Feeling emotions was sooooooo hard for me! By the time I started this work, I’d repressed my emotions so much that I was basically numb. I was one of the only people at my own wedding who didn’t cry. I felt incredible guilt to see my husband tear up, and I was just a well of emptiness, even though I knew I was really happy that day. Unfortunately, a side effect of repressing the negative emotions is that you don’t get to feel the positive ones. And I didn’t feel anything.
To a large extent, the JournalSpeak itself is now how I process and feel the emotions. But sometimes they were just so strong, and I didn’t know what to do. Over the months, there were a few things I learned that helped me feel and process the emotions:
1) Naming the emotion: It was so weird how effective this was, but just saying something like, “I’m feeling shame,” or “I feel angry,” or “I feel grief,” was sooooooo effective. I haven’t looked into why this is the case, but it’s a tip I came across in many different sites and books, and learning to name my emotions was a turning point for me. It can be a good journal exercise too. Just start the entry with “What am I feeling right now?” Or at any point during the day, if you feel a symptom, ask yourself “What am I feeling right now?” (I got that tip from Dan Buglio.) Even weirder, I might ask my symptom to tell me what I’m feeling! If I’m getting the first spasm of a migraine or a twinge of pelvic pain from endometriosis, I learned to ask that twinge what I was feeling, and the damned thing often answers (I did have to do JournalSpeak and somatic meditations for a while before that worked). And then the symptom goes away (more on this later). There are a lot of resources that give lists of emotions, but I like this basic list: anger, fear, sadness/grief, joy, pride, shame/guilt.
[Aside: I’ve recently been reading a book about how emotions are very different according to culture, which makes me wonder even more why naming emotions is so effective. Maybe it’s more about feeling like we have control over the
emotion? I have no clue, but it’s something I find interesting 🙂 ]
2) Silently acting out my emotion: I found it surprisingly helpful to close the door to my bedroom or even a bathroom and punch at the air, pretending I was hitting someone I mad at. I would go through the motions of screaming in rage or in fear, punching at the air, pretending to shove someone back, or shaking and cowering in fear while holding my arms out to protect myself. I would do this without actually making a sound, so no one outside the room knew what was happening. As you’ll see below, sometimes I made efforts to actually scream out loud, but I found the silent motions to be just as, if not more helpful than the real screaming. Early on, the silent air punching was something I’d do when I was mad at someone I was journaling about—I’d imagine them in front of me and hit at them (the air) as hard as I could (later, as you’ll see below, I switched to a real punching bag, but the air punching and kicking is still helpful when I’m not at home). I also had an interesting experience on an international trip, where I was incredibly overwhelmed by work and the different cultures and the foreign languages and the uncertainty. I started to feel a migraine coming on while I was in the shower before a big meeting. So, standing in the shower, I allowed myself to just shake and cower in fear and take all of the protective physical actions my body instinctively wanted to take. I followed that with an ibuprofen and a 20 min deep relaxation, and the migraine never formed. At no other time in my entire life has an ibuprofen and short relaxation done a damned thing to even minimize a migraine, let alone prevent one, so I credit letting my body go through the actions of feeling fear and trying to protect itself with releasing that migraine.
3) Screaming for real: A few times, in total privacy, I allowed myself to scream as loud as I could in fear or to rage out loud, screaming “fuck you” to the imaginary version of the person who had pissed me off or just screaming at the top of my lungs like a little kid. I live in a suburban neighborhood, so if I was alone at home, I might do this at home. A couple of times I did this in the car. To be honest, I didn’t find it as helpful as the full but silent bodily reactions described in #2, but it’s probably worth trying if there are emotions you’ve repressed and there are places you can go where you can safely scream as loud as you want. Again, if you don’t have places where you can scream out loud, I basically found it just as helpful to go through the motions silently.
4) Learning to cry: It was so ingrained in me not to cry, that relearning how has been one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced. For a while, I could only cry in therapy, and even then, it was rare. I occasionally cried during my journaling sessions, but I could always tell it wasn’t enough and I wasn’t getting to the core pain. It was like my body didn’t know how to form and release tears. This one just took a long time working on. I’m better at letting myself cry now, and I’ve had a couple good, cathartic cries that lasted an hour or so. But those took me a year of doing this work, and it’s still something I’m working on, so I don’t have great tips yet. I’ll add more here if I ever get better at this.
