What is the difference between expressing emotion and feeling emotion? This question has come up in various ways over the last couple of weeks, and in trying to explain the difference to a client, I found myself seeing more shades of gray than black and white. Feeling is good – but feeling too much can be overwhelming. Expressing is good – but expressing too much can do some serious damage. Where does healthy treatment of emotion meet the potential for harm to self or others? What does it cost us to not feel? Or to feel too much? What does it cost us to contain our expressions? Or to express in ways that hurt others?
For example, happy feels light and airy to me. I’m much more likely to express happy with a smile. Anger, on the other hand, feels heavy and hot. When I’m angry, I have to be careful about how I express it. My words become biting and loud, and I’ve been known to throw things. (So far I’ve never hit anyone!) But because of that, I will often try to stop feeling anger as soon as it starts rising. That has a cost too.
Years ago, when I heard Brene Brown’s first TED talk, she talked about how we numb ourselves with everything from social media to pills. I truly identified with this. Thanks to not wanting to throw things or feel things I did not like, I had become a professional “numb-er”. (I was also good with numbers, but I digress.) I had to relearn how to feel as an adult. Somewhere along the line, I had learned to shut down physical sensations that I didn’t understand or that caused me to lash out. Rather than learning how to feel and what to do with the feeling sensations that come with emotion, I had chosen to not feel, and I was doing a damn good job at it. One of my coaches once asked me where I felt an emotion in my body. My answer was sort of nowhere and everywhere. It was something I needed to get a grip on, because my strategies were not working for me anymore.
Some emotions are energizing, and others are deenergizing. In my corporate life (and home life for that matter), some were allowed, and others were most definitely not allowed. Often times, the complexity of emotions was overly simplified to the point of being ridiculous: “women cry and men don’t.”
Over the years, I did relearn how to feel without trying to stop the sensations that didn’t feel good. It wasn’t always pretty. After years of stuffing my emotions down like trying to get in my skinny jeans, eventually they had to pop out in the places that weren’t completely numb.
Emotions are powerful energy. They can light us up, weigh us down, motivate us and connect us to the people we love.
Sometimes, emotions feel like they have a mind of their own.
In my messy journey from numbness to feeling, eventually I came to experience emotions without letting them cause me to do stupid stuff. When I remember to just experience it – label it, feel it, breath through it – the emotion passes through.
I’m still learning this.
How do you see the difference between feeling an emotion and expressing it? Do you make a distinction between experiencing emotion without changing it vs feeling it and perhaps trying to stop it? How did you learn which emotions were allowed and which were not? If you had to complete this sentence, what would you say? Emotions are…