The F-word: Feelings

Feelings is the ultimate F word, or at least that is how I felt about feelings for a long time.

Ironic that I am using Father’s Day to talk about feelings. For many of us, this can be an emotionally charged day whether we want to admit it or not. Parents, family, mothers, fathers bring up a LOT of feelings.

Feelings are messy and uncontrollable, and if there are two things that those of us with HFA hate, it is messy and uncontrollable. We like to convince ourselves that we can control our feelings. The self-help, personal development world helps us with this message by spreading the myth that thoughts always control your feelings.

But in my experience and research, controlling your feelings is futile. Sure you can tell yourself to be grateful while feeling sad or you can tell yourself you want to feel happy and it might help for a moment or two, but that isn’t how feelings work. Feelings are biological sensations that happen in your body involuntarily.

Let’s say you are walking in the woods and you see something that looks like a snake. Your amygdala (the lizard part of your brain) thinks, “Oh my, that looks like a snake!” and tells your body to freeze. You freeze and your heart rate increases and then you start to investigate: you move closer to see if it is alive, you think about what snakes might be in the area, etc.

People in the self-development world who teach that thoughts create feelings would explain this interaction by saying the thought, “Oh my, it’s a SNAKE” created the feeling of fear, but that is not actually true. The truth is the amygdala being the amazing machine that it is saw a pattern that it had learned was a threat, our body went into fear mode to heighten our senses so we could figure out what was going on, and then our brain thought, “snake.”

The problem is we aren’t aware of all those other processes. All we are aware of is that we thought “snake” and felt fear so, therefore, the thought caused the feeling. Even if we determine that is was a rope on the trail instead of a snake, our bodies will need time to settle and let go of the fear. Because the fear is not psychological, it’s biological.

Here’s an example from my own life. June is a tough month for me and Father’s Day kicks off a week of reminders that my dad is gone: my parent’s anniversary and my Dad’s birthday all fall within a week of each other. I will notice myself feeling sad, distracted, and more sensitive leading up to this time. I am not actively thinking about my dad I am not actively reminding myself to feel sad or saying to myself, “Uh, no, this week is going to suck.” I will start to feel uneasy before I am cognizant of what is happening.

So did the feeling cause the thought or did the thought cause the feeling? It doesn’t actually matter. And from the research, I have done it could go either way depending on the thought/feeling combo. But when you are using the idea that thoughts always control feelings you are giving yourself A LOT of control and setting up expectations that if you could only change your thought you could change your feelings.

When we have high functioning anxiety, three of our top goals are being in control, accomplishing a lot, and feeling happy. In order to achieve each of those, we need to ignore any feeling that doesn’t help us toward that goal (so any feeling that isn’t happy).

We ignore ourselves. We ignore our sensations. We ignore our feelings.

So today as I have moments of sadness in missing my Dad, I can allow those. I can say, “Huh, there it is… Man, oh many I miss you Dad. I can shed some tears; I can sob if I need to. I can express that emotion in a healthy productive way.

Years ago, I would have said to myself:

  • It is silly to feel sad. I mean, you had him in your life for years—you should be grateful.
  • Your friend just lost her dad, so she has it so much worse.

Those statements do not change the feeling. They just make me feel shame for having the feeling.

Instead, I can say to myself, “It’s hard to miss him so much. Being sad is hard. And understandable.”

Noticing and allowing my feelings has been a game-changer. This means noticing without judgment. So today if you feel sad, if you miss your father, or wish you had a different or better relationship with your father, that is okay. You don’t have to justify that he has been gone for years or you didn’t really have a close relationship or he had a good life. You are sad you miss your dad. PERIOD. The same is true if you had a joyous day celebrating your dad. All feelings are okay. You don’t need to justify, prove, or defend them.

All of those excuses were simply geared towards pushing feelings away, shaming you for having them. When you can notice them and allow them, they will dissipate. They become like a ball bouncing on the waves of the ocean: only when we try to control the ball and force it under the water does it become hard. If we allow the ball to just bounce without seeking to control it, it is easier.

New on The Happier Approach podcast

My Monger is always in my ear saying: You got this. And while to some, “I got this” might sound like empowered thinking, when it’s coming from my Monger, it certainly is not. Instead, it’s a clue that I’m on auto-pilot mode. 

Listen to the full episode here to hear why operating on autopilot is harmful—especially with high functioning anxiety—and learn three ways to avoid this endless spiral of “I got this” thinking.