5) I bought a punching bag: Anger was another emotion that I really struggled with. Over the years, I’d learned that I should feel empathy instead of anger and that feeling anger never solved anything (I learned this same lesson for crying). But that doesn’t mean the emotion doesn’t crop up—it just means I repressed it. I repressed it so well that I genuinely had absolutely no clue I had any anger in me. When I started journaling, these really strong angry emotions started bubbling away inside of me, and I just didn’t know what to do with it. I’d read that you just let it pass through you, and it’s like a surge of electricity going through. Sometimes that was the case, but other times, it felt like a spiky ping pong ball bouncing around inside me and triggering a bunch of energetic springs in my joints that needed to be released. I needed to do something physical. I sometimes took it out on my poor keyboard, slapping my fingers against the keys as hard I could, but that didn’t seem like a great long-term solution, and it didn’t help for the strongest feelings of anger. My therapist recommended taking one of those long foam rollers people use for stretching and hitting it against a couch or a bed. But that didn’t help. I also tried things like punching a pillow, but that didn’t help either. Finally, for less than the cost of a single therapy session, I bought a 75 pound punching bag that could be hung up in the basement (I also bought a pair of gloves/wrap to protect my hands and wrists). When I got really angry, I’d go downstairs and start punching. What I found was that I’d rage at the bag with my fists for a bit, but then I’d need to start kicking. It was like the emotion started high in me and then moved down my body. So I’d start punching and then switch to kicking, and I’d have to do forward, side and back kicks for a while before I really felt better. I always had to get out a lot more kicks than punches, but it also always had to start with the punches. I *needed* the full-body anger experience, and it went through me top to bottom.
It’s also worth noting that the idea here was to release anger, but not necessarily to punch or kick as hard as I could. I mean, I often did punch or kick as hard as I could, but the goal wasn’t for me to get stronger or better at punching and kicking. So for me, the lighter bag was fine (and cheaper and easier to manage). I also want to emphasize that I needed it because I’m basically incapable of expressing my anger. I’m not sure if the punching bag would be as useful for someone who already expresses (or over-expresses) their anger. If you’re also bad at expressing anger and want to try the punching bag but haven’t had previous training, I recommend looking up some martial arts and kickboxing videos to learn proper technique so that you don’t hurt yourself. I’d done some martial arts as a kid, but I still found the videos helpful.
6) Identifying and feeling the core emotion: Sometimes I would feel a feeling, but it didn’t help. That usually meant I hadn’t gotten to the core issue. I’ve been hearing about people who feel rage and who perhaps take their rage out on others, and who don’t feel better after they do things like punch a pillow or take other safe actions to try to let the rage out. I kind of wonder if that means that the rage is masking a deeper feeling they haven’t acknowledged yet—like grief or shame. I’m definitely not an expert here, but if you’re feeling your emotions, and it doesn’t help, it might mean that the emotions you’re feeling are actually your body’s way of avoiding the real, core emotion that the body finds even scarier. I’ll get into this more later, but this was always the case for me with depression and anxiety. If I felt either of those two things, that meant there was a core emotion or issue that was festering in me that I hadn’t figured out how to access yet. It turned out that even the anger I had such a hard time feeling was often masking a much deeper emotion. I’m realizing as I type this that I was only able to have the grief-stricken, cathartic crying episodes I mentioned above after I’d spent some time releasing a lot of anger into the punching bag.
7) Exercise: Exercise is often touted as a way to deal with emotions. Advice you might hear can includ things like: Feeling angry? Go to a kickboxing class. Stressed about work? Go for a jog. Etc.
What I found was that, while my nervous system was way too overactive, and while my core issues were still repressed, exercise made me worse. All it did was add extra stress that my body couldn’t handle. When I finally got through most of my core issues, I suddenly felt the need to start working out. And at that point, exercise was helpful for releasing emotional energy. But I had to get through the other work first and get my nervous system to a calmer state.
8) Feeling emotions does not mean taking them out on others: I’m not an expert yet on feeling or expressing emotions, but I’m 1000% certain that it should never involve hurting others physically or emotionally. I also suspect that if you’re raging out on loved ones or crying in the middle of work meetings, there are probably other emotions and deeper issues, but your nervous system is using these emotional outbursts as a way of hiding from those deeper issues.