Life is full of situations that bring up different emotions for us as humans – happiness, sadness, anger, guilt, joy, excitement, wonder, rage and more. Some people have an increased sensitivity to these emotions- they feel all of these things deeply or perhaps more intensely. For anyone dealing with a painful emotional struggle, such as the ones underlying an eating disorder, the feelings can be big… so big that they become overwhelming and all consuming. If this is you, you might feel like you are “too much” or “not enough” (I’m here to tell you that’s not true so keep reading!).
Attempts to control these intense emotions end up leading to either big reactions and outbursts, or the other extreme of becoming numb and cutting off all emotions – the joy and the pain in life. When we experience intense emotions or “big feelings” and don’t quite know what to do or have the skills to deal with it, it’s only natural that we would dissociate from them, explode, or engage in self-punishing behaviors like restricting, binging, purging, over-exercising, substance abuse, or self-harm. These are behaviors that make all the intensity of emotion and suffering seem more manageable for at least a moment in time.
We talk a lot in therapy about “emotion regulation” and if you have been exposed to Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) then you know learning to regulate your emotions is a core part of the work. I am all for this. I think it’s incredibly important. I think we need these skills. And I also want to draw our attention simultaneously to the value of these emotions and offer a perspective on the importance of creating space to honor the feelings for what they are – particularly for those who are deep feelers and experience the world in a more intense way. My intention is to provide some hope and encouragement to those that feel the feelings in a big way. I can’t take credit for the title about superpower and I’m not sure who originally said it to give credit where it is due, but it makes a lot of sense to me – our sensitivity can be our gift and fuel our passions. Let’s take a look at this together.
If you are a deep feeler, you might notice…
…that out of the blue something can happen and you will be flooded with emotions and memories that bring you to tears or cause you to feel numb. You might notice your body responding to your feelings with tightness in your back or chest, sweating palms, racing heart, or an aching and twisting in your stomach.
…that you are not only feeling your own feelings deeply, but also, incredibly sensitive to the feelings of others, intuitive about your environment, have a strong imagination and a deep inner life. Your body might also respond in other ways such as needing rest after being with others for long periods of time, needing to be nourished on a consistent schedule, or feeling depth of love, care, and compassion for others pulsing in your heart center.
These are the times when it can be hard to feel things deeply and not react with the same amount of intensity. Both of these kinds of experiences might lead you to feel emotionally exhausted or spent. You might walk into a meeting, group, or a party and sense what is going on with people’s feelings or relationship dynamics in the room. You might find that this causes you to shut down, cut off the feelings, and dissociate or disconnect from life because you just don’t know what to do with these big feelings.
So the question is…
If you feel your feelings to an overwhelming degree, how can you befriend these emotions, honor their existence; allow them to be a part of your experience of the world without overtaking you?
And, if you have become numb as a coping skill and perhaps developed an eating disorder, substance abuse problem, or struggle with urges to self harm in order to deal with your emotions, how do you reintegrate big feelings into your life in a way that allows you to feel joy and sadness, find meaning in pain, and all the things that come in between and not react in ways that are self-punishing?
One important thing to remember right away:
It is not a flaw to be sensitive to emotions and feel more deeply or intensely than others might expect.
It is actually a wonderful thing to be able to experience the world so deeply! I think it is important to recognize the difference between learning to regulate strong, big, or deep emotions rather than trying to control, suppress, or limit them. They will come and this is natural. They will show up, they are a part of what makes you unique and wonderful. It is ok to experience life in a profound way… in fact, if you can relate to this, you are probably a very compassionate and loving person – it’s just harder to allow that to be directed toward yourself when the feelings become overwhelming.
Acceptance of our deep feelings can bring liberation, joy, and connection with others we may not have thought possible.
Feeling deeply can be your superpower…
The idea here is to allow these feelings to come and become curious about them as places of possibility in our lives.
Possibility for what, you might ask? For connection, self-compassion, love, and empathy to name a few.
We are going to have reactions as humans; it’s only natural! The goal (I think) is that the reactions are not on the extreme with blowing up at others or yourself or cutting off and becoming numb to