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What if you can't feel your feelings? Emotional Constipation (episode 121)

Updated: Sep 5, 2022

If you're a non-feeler, I bet at some point during your childhood you learned it was safer not to feel sad, mad, worried, or hurt. It was better to toughen up, be strong, man up or whatever phrase your family used. For us, it was "buck up." In fact, when I moved away from my small town to the gigantic University of GA at 19, I got horribly homesick. As in, crying on a daily basis, dropping to less than 100lbs, and flat-out miserable. My dad wrote me a letter. I still remember the sentence that wrapped it all up in a nice care-package, "You just have to buck up!"

I did buck up. I got a job, signed up to volunteer with "adopt a grandparent", and met a cute boy who'd later ask me to marry him. But those words became ingrained in me. They became my inner critic's mantra. Buck up, sista! No time to cry! Years later when we moved 2000 miles from home and I was scared, unemployed and lonely, I told myself I needed to buck up. And I did. I joined a knitting group, the local library, and found temporary jobs to fill my time. No time to wallow.

Another common childhood refrain courtesy of Dad was "I'll give you something to cry about!" said when I was sobbing after a punishment. I must've been 3 or 4 the first time I took those words in and thought about their meaning. What would he give me? I'd previously only been given gifts at birthdays or Christmas, but surely he didn't mean he'd give me a gift when he was using such an angry/annoyed voice?

I quickly learned he meant he'd give me a spanking if I didn't stop the tears and sobs. To be fair, my dad was awesome, but he'd grown up with farming parents who had no sympathy or patience for crying or discussing emotions. I've only seen him cry once that I can remember.

I also internalized a commercial from around the late 80s. It was an antiperspirant commercial and showed a female executive power-posing with big shoulder pads. The commercial showed her in high pressure situations with the tag line, "Never let 'em see you sweat!" As silly as this sounds, I remember thinking this on numerous occasions as I entered my tween years. I was so nervous and anxious in new situations, especially if boys were around, but I'd say to myself "Never let 'em see you sweat!" and I'd fake confidence.

After years of self-help books and therapy, I'd started getting better about sharing my feelings. Our marriage therapist described me as a turtle. I climb into my shell once things get heated or even just uncomfortable. I was basically demonstrating my belief that negative emotions and feelings weren't safe. The visual of a turtle climbing into her shell helped me start having difficult conversations when my husband and I would disagree. Life coaching, however, helped me go backstage to identify the thoughts behind the emotions. I learned to say to myself "I'm having the thought that you think I'm an idiot" or "I'm having the thought that he's a mean jerk for raising his voice, but this doesn't mean it's not safe"

Here's a great example of a client's emotional suppression and what it looks like in real life. Her message read: Two yucky days at work. I will practice noticing my thoughts. I'll try not to get so frustrated nor cry. If I can do that today, victory!

I responded: Don't tell yourself you can't be sad or frustrated! Ask yourself what you need when you feel those feelings. Treat yourself with the kindness a close friend or grandmother would.

She promptly messaged back: Poo! I need you to turn off my feelings b/c they're tooooo much!!

Another client doesn't have a hard time allowing her feelings, she has trouble feeling them in the first place. I'll ask her what she feels in her body. She's blank. She simply can't name what she's feeling. Her situation from childhood, however, was the opposite of what I experienced. Her parents wanted to, in her words, obsess over and dissect each and every feeling. She learned it was better to bottle up emotions rather than have a big ol' uncomfortable sit-down every time she felt something.

Regardless of why you stopped feeling, you simply can't go on with this emotional constipation. You know what happens if you're constipated for long enough, right? You get a bowel perforation! Yikes! The pressure builds and builds until the seam begins to tear and rip. All that toxic stuff spills out and makes you very sick!

If we don't learn to feel what we're feeling, the body has a funny way of forcing stronger and stronger physical or emotional sensations. Often clients who can't feel will suffer from some sort of chronic pain or emotional pain like anxiety or depression. We hold issues in our tissues. If this is all too familiar, here are some idea to loosen up your emotional clogging:

  1. Climb back inside your body by focusing on the breath, the pulse, or a body part like the sole of your foot. Or the thumb pad. Anything that gets your brain to stop thinking for a second or two will help.

  2. Expand your vocabulary. Start with simple words to describe your emotions. Hurt, sad, worried. Brene Brown has a list of feeling words on her website. This also works wonders with your kids. Teach them to identify what they're feeling. Brene says this doesn't just give them vocabulary (which is empowering), it also helps the body process whatever it is they're feeling. You can help teach them new words by asking questions like "Are you feeling confused about why she said that?"

  3. Use your new words when you're telling someone why you're behaving the way you did. "I felt scared that you weren't going to make it home safely when you didn't call"

  4. At least once or twice a week, try physical activities to force you back inside your body: yoga, running, walking without headphones

  5. Nature. Even sitting in your backyard or on your balcony will reorient you towards your body and away from your brain.

  6. Use your senses. What do you see? Name all the red things in the room. Name all the blue things, name 5 sounds you hear. The brain can't ruminate if it's busy naming colors.

  7. Tell yourself it's safe to feel sad. It's safe to cry and laugh. It's safe to be upset about something without justifying it.

  8. Use movies or books to help you cry (Nicholas Sparks, American Idol recaps) or laugh (comedy movies or shows). When my husband was having a really down week, we happened upon Friends, a show we both used to watch in the 90s but hadn't seen in years. We found ourselves laughing out loud. It felt so good we couldn't believe it.

  9. Let your closest peeps know you're taking an emotional laxative and you'll be trying out expressing your feelings. Ask them to be open and welcoming of your feelings.

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