Monday, July 16, 2012

Avoid Throwing Poop: Talk About Feelings

Photo by Amy McTigue, as per cc license
The ability to identify and reflect others’ feelings is the foundation of empathy and active listening. It helps you take interactions beyond the level of bare facts, allowing for deeper understanding and more profound growth. It is the most effective way to develop rapport and demonstrate understanding. So, it is only fitting to begin this blogging adventure with a discussion around feelings. Whose feelings? Our own feelings. In order to walk in someone else’s shoes, I need to be able to put aside the pair I’m currently wearing. In order to recognize others’ feelings, I need to be able to identify my own.

Truly getting in touch with and recognizing your feelings is no small feat. We often spend a good amount of energy putting aside and burying our feelings. We are quick to paste on smiles and say, “I’m fine. How are you?” or, “No, I’m not angry.” At work, we worry that our feelings will make us seem less professional. At home, we worry that if our loved ones knew what was in our hearts that it would cause them worry or that we would have to talk about something ugly. It can be downright exhausting and, over time, the tendency to ignore our feelings and numb ourselves can take a toll. Happily, getting back in touch with your feelings simply takes some time and intention on your part. 

The ideal process will be different for everyone, but I’d like to share what works for me. Whenever I want to get a handle on an aspect of my life (How much caffeine do I really drink and when? How many hours of sleep is the baby getting and is there any pattern to it?) I like to collect some data in the form of a log. If you want to be fancy, you can call it ecological momentary assessment. Back when I worked in a research lab, that’s what we called it and it involved ambulatory blood pressure cuffs, palm pilots with automated surveys, and other nifty devices for recording data at the time and in the place it occurred. For my own purposes, I find that a small notebook (easy to fit in a pocket), a reliable pen, and sometimes a timer (phone or small kitchen timer) get the job done.

For a few days, I set my timer to go off every 77 minutes. That is an entirely arbitrary amount of time; I found that it was often enough to collect a nice amount of data but not too often that it was burdensome. When the alarm went off, I would stop and note how I was feeling, aiming to identify and record three feeling words that described my current state. It was a challenge. At first, it was hard to get past how I felt energetically (e.g., my first recorded feeling: tired). I was able to get deeper by taking a moment to close my eyes and check in with how I was feeling physically (Is it hard to sit still? How quickly or slowly am I breathing? What does my gut feel like? Where am I holding tension in my body? If I keep my eyes closed for another minute, will I actually fall asleep?). After doing that, it was as if a layer had been peeled away and I could see what was behind the physical sensations (“I’m tired....I’m overwhelmed...I feel aimless”).

After engaging with this practice for a few days, I noticed a change in my general awareness of feelings in the moment. For example, this past Saturday, my husband and I were trying to get out of the house for a wedding. A screaming toddler and an unexpected diaper change had me running later than I had planned. As I was finishing up the diaper change, my husband walked in to ask if he could help. In response, I chucked the old diaper at him and asked him to throw away. He deftly caught it before it hit his head (perhaps my aim was a bit off?) and asked if I was angry with him. I quickly answered, “No, I’m not angry” and smiled. At the moment I was thinking “I’m not angry, I’m just feeling rushed and I’m taking it out on Jason. That’s not nice - I need to just suck it up and carry on.”

A few moments later, I took some deep breaths and re-assessed. My heart was beating quickly and my hands were shaking a bit. My mind was ruminating on all of the things that could have been done, especially the things my husband could have done, to ensure we left on time. I felt hurried. I felt stressed. And, yeah, okay, I felt angry. Just acknowledging it made me feel better, function better, and get us out the door more efficiently. In the car, I was able to talk to Jason about the way I felt and why and also to hear his perspective (MUCH more honest and gentle than chucking a poop-filled diaper and pretending everything is okay). By the time we got to the church (just on time, by the way) we were both in better spirits to enjoy the event.

I believe that being honest with ourselves and others about the way we feel is a necessary step on the path of empathy and compassion. What do you think? How do you get in touch with your feelings and what have your experiences been with practicing mindfulness around your emotions?  

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  1. I think you're right, Mary, that being honest with ourselves and others about the way we feel is key -- I think communication is also key. For myself, I often find I understand how I feel, but step back from communicating it because I prefer to avoid confrontation. To let things go, so I can continue to sail on (relatively) smooth waters rather than opening a can of worms about my emotions regarding some particular subject. I'm not sure how I could quantify the good that might come about from more open communication to see if it would outweigh the good that comes from those relatively smooth waters.

    1. Hi Anon! I hear you re: confrontation, and there is definitely bad confrontation. For myself, I know that I often need some time to process my feelings on my own before I can communicate them constructively. And I often feel the tension between the repercussions of sharing and the self-harm of keeping it in. While I definitely tend towards honesty, if I'm being honest, I don't do it perfectly all the time with everyone.

      I guess I wonder if there is turbulence below those smooth waters, a big wave on it's way to crash down on them, or if they do indeed remain calm all the way down.

      (Thanks for commenting!)