All the Feels: How Feeling Your Feelings Can Teach You to Heal
“We do not get to choose what feelings arise or how intensely we feel them. Our only choice is in how we relate to them.”
In my earliest childhood memory, I am throwing an inconsolable tantrum. I had many of these episodes throughout my early years, and my parents’ way of dealing with them was to lock me away in a bedroom until they were over. Needless to say, it has been a long, elusive journey to arrive at some semblance of emotional resilience.
Besides unfortunate displays of pent-up rage from family members, I grew up in an emotional desert. To feel anything seemed too vulnerable, and I sought refuge in the safety of science and numbers. My medical training confirmed there was no place for my feelings. I was reprimanded for tearing up as I cared for dying patients and for choking back tears of joy as I held newborn babies.
There was little space, too, for emotional expression in my personal life. My feelings were rejected—even in my most significant relationships. This pattern was all I knew, and I reluctantly accepted what was repeatedly conveyed to me: My emotions were wrong and unwelcome.
Until I became a mother, I had succeeded in muscling through life. Intense striving had reliably helped me achieve my goals: be it medical school, a prestigious residency, or leading international health projects.
Holding my first child, however, brought me into contact with a deep longing to nurture and care for not only my daughter, but also myself. We became inseparable. I nursed on demand, co-slept, wore my baby, and put my medical career on hold.
This strategy worked well until my second daughter was born. I was suddenly torn between the competing needs of a preschooler and a newborn. I had nowhere to turn with my overwhelm. I thought this emotional response was “wrong,” and no number of therapy sessions, meditation retreats, or inspired spiritual teachings over the years could penetrate my overarching belief that I was broken and needed to be fixed.
Several years ago, a relational crisis shattered my life trajectory and led me into my own dark forest of truth-seeking. A wise yogi helped me see that I had spent my life running away from my most painful unresolved feelings. I kept internally reenacting the very thing others had communicated to me: that my feelings were too intense and not worthy of my attention and care. He gently explained that we do not get to choose what feelings arise or how intensely we feel them. Our only choice is in how we relate to them.
By building my capacity of awareness, calling upon fierce courage, and tapping into love itself, I slowly learned how to hold and nurture my painful feelings. When I stopped perceiving my raw emotions—be it anger, frustration, or fear—as wrong, and instead welcomed these feelings with a warm embrace, I became my own caretaker. Unresolved hurt and sadness could flow through me in the company of my loving attention. I was no longer a prisoner of my pain. Instead, I was a conduit through which the pain could pass.
The lessons from my personal journey have infused my clinical practice of innate medicine in which we champion patients’ intrinsic resilience and healing capacity. We reorient patients from the conventional framework of medical problems needing to be fixed to one of symptoms as wise body-mind communication. When patients no longer resist their physical and emotional ailments, they can explore their health challenges with curiosity and creativity.
Many of our patients are already well-versed on the components of a healthy lifestyle: They eat a predominantly plant-based diet; they have a movement practice; and they engage in restorative sleep and relaxation practices. Many have already tried multiple medications and alternative treatments for their health issues. What has been missing and often transformative for our patients in their healing journey is to welcome their symptoms as wise messengers and to care and nourish their entire being rather than trying to “fix” themselves.
In this current time of pandemic, feelings of anxiety and depression are common, and from an innate perspective, they are completely intelligent and wise. We can skillfully welcome these feelings by first allowing ourselves to feel them fully. In doing this, we validate our own life experience and our own emotional responses. We can then allow these emotions to resolve back into the river of life.
While it is considerably challenging to be uncertain and open to the myriad feelings such times present, we have the capacity to relate to all of our emotions with love and care. Instead of numbing with constant news feeds and digital streams—or alcohol and sugar—we can choose to engage with the immediacy of this challenging moment. As we do, we open to the preciousness of our collective heart.
In our clinic, we orient patients back to their physical bodies. We guide them to become aware of sensation within their bodies. It can be as neutral as the pressure of their back against the chair or as intense as burning in their chest. We simply invite them to bring their awareness fully to that felt sensation.
Try this technique next time an intense feeling arises within you. Instead of suppressing the feeling or distracting yourself, bring your awareness to where that emotion is felt in your body. Then, just as a mother would kneel beside her young child in tantrum, bring loving attention to that feeling experience. By attending to the felt sensation with love and care, we honor our own wisdom.
Read more on practicing self-compassion.