Feel to Heal: Shame Around Feeling + How Processing Intense Emotion Helps Us Heal

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I’m just reemerging from a 5-day private retreat with a client. I discovered inspiration during this particular retreat to write about a reoccurring topic that I continue to see with clients I work with.

And that is: We need to feel to heal.

I can’t give myself credit for this catchy (and so very true) phrase. I first learned this from my own spiritual teacher, when I was in the depths of processing my own emotional wounding and trauma. The saying is so simple, yet so powerful.

Every client I’ve worked with on a private retreat so far, has walked away with the huge realization that they haven’t been feeling—like ever. I hear things likes, “I’m feeling for the first time in my life”, “a weight feels like it’s been lifted now that I’ve felt all of what I’ve been holding in for so long”, or “feeling my feelings isn’t as scary as I thought it would be”.

We are so afraid of the idea of feeling. We believe it will consume us. Or that we won’t survive the wrath of our own emotions. That it will be too much to bear and surely destroy us.

That fear is powerful and can make us believe some crazy things.

So we shove the feelings down. We numb them with food, alcohol, weed, binge watching Netflix, online shopping, and so on. We can be so crafty in the ways in which we avoid our feelings, that we can even trick ourselves into believing we’re feeling, when we're not.

This client I just finished working with with really inspired me because, historically, she had received treatment for her mental health concerns, for years, through more traditional, western medical systems (hospitalization, psych units, treatment facilities, etc.). She shared with me, “those facilities and/or therapists always taught me coping skills or ways to push away the feelings. That the way to feeling better was pretending those feelings weren’t happening or real.”

This really struck me. Because with the work I do, for myself personally and with clients, I’m SO focused on feeling emotions, bringing light into the shadow, that I’ve forgotten how pervasive this message of pushing our feelings away is in our society.

There’s shame around feeling.

So much so that these systems that individuals seek out specifically for solace and help, are just reinforcing this negative believe that we will feel better if we do XYZ to ignore and suppress our feelings. And then they see no improvement or change and continue to blame themselves.

Shame around feeling exists and is reinforced on a macro and micro level. We can develop our shame around feeling our feelings from our family of origin or caregivers. Maybe we had a parent or caregiver who shamed us in overt or covert ways for being "too emotional" or "too sensitive". Maybe as children we witnessed their own intense emotions and inability to regulate these in a healthy way, that we're afraid of being like them so we've learned to hold back our feelings.

Luckily, for this client, she felt a deeper calling to seek out a more holistic approach to mental health which led her to discover my services and private healing retreat. Because for years nothing was helping her.

It was truly an honor to witness the major emotional shedding and processing this woman did in just five days. And to see her reconnect to that light she thought she lost. She left feeling reconnected to her inner child, her passion, and truth.

And all it took was feeling. Feeling through talking, writing, art, dance, yoga, mindfulness, and nature. We can feel and process our emotions in so many ways. And we can surprise ourselves, when we hold space for our emotions, by what just may result.

When we feel our emotions as they’re surfacing, they tend to pass more quickly. When we suppress them, they start to fester and grow. Almost like a physical wound. If I pay attention to my wound--care for it, clean it--it starts to heal. If I were to ignore it and pretend it wasn't there, it could become infected or more painful.

Here’s a simple practice you can do to begin processing your own emotions--maybe it’s anxiety, grief, fear, loneliness, pain, heartbreak, shame, guilt, or anger:

1.)   When you feel an intense emotion surface, with your eyes closed or open, begin to notice where that feeling resides in your body. For example, maybe it’s in your chest, throat, fingers, or maybe it's even a sensation over your entire body. What temperature is it? Does it have a color? Fully identify with this emotion.

2.)   Once you have this emotion fully in your awareness, begin to breathe into that space in your body. On every inhale, imagine you’re breathing into that specific location the emotion lives, and on every exhale you’re allowing that trapped emotion to release from your physical body. Stick with this from anywhere between 1-5 minutes.

3.)   After a few minutes of this, just notice what’s changed. Don’t judge or label. Gently observe. Perhaps the feeling has started to dissipate. Perhaps it’s the same. Whatever your experience may be, that's ok.

4.)   Continue this practice or step away and return to the practice, if needed, later. Maybe even go for a quick walk or jog around the block, to help regulate your body’s emotional response, and then return to this exercise again.