Embodied emotional resilience

The Resources

Brene’s chapter on the third guidepost – cultivating a resilient spirit – has the emotional aspect implicitly but not explicitly in there, BUT Hilary’s chapter in The Wisdom Of Your Body on Feeling Feelings is such a helpful lens to consider resilience through that I have taken the liberty. I’m drawing heavily on Hilary’s work here, and you should probably consider most of what follows to be in quotation marks. I can’t recommend this book highly enough!

And I want to start with the feeling part because it’s all well and good to advocate for leaning into vulnerability as an essential element of human connection and belonging, however for many of us there are several steps we have to lean into before we can even contemplate the possibility of risking this kind of vulnerability. So let’s unpack that a bit…

The whole point of The Gifts of Imperfection is to guide people towards living a wholehearted life characterised by connection, compassion and courage. And to get to wholehearted, we have to learn how to be open hearted.

Brene highlights the fact that in the stories of wholehearted living she gathered, the common thread was spirit – a sense of being part of a web of belonging that is held together through deep and unbreakable connection grounded in and held by the power of love and compassion that is Divine. This sense of the greater power which holds all things in love is a source of perspective, meaning and purpose for life.

This thread of spirit is also a thread of abundance and worthiness. I think we can actually do the spiritual practices without really sensing/knowing/feeling we are worthy to take our place in that web of belonging, and not really trusting the fullness of the love which holds us in it. I know I have done this.

Wholeheartedness needs open heartedness, and that means we need to know how to feel all of our emotions, let them rise as a sensory wave and then let the wave recede as it always does when we allow the whole sequence to bring us back to shore. Hilary says that when we cannot move all the way through an emotion then we cannot get to what is on the other side of the wave: rest, presence, calm, connection, playfulness, and curiosity. This is our core state “our openhearted, authentic, self-at-best state.”

Our culture isn’t good with feelings so often there is fear and confusion around feelings. We don’t know how to feel them ,or we are afraid we’ll get lost in them or we are afraid of how it will look to others if we express them.

We start to learn about feelings as infants by gauging the responses of our caregivers. Hilary says that

before we have a command of language, we can learn to feel shame about emotions if our caregivers scoff at, mock or roll their eyes at our expressions of feeling

Which means before we can even talk we start learning to internalise shame from a critical person to shame our own feelings.

Photo by Ana Tablas on Unsplash

If we have never been shown how to feel our feelings all the way to the end (what a concept!) we will do whatever we can to avoid the rising sensation of a ‘banned’ feeling. These defensive strategies can be: sarcasm, laughing, overeating or under eating, overworking, substance use and/or addiction, changing the subject, numbing out or spacing out, procrastination, violence, blaming and passing judgement on ourselves or others, intellectualisation, racism, self-harm, eye-rolling, denial….there are more, but this is sobering enough, don’t you think?

And along with our defences against feeling our feelings, we can also find that we have developed what’s known as inhibitory affects – emotional responses that allow us to push down feelings so we can go along to get along. The three forms of inhibitory affects are anxiety, guilt and shame. What that means is that when ‘bad’ feelings arise, what we actually register is anxiety, guilt or shame and these divert us away from feeling – never mind expressing – emotions that we have learned are ‘wrong’ or ‘unacceptable’ or dangerous because they put us at risk of rejection, abandonment or exclusion.

So I hope you can see that on a journey into wholehearted living, in the category of What Might Get In The Way, not knowing how to feel and be with our feelings is actually a big ticket item – one that we need to attend to before we can hope to live into a different way of being.

That might mean that we start noticing with compassionate curiosity some of the defences we use – noticing when we are engaging in our patterns of avoidance and then asking: How is it trying to help me right now? Defences are intended to protect us and keep us from feeling worse and while they are sometimes helpful, often we keep using them when they are not needed and do not serve us.

