations where we don’t know how to gather more information. What we’re afraid of is like the sound in the microwave: something difficult to explain, and potentially concerning, that occurs within our experience. Something changes.

This can happen with feelings, too. Feelings seem to change depending on what’s within our awareness. So when what’s in our awareness changes, our feelings can change, too. But not all changes to our feelings are understandable or welcome. Sometimes we may want to get away from a feeling as fast as possible.

What’s important to understand here is that we can create stories about what any feeling means. Just like I thought the sound from the microwave might be it breaking, our stories about what our feelings mean can contain some possibilities, or even supposed certainties, that frighten us.

When we think a feeling means danger, then it can evoke a response of fear. By gaining new information about the feeling, we can change the meaning we see in it. Sometimes this takes directly challenging our own story about a feeling.

An Example: Scared of Happiness

Take for example someone who is afraid of their happiness. To those of us who are perfectly fine with and even look forward to feeling happiness, this might seem absurd. Fear of happiness? Ridiculous! But what does the feeling of happiness mean to that other person?

Let’s go a little further and say that, to them, happiness means that something’s going to go wrong. Why? Because maybe in the past, every time they’ve gotten happy, something bad has happened, and as a consequence they’ve come to associate happiness with bad things happening. Maybe it’s a false association, but to them the evidence of the past might be convincing enough for them to see that association as true.

And in that case, it might be more understandable that they’d be frightened. Not wanting bad things to happen, they could question their happiness and try to get away from it, even if they have a compelling reason to feel happy. This could lead them into an inner conflict and, in general, just not feeling very good.

Stuggling to Find Alternatives to Escape

But how would one approach addressing these stories, and finding new meaning in a feeling? If we’re always trying to escape our feelings, doesn’t it make sense that it will be difficult to see those feelings in a new way?

I go back to my example of the microwave. How did I alleviate my concern about the sound I heard? By turning around, going back to the microwave, and looking at it. By looking at the source of the issue, I was able to reach a new understanding of where that issue was originating from, and with that new understanding, the noise had new meaning, one which wasn’t as concerning.

This relates to fear in that, in order to change the meaning we place on what we fear, we need to understand it. And to understand it, we need to look at it, somehow. But how do we look at a feeling? At least, in a reliable way.

Handling a feeling we’re afraid of is like handling a hazardous material. Holding it within our awareness can feel like a toxic experience, because our story about this feeling is telling us that this feeling is dangerous. And it seems only natural to try and escape it.

Normally, how I try to handle feelings I find hazardous or questionable inside myself is to draw or visualize them, then conduct a mock-interview with these feelings. However, this implies that I have a strong enough idea of them to actually draw or visualize them. Again, my story comes into play, and I may render them as having thoughts and ideas that come from how I imagine them to be, rather than how they really are.

And when drawing or visualizing a feeling works, it’s quite effective. But there are some feelings I’ve had trouble getting an accurate idea about, and bringing them to the surface was difficult. They didn’t seem to have anything to say, or, when I tried to get stuff out of them, the things I imagined them saying seemed insincere, and not connected to the feeling itself.

Now I realize that this may sound esoteric and like something very specific to my experience and approach, but one way to understand this as just my attempts to connect with feelings that I wanted to neutralize. Hazardous feelings, ones I would instinctively run away from, that would feel bad to have – feelings that would debilitate my experience of life in some way when I felt them – I wanted to change these to safe feelings, without exposing myself to the danger I saw in them.

And it seems to me that what it takes to neutralize a feeling is understanding.

Safe Embodiment of Feelings

One approach that seems to work, one that I stumbled on in my experiments, is embodiment.

After all, what is one of the least complicated forms of self-expression? Even if you cannot find the words to express a feeling, even if it’s not taken enough shape to visualize it (although you could visualize its shapelessness), you can always just embody a feeling.

When I say embody, I don’t mean act out. What I mean is: if the feeling was to affect your body posture, and your muscle tension, and facial expression, what would that look like? Embody it! By doing this, you get a sense of what that feeling is really all about.

What might the person who’s afraid of happiness find out? They might find out that happiness isn’t full of bad will, but instead is a smile on their face and a brightness welling up inside them.

Afraid of anger? Maybe you’d find out that it’s not about violence, as much as just a certain kind of intensity.

Maybe you’re afraid of some nameless feeling, like I was. Maybe you’ll find out what’s really there, like apprehension, or revulsion, or an intense hesitation.

You see? These are the basics of a feeling, before the story. Before thinking about what you should do to respond to a certain feeling, there first comes the consideration about what that feeling actually is. If you don’t understand that, how are you going to make informed decisions about what to do?

Embodying a feeling seems like a way of harmlessly gathering information. It implies no further action, no thoughts, no beliefs. Just a change in your body, for however long you choose to embody the feeling.

And with more information about a feeling, comes more understanding, and with more understanding, you get closer to the point of feeling you confident in how you would think to respond to that feeling when it appears. Heck, until you got to that point, you could always just keep falling back on the decision to embody the feeling, and gather more information.

But keep in mind that embodying a feeling is just one way to gather information about a feeling. Like I talked about with drawing or visualizing, there are other ways to attain a deeper understanding of one’s feelings. But embodiment is one more tool in that toolkit, perhaps when others aren’t working.

Try it Out: Gather Info on a Feared Feeling

Do you have a feeling you’re afraid of? Want to gather some information that may help alleviate that fear, and perhaps make the feeling less hazardous? Here is a short exercise you can try:

  1. Find a place where you will be by yourself, and outside of the judgment of other people. Oh, and don’t judge yourself either! Create a safe zone for yourself, where you can experiment and play around and be weird – that kind of safe zone.
  2. Think of a feeling you fear. You don’t have to put a name on it, just get a sense of it. The thought will probably be enough to link you to that feeling. Maybe it has to do with a certain situation in your life that brings up feelings that you just instinctively feel like you need to get away from. But the main thing is to get a sense of a feeling you fear.
  3. What would your body look like if the feeling were expressing itself in your body posture, muscle tension, and facial expressions? Embody it. A mirror might help, but is not necessary. Don’t act it out like a character, just change your body’s state to match the feeling.
  4. Spend some time in this embodiment of the feeling. Play around with it, perhaps. The main thing is to just stay open-minded and curious about what this feeling really is, given this new context you’ve just created.
  5. Let go of the feeling and your embodiment and go back to your normal mode. Was there anything you learned? You can always try this again and play around with it some more. If this exercise felt safe to you (If it didn’t, please let me know!!), then you can know that this is a safe channel for those feelings when you have them in the future, and one possible starting point to evolve your understanding about any feeling you might have.

So how did it go? Did you try to embody a feeling, and if so, what was the experience like? I’d be curious to hear about your experiences in the comments section below – it might help other people reading this article in the future, too! Also, if you just want to share about a feeling you fear, or about a feeling you once feared but grew to understand better, the comments section is for that, too. And also if you have any additional, personal techniques you’d like to share for how to handle feared feelings, those are welcome, too! In fact, here’s a bulletted list of what kind of comments I’d welcome:

Invitation to leave comments about:

  • Your experience of embodying a feeling
  • A feeling you fear
  • A feeling you once feared, but grew to feel safe around, perhaps through understanding
  • Any personal techniques you have for handling feared feelings
  • Any other feelings you’d like to share after reading!

That said, thanks for reading, and take care,

-Oliver

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