In my practice, I see many people that have a difficult time understanding their feelings. Those persons often know their feelings as only “good” or “bad” and it is painfully difficult undergoing emotional exploration, or discovering particular shadings of each emotion. In most cases, those persons that have a hard time understanding their feelings also come from a personal history in which they were not allowed to feel their feelings.
What do I mean when I say that a person, “isn’t allowed to feel his or her feelings?” Feelings can be silenced, strangled, or disallowed in many interactions. As children, we don’t want to give our parents a headache if we cry, or disagree and lose their love, so we don’t cry or speak up. As siblings, we might naturally hate each other, but rather than allowing that feeling to be, and then to pass, we deny it exists at all and hold onto it deep down. As friends, we might feel alone and helpless, but we don’t want to be a burden or seem weak, so we don’t ask for help or admit our feelings. As lovers, we don’t want to share our fears because they might push our partner away, so we talk about things that don’t matter and create distance. In these interactions, the injunction to not feel one’s feelings comes up as pointed declarative statements about one’s feelings:
“Get over it.”
“Don’t talk back.”
“Stop crying and put yourself together.”
“It’s not that big of a deal.”
“It’s not about you.”
“You don’t hate him/her.”
“Think about someone else for once.”
“You should be thankful.”
“You should be respectful.”
“You’re too sensitive.”
These aren’t declarative facts. These are expressions whose impact, and aim, is to silence the feelings of others. These statements are rarely expressed singularly, as an exception, but as a history, and an ongoing lived reality. Silencing statements compound one another, adding up, and further the pressing down of whatever rightful feelings may be there.
Is it a conscious choice to silence the feelings of others? I don’t think so. I think it is hard, very hard, for a person to feel their feelings, express their feelings, and for another person to acknowledge those feelings without running away from them, shaming those feelings, or hiding from those feelings. For this reason, I think that silencing happens on both ends; one person doesn’t really want to hear the feelings of another, and the other person doesn’t want to express their feelings to another person. Throughout these mutual interactions, feelings aren’t expressed, feelings aren’t allowed to be, and in this way, feelings aren’t felt; they are pushed away first by another person and then by one’s self.
How do we then come to a point where we can feel our feelings? I think the answer is simple, yet fully challenging for the person and their relationships; the silence must end somewhere. In their relationships, a person’s feelings need to be allowed, rather than dismissed, so that they can be felt. They need to be witnessed, not silenced, so that they can be felt. They need to be respected, as opposed to being preemptively critiqued, so that they can be felt. We need to break the silence, and we need other people to help us feel our feelings, so that we can know our feelings, and know that we are okay to feel them.