I’m aware that this step is probably much harder for men than for women, because of the Man Box. The Man Box is held up by seven pillars: self-sufficiency, acting tough, attractiveness, rigid masculine gender roles, heterosexuality and homophobia, hyper-sexuality and sexual prowess and aggression and control. Men who have broken out of the Man Box and rejected these masculine ideals are able to think more freely about what it means to be a man, but our culture may still socially punish men who value emotional connection, display vulnerability, reach out for help when they need it, are willing to cry in front of another male peer and provide emotional support for a friend. And life for those stuck in the Man Box pretty much sucks. Totally. And not just for the men, but also those who are in relationship with them.

Image by Dimitris Vetsikas from Pixabay

The Practices

I know I’m a heart centred person who is into feelings, but it does seem pointless to me to try and practice living into wholeheartedness when we have limited access to the emotions that bring us information about how we are feeling and how we might then want to respond so that we can be open-hearted, wholehearted people.

There are seven categories of primary emotions that have their own circuitry and function within us: anger, excitement, sadness, disgust, joy, fear and sexual excitement (desire). Here’s how Hilary explains each one:

Anger helps strengthen us to fight, assert or defend ourselves, and make a change or get what we need.

Excitement gives us the energy to move toward something, to investigate, or to explore. It’s part of how we expand and lean into life.

Sadness, which can lead us to feel heavy and pulled down, signals to us and to those around us that we might need some support. It helps us grieve and to learn what is painful to, or meaningful for us.

Disgust was originally an emotion that activated our gastrointestinal tract and certain facial muscles to keep us from ingesting something dangerous, but it has evolved to include all manner of things we find harmful (including policies and behaviour). It can signal ‘this is harmful’, whatever ‘this’ is at the moment.

Joy helps us expand, heal and continue to thrive. It drives us into an open hearted state in which we can connect and share.

Fear puts us on alert, helping us to anticipate and perceive threat and to move toward protection and out of or away from situations that might be dangerous to us.

Sexual excitement originally developed to keep our species alive through procreation. It motivates us to meet unmet needs, fulfil our selves and experience pleasure.

The Wisdom of Your Body

Some of us find it hard to talk about feelings, some of us find it easier to talk about our feelings than to feel them in our bodies, but each of these core emotions is a way that energy is in motion through our bodies, each of them has a signature sensation and moves us toward a particular action or set of actions. When we feel disgust and fear we usually want to move away – desire and excitement and joy move us towards.

Here are three ways to notice these primary emotions, to receive them as guides to self-understanding, identity and fullness in life by exploring how and when they move through your body and how you typically respond to their arising.

Direct your attention to your bodily sensations

What do you notice? What in your body tells you that you are feeling that way (sad, angry, joyful, fearful etc.) You can try a body sweep with your attention, starting with the top of your head and looking out for things like: temperature, tightness, openness, or movement of energy (swirling, rising, pressing, weighing, undulating, sinking, etc.) Attending with kindness to the sensations gives us a way to experience and allow the wave to move through us without blocking it. This is a form of self-compassion as it helps us not to judge the emotions, and facilitates a sense of connection with ourselves – regardless of what stirred the feeling.

Journal – Get curious about your values and your past.

Emotions are hard wired into us but the specific emotional response we have to a scenario is unique to each of us. These responses tell us what is important to us and what we have been through. Feelings offer us insight about ourselves if we let them. When we are frustrated, it’s easy to blame the other person, but doing so means we miss the chance to see where we need to heal, seek comfort, get out of a situation or understand ourselves more deeply. Believing a feeling is about someone else might make us think that the other person, or the situation has to change. When a feeling happens in your body, you are responsible for exploring, understanding and regulating that emotion.

So, what stories did you learn about emotion growing up? What were you allowed to feel or not allowed to feel and how did you learn that?

Colour your feelings

Draw the outline of a human body seven times, one for each primary emotion. Using coloured pencils or crayons draw each emotion as you are noticing it appearing in your body. Play with the different colours to reflect movement, intensity and temperature.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s