Last week’s blog, “To Feel List”, hit a collective nerve. Readers and clients asked, “How can I make a To Feel List, when I don’t even know, deeply and truly, what feelings I want to experience?”
It seems like an odd question, but if we’ve learned anything in this year of enforced solitude with ourselves, it’s that most of us have locked our feelings and emotions, in a box long ago, and got on with the business of “doing”, which is certainly required but not sufficient for creating the rich and purposeful life we desire.
Last week, I explained how thoughts come and go, as often as they please, and although I shared steps for managing our thoughts, I want to be clear about the difference between thoughts and feelings.
I don’t know where thoughts come from, and although many years of therapy felt helpful in the moment, they didn’t help me become the Master of Positive Thoughts I was striving for. The shitty thoughts still came, I still believed them to be true, and I still suffered. It wasn’t until I opened myself up to becoming a humble but committed student to the many disciplines of Personal Growth, that I began to experience an authentic shift in the quality of my everyday life.
To be clear, I believe therapy is a valuable mode of support and healing for many people. It just wasn’t for me. What did work for me, was a deep and consistent dive into the pillars of human potential, which is arguably always built on illuminating the power of our thoughts over our actions, and therefore our results. I think most of us intuitively know this to be true. We know that it’s almost impossible to take a positive and effective action from a negative and unhelpful thought pattern. If my thought is, “I never finish anything” (I wish this was a hyperbole!), it’s unlikely that I will drum up the energy to actually take the next steps, that will ultimately lead to me finishing a project. The action that follows the thought, “I never finish anything”, more often than not, leads to a bag of popcorn and Netflix.
We spend so much time trying to create new, positive thoughts. We repeat mantras, and do things that we classify under “self-care” and when people ask how we are, we say, “Great”. But soon enough, we are back with the original thoughts. So we hire a professional to give us the tools and skills to defeat our negative thoughts, and by some alchemy, transform them into positive ones. Does it work? Maybe for some people. I can only speak from my own professional experience and tell you although that way of helping clients is exactly where I started years ago, it’s far from where I am today.
The reason for this personal and professional evolution is simple. In my line of work, if my client in his/her everyday life is not feeling more light-hearted, joyful, grateful, productive, supported, purposeful, easy, ready, connected, and well … happy, then my work is not helpful. And I don’t mean feeling these emotions every minute of every day, but I do look for an upward trajectory measured by how often they are experiencing a sense of ease, joy, and connectedness, over time.
So, what’s the connection to feelings? What I learned as I became a more effective professional coach, is that our actions are not caused by our thoughts. Our actions are caused by our feelings – which are (I dare say, always) caused by our thoughts. We can and should learn to “manage” our thoughts like we manage our email inbox. Choose which emails to read, respond, ignore, delete, file away, and mark as spam. Yes, it’s work and it takes time, but it’s required, and with practice, it becomes automatic. That’s called managing something outside of ourselves. We all do it in different areas of our lives. We do it with the difficult boss, or with the challenging but loved family members, or the toddler who is so delicious until he has a massive meltdown. That’s called managing, and our minds require it 24/7.
But feelings cannot be managed. Feelings ask – and if ignored, demand – to be processed, and the first step is to see them. Feelings just want to be acknowledged, not locked away. If we give space to our emotions – and I mean to ALL of them – without judging them as good or bad, they will, in their own time, move through us. However, if we go to battle with emotions, judge them as unacceptable, and keep looking at our watch to see when they’ll finally be done, well, ask yourself what happens when you do that to a loved one who just wants your honest and patient attention?
If we commit to the practice of processing all emotions, rather than judging and ignoring them, in time, we learn that we can handle anything, and that no feeling – even the worst kinds like, humiliation, shame, and grief – will actually kill us, and often (to quote a cliche) they leave us so much stronger and more capable in ways that stay with us for good.
But remember, the goal is not to feel good, the goal is to feel, and it’s a learned behavior, not an unchangeable personality trait.