Awhile back, I was being interviewed, about how people who are estranged from their families… feel. I found the question curious – as though it was possible to say that all estranged people feel this feeling or that feeling. As though there was a very limited and specialized set of estranged feelings. Of course there are emotional themes, common across estrangement. We know estrangement often mirrors or follows a grieving process like the one posed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. We know we often recycle that process indefinitely as estrangement is rarely a finite process.
However, each of us is unique, and what we feel, when we feel it and how we manage those feelings is unique too.
Many of us will have chosen to estrange from our families because being close to them hurt, or made us angry, frustrated, fearful, crazy or filled with despair. We couldn’t take it anymore, and so we withdrew ourselves from the emotional fray.
Some will say they were kicked out of their family relationships precisely because they did feel, did speak and name the feelings and those feelings and expression of them was considered unacceptable to other family members. Others will say that all was well in their emotional world until after the estrangement. They will speak of the way that estrangement has rocked their emotional world and the way it keeps right on rocking, even after much time and distance have passed.
As it turns out, estrangement is usually not an emotional remedy. People may think distance will bring relief, only to find they just swapped one difficult feeling for another.
The issues of estrangement are often complicated by the fact that many of us never had open, clear, authentic or honest communication about any feelings in our families. The language of emotion may have been stilted, or foreign.
It might have been that only certain members in the family were permitted to express feeling.
Sometimes a person is made into the ‘presenting problem’ the ‘black sheep’ because they are the one who names the problems, the feelings, and just won’t shut up. Sometimes the person really is the presenting problem along with their addictions, mental health problems, sexual dysfunctions, violence, intolerance etc.. They and their problems manage to dominate the family’s emotional landscape.
Feelings in estranged families are complicated and complex.
Sometimes we don’t want to feel them because of the intensity of feeling. Sometimes we don’t want to pay attention to feelings because to do so is to have to face reality, and sometimes reality is more than we can face.
Sometimes we want to bypass feelings because we think feelings oblige us to do something. Pushing our feelings down and away may seem like a reasonable way of managing emotional intensity or overwhelm except when we cut off from difficult, painful or scary feelings – it has a way of making us lose touch with the good feelings too. Emotions are essential to our well-being. When we numb our feelings we lose access to an amazing array of sensory information that is absolutely necessary if we are to take care of ourselves, heal and move forward.
Feelings let us know when there is a problem. They alert us to the need to pay attention. They let us know when we are on the right track, but they also offer an indicator that we may need to examine what came before the feeling
Every feeling has its own message, for instance: Anger warns us that our boundaries have been invaded or crossed, sadness tells us we need to take time to be present, to let go, to allow healing. Fear alerts us that we may be unsafe. Guilt may let us know we have crossed over our own values or ethics and need to make amends, or do something different. The more we are able to identify, name and experience our feelings, the more likely it is that we can use their messages to good advantage. Even the scariest and most difficult feelings are there to guide us and support us in our life’s journey. Shoving our feelings down, on the other hand, sucks the colorful bits out of our lives, and turns them into a grey zone.
We can think of emotional resources like crayons. Some people have one of those great, big 120 pack of crayons – lots of diversity of color, in many different shades. When they create they have a wide variety of options to pick from and they can create a lot more variation in their art. Other people have the little 4 pack of crayons, you know, the ones they used to give kids on airplanes. These packages of crayons have just the basic primary colors, nothing fancy. While the artist coloring with 4 crayons might still draw a pretty nice picture, it is definitely going to lack the nuances and subtleties an artist might create with a bigger range of colors. In terms of emotions, we want to give ourselves a wide range of emotions to be creative with.
We want as much information as we can get from our emotions because they bring us closer to self-awareness and authenticity, and that allows us to make clearer, better informed decisions.
What happens when we feel like we have the big 120 pack of crayons, but someone has tossed them up in the air and they are now all over the place? Is feeling still useful? Yes .. even when it feels like emotions are big, and messy, and all over the place -they are there to help us, guide us, assist us to create the life we want for ourselves. Repressing feelings will not make our lives better, feeling them will.
So where do we start?
It’s really very simple. We feel. Nothing fancy, or difficult. We just start inviting and feeling, allowing feelings and paying attention to them. You can practice anywhere, as much and as often as you like. You can feel right now. Just stop, close your eyes, take a deep breath in, and feel. Start by feeling physical sensation – my back feels a bit sore from being hunched over the keyboard, my arms are chilly, my chest feels a bit tight. Then, take another breath or two, and tune in to what you feel inside – that tightness in my chest, it doesn’t release when I breathe, it makes me feel anxious, like there is a feeling there, I don’t want to feel. I am anxious that I can’t quite get to the feeling…. Oh… I feel sadness. Yes! It’s sadness …
You don’t need to do anything with your feelings – tho if you are cold you might want to grab a sweater!
You don’t have to censor your feelings, or worry that the feeling is inappropriate, or that something must be wrong with you because you are feeling it. You don’t need to worry you will lose control and do something terrible.
Feelings aren’t actions, they are just feelings.
It’s ok if you are angry, or afraid or very, very sad. No one melted because they were feeling a feeling.
You don’t have to worry that if you start feeling a feeling that it will never stop or go away. Feelings are energy, and they tend to move through us in waves. You can ride the wave and get to the other side.
Be mindful. Keep your awareness right here, right now. Acknowledge the feeling. Oh, I am feeling sad. Don’t get in a dither about it, just notice it, name it, feel it, then let it move through your body … energy + motion = e-motion. You can think about your feeling, but you don’t need to hyper-analyze it. Stay with the feeling, breathe into it … notice it in your body… feel the emotional “wave” rise, crash, ebb.
Our feelings don’t need to control us, though sometimes it may feel that they do.
As long as we are willing to tune in, pay attention, be with the feeling and respond responsively, we are in the driver seat. It is only when we shut down our feelings, repress them, push away from them that problems start. If we can’t feel it, we can’t heal it, and we sure can’t expect to have control over it.
At the same time, it is important to understand that just because we feel a thing, doesn't make it "so". Feelings are stirred up in lot of different ways, and many things can trigger them. Our feelings may seem "disproportionate" to the current situation, or we might find ourselves plunged into old, outdated ways of feeling, that no longer serve us. Even in these instances, feelings provide powerful motivation to pay attention to not only what we feel, but also what we believe or think to be true. Many times we would not undertake this hard emotional work, if not for the fact that our feelings lead us to become more mindful, conscious and considered in the way we interact with our experiences.
Things to ponder …
- How were feelings managed in your family?
- Were some people allowed to feel while others were not?
- Were you more a feeler, or a non-feeler?
- How big is your Crayola pack of feelings?
- What feelings do you feel comfortable feeling? Which ones do you consider a problem?
- Are there particular feelings that dominate your life?
- If you could be feeling any feeling at all, what would you pick? Write about it.
- Finish this sentence: I am<insert appropriate feeling, as many as you are aware of.