On not-feeling

In recent years it's become glaringly apparent that I don't FEEL very much, and also that I'm most drawn to people who do. This often leads to scenarios where a person whose feelings are more accessible takes up more than their share of the 'space' in relationship with me. In this blog post I'll reflect on not-feeling, the impact it has and some things my close people can do to help.

I don't know if my not-feeling has an underlying neurological cause or whether feelings are something I have suppressed. Probably it's a bit of both. As my therapist once said, similar relational strategies should help regardless of the cause.

'... As a result of having to push my mother away because she could not let me be me... I had learned to develop my intellect, at least in part, as a way of dissociating from the pain of this disconnection from love.'
'... Letting ourselves have our experience can be quite challenging, since nobody ever taught us to how to relate honestly and directly to what we were feeling... (As a child) Our sadness was bigger than we were because we didn't have the knowledge or capacity to process intense feelings. So our only choice was to shut down our nervous system in the face of our pain.'
'From the moment we are (born), family members encourage us to be our authentic selves, while they also unconsciously encourage us to express certain traits, qualities or behaviours and to deny or inhibit others. People need us to be a certain way for their own sake, and for the most complex variety of unconscious reasons... We learn that the survival of our relationships, and the very integrity of our family, depend on our being this way or that.'

(Click here for more extracts from John Welwood's 'Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships'.)

A few years ago - on my therapist's advice - I attended a course in 'compassionate communication' (also known as non-violent communication or NVC), which is a widely-known model for both expressing AND listening. Both sides of the NVC model (empathetically listening and honestly expressing) involve four steps: observations, feelings, needs, requests. This approach is particularly useful - though not easy - in conflict situations.

  1. Differentiating observation from evaluation, being able to carefully observe what is happening free of evaluation, and to specify behaviours and conditions that are affecting us;
  2. Differentiating feeling from thinking, being able to identify and express internal feeling states in a way that does not imply judgment, criticism, or blame/punishment;
  3. Connecting with the universal human needs/values (e.g. sustenance, trust, understanding) in us that are being met or not met in relation to what is happening and how we are feeling; and
  4. Requesting what we would like in a way that clearly and specifically states what we do want (rather than what we don’t want), and that is truly a request and not a demand (i.e. attempting to motivate, however subtly, out of fear, guilt, shame, obligation, etc. rather than out of willingness and compassionate giving).

The value of the NVC approach was it started to increase my awareness both of the broad spectrum of FEELINGS that exist, and of the concept of how NEEDS/VALUES underpin feelings. Most people I am close to are better than me at articulating their feelings ('I feel hurt/ sad/ confused/ angry/ scared', etc), but very few people are good at articulating the need/value underlying a given feeling. This is by far the most difficult - and the most helpful! - part of the NVC model.

(What NVC doesn't mean, by the way, is making your sentences a little bit flowery and thinking you've nailed NVC! If you're interested in the approach I recommend reading either Marshall Rosenberg's original book or the online content linked from this post.)

The challenge for me is greater than struggling to articulate feelings/needs; it's that I rarely feel them, full stop. This was brought home to me recently when struggling to make sense of my response to having been treated incredibly badly by someone. I knew what I thought about the situation, but I had no insight into how (or indeed whether) I felt. I asked a few more feeling friends to help me figure out what I felt, and some literally didn't understand the question. They could tell me how they felt (one even cried!), or how they would have felt in my situation, but that wasn't what I'd asked for. Interestingly, when one friend said 'You seem sad', I immediately got a lump in my throat. I'm not sure if R. naming an emotion gave me permission to feel it, or if something else happened in that moment. Regardless, it struck me as interesting.

Looking back, I realise I can remember my brother having emotions as a child: joy (though this was typically labelled 'over-excitement') and fear (which was ridiculed) in particular. I don't remember having any emotions myself; a characteristic that was extremely positively reinforced.

This summer, during an almost-overwhelming mushrooms trip, I reached a depth of feeling (specifically, sadness) I've rarely experienced in myself. (I've sometimes experienced it in others, for example when holding a partner who is crying.) Trips aren't easy to write coherently about, but I'm going to try because the experience felt so significant.

During the trip - which was with a friend and one of his partners - I noticed I became obsessively concerned with whether my (for want of a better term) messiness was irritating/repulsing my companions. By messiness I mean the fact that I could not contain the effects of the trip, both physical and emotional. I kept asking if they wanted me to take myself away into another room. When they said I did not have to do that, something profound happened: I was hit by a tidal-wave of sadness and compassion for myself (my baby, child and adult selves) for having always had to dissociate, for having had to contain or hide my mess. In years of talking-therapy I had not felt this kind of compassion for myself!

I'd taken a very big dose of mushrooms but was still able to observe my experience with clarity. (I love this about mushrooms!) Though the words were moving all over the page I was able to write down some keywords to help me remember. Afterwards I was able to explain to my companions the depth of compassion I'd felt - and wept - for the baby who was made to sleep alone in a room from night two after coming home from the hospital. For the baby who reportedly 'decided' to potty-train aged 12 months. For the child who had wet flannels thrown across the room at her on the rare occasions she vomited. For the adult who still cannot cry in circumstances where everybody else I know does. For the adult who feels nothing even while typing this.

Instead of reinforcing my compulsion to take my messiness away my friend came closer to me, held my hand, and told me it was OK. I hope he knows the significance of his actions in that moment.

My therapist was right. NVC is one of the best tools to help me increase my emotional literacy. I must keep returning to it, especially in situations where I am aware that others are having (or tend to have) feelings. I shall work with the strategies in this zine by my great friend Meg-John Barker (sitting opposite me as I type this).

Close people can help me by asking me how I feel, and asking me again when I respond only with thoughts. In moments of conflict my people can help by remembering that just because my feelings are less accessible, it doesn't mean they get to take up all the space with theirs. Thanks for reading.