There are many reasons we resist feeling our emotions, but if we had to give one main reason, it’s because they are accompanied by a bodily state. The sensations accompanying emotions can be pleasurable or neutral to feel, but they can also be strong, unpleasant, and even overwhelming.
Our emotional experience – from joy, curiosity and exploration – to shame, disgust, fear and rage – allows us to be fully human, but because of our history – can often feel like an enemy that lives inside. (one of my students says he “walks around with a gremlin” in his torso!)
Even the joy I mentioned above – the feeling that signals delight and goodness – can be coupled with fear of our own aliveness, or the concern that once you allow joy to flow through you – it might get taken away! On one hand – who wouldn’t want more joy? On the other – utter mistrust and wanting to shut it down.
The emotional reality we live with is this: emotion is the very software that helps us navigate life, but our early and historical experiences with emotion can very much make that software function in ways that are confusing and even debilitating.
In the NARM model we often speak of “futuristic memory” which is really one more way to refer to the brain’s ability to predict and anticipate what it believes will protect us best.
For example an early childhood experience of “not being wanted or loved” can turn into “I don’t belong and nobody here cares about me” at a social gathering where it just so happens you don’t know many people.
Our history shapes our expectations. One early imprint (for example your parents being surprised or stressed by the news they are pregnant) can show up again and again, disrupt your experience and even shape your identity.
In this way, because of how we were formed as we developed, many emotions can become an “emotional background”. You might always walk around feeling like you’re not good enough, or that you need to try harder.
You may face each meal with the thought that “there isn’t enough”, even when the fridge is full of food.
When something goes wrong, you are the first to blame yourself. Shame and guilt can lurk in every corner and make it really hard to actually process the more current emotions – what arose at work, what you are sensing because something just happened on the way home, and how you felt when you left the doctor.
There are key components each emotion needs in order to be processed, digested and learned from (yes, emotions are here to help us take action and take care of ourselves, so there is a lot to learn):
Creating space for somatic presensing – being able to slow down and digest the sensations that accompany the emotions in real time.
Compassionate witness – a present, nonjudgmental and regulated other who’s witnessing our memories, history, stories, ideas and beliefs arise alongside the emotion.
Understanding the message and need in the emotion – being able to differentiate between emotions that arise from our young experiences (such as pre and perinatal experiences, early family history and developmental trauma) and present time adult emotional experiences.
Developing capacity (very much like what happens when you get stronger at the gym) for hosting and being with the energy of the emotion, without shutting down or running away or trying to resource the state away.
In the meantime, you may wonder what to do with the resistance to feeling? Resistance is a psychobiological response to what you are not yet able to be with, and has much wisdom to offer in the midst of a confusing or disorienting emotional landscape.
As much as it feels counterintuitive, embracing the resistance and learning how it’s trying to protect you teaches you a lot about love and the ways you had to be there for yourself when there was no one to support you. With honor, understanding and kindness, resistance can start to melt and give way to what you are actually feeling under the surface.
In my book, in Chapter 9, I share a practice called arms and legs like drainpipes. I share it below as a gift you can practice formally or when the need arises.
Remember the first need of every emotion – space for somatic presensing – this is what this practice can offer you.
I hope that you lean on it and you find that it helps you be with your emotional life with more ease and presence.