Are You Blocking Your Feelings?

Few of us were taught what the feelings are for, much less how to process and express them. Most of us learned from an early age to intellectualize, dismiss, ignore or feel ashamed of our feelings, particularly sadness, anger and fear.

Education emphasizes the development of the thinking function, how well you analyze and retain information. Critical thinking is necessary to balance emotionality. But life without the feelings can be a long walk across a dry desert.

When I say feeling I am not referring to the times when you are out of control. That chaotic state of mind is usually the result of denying feelings you are afraid to feel. For example, whenever you go to a large party you feel a panic attack coming on. You assume you are mentally unbalanced and think about getting medication. Once you admit you are angry because you are forcing yourself to be more social than you are by nature to fit in with all the extroverts, you realize small gatherings are all you can handle, given your sensitivity to stimulation and dislike of small talk. Then the panic attacks go away.

The High Cost of Pleasing

People come to me because they want to find meaning in their work: the job, business or creative endeavor that gives them emotional and financial fulfillment. In some cases, the problem is lack of persistence. Success is expected to be quick and easy and when it isn’t they assume there’s something wrong with them. Others are bogged down with possessions, entanglement with family members, causes and organizations that take up their time. Most are doing more than they can handle, too distracted to do what they really want to do.

My clients tend to be capable, conscientious people whose desire to help attracts people who lean on them. When attempts to help these people help themselves don’t work, my clients try even harder and when they fail they feel angry and frustrated. My job is to help them to let go of the role of savior so they can focus on what they need to do for themselves, thereby helping the people who deserve the help. But until they stop feeling guilty about satisfying their needs, the pattern of using distractions to avoid commitment continues, stopping passion in its tracks.

The Mind and the Emotions

Taking care of others at the expense of our needs can be a noble enterprise. However, too much selflessness infuriates the subconscious, the repository for primitive emotions like rage that, when blocked can manifest as illness, chronic pain and other bodily ailments. Alfred Adler, a contemporary of Freud, was the first psychotherapist to recognize “the emotions and their physical expressions tell us how the mind is acting and reacting in a situation it interprets as favorable or unfavorable.” Dr. Adler observed that, “mental tension [caused by repression] affects both the central nervous system and the autonomic nervous system…[manifesting] itself in alterations of the blood circulation, of the secretions, of the muscle tonus, and of almost all the organs.”

Internal and external pressure to conform to others’ demands and our own perfectionism wreaks havoc on the mind and body. Unless needs like creativity and comfort are acknowledged and met, the anger about being thwarted often shows up as health issues. Since it’s more sociologically acceptable to be in physical distress, we direct the brain at an early age to displace emotions to distract us from what we can’t or don’t want to feel.

Today’s medicating world largely rejects the concept pioneered by Adler and, more recently John Sarno, author of The Divided Mind. Dr. Sarno says most doctors tend to treat symptoms rather than wade into the waters of emotional etiology. According to Sarno, even the word psychosomatic was removed in recent editions of the diagnostic manual for the American Psychiatric Association. “One might as well eliminate the word infection from medical dictionaries,” he says. To be fair, most patients reject the psychological origin of their illnesses. Those who accept that diagnosis shift their thinking, which reprograms their brains.

The Solution: Honesty

The willingness to tell yourself the truth about how you feel helps you to know what is going on inside yourself and your environment. Awareness is a precursor to setting boundaries, which balance your needs with the needs of others. Being in tune with yourself also helps you to know what you value, what you believe is good, true and worthwhile. You also realize what you find to be sordid, dishonest and worthless. As a result, you avoid what is not good for you.

By contrast, when the mind blocks feelings because they are unacceptable that energy has to go somewhere. One of my clients thought anger was a bad emotion because his father was an angry man who abused his wife and children. As a result, Dave vowed he’d never be like his father, so he would not let himself get angry. In fact, he was proud of his even keeled personality; letting nothing disturb him. He was not aware he was repressing longstanding fury from the abuse he endured, until hypertension and sleep disorder told the truth about what was going on in his subconscious.

After Dave wrote his autobiography, the first step in the process I use with my clients, he realized it was normal to feel anger when one is being mistreated, since anger tells us to do something about the transgression.

“As a teenaged boy, I decided to go in the opposite direction because of the fear I’d be like my father,” Dave said. “I tried to get along with bullies, rather than stand up to them. No wonder I can’t set limits.”

After much discussion on our part, Dave finally fired an employee who was so incompetent Dave’s entire staff was demoralized, just as he had felt when his mother did not protect the children from her inept husband.

“I understand my parents’ mutual dependence now, and I forgive them, but it’s irresponsible of me to let this man destroy the happiness of others.”

Dave embodies Adler’s belief in the individual’s power to change for the better. The courage to bring up the contents of his subconscious set free him from the tension caused by repression. Then Dave’s health and relationships with his employees improved. He also began to write a book about the challenges of entrepreneurship.

Questions to Ask Yourself

Do you value the feelings? When you are angry, sad or fearful do you express those feelings appropriately? Do you allow others to have these feelings? Can you set limits without feeling guilty or wrong? If you answer yes to these questions, congratulations, you are a well-balanced individual.

Nancy Anderson is a career and life consultant based in the Sacramento/San Francisco Bay Area and the author of the best selling career guide, Work with Passion, How to Do What You Love For a Living, and Work with Passion in Midlife and Beyond, Reach Your Full Potential and Make the Money You Need. Her website is workwithpassion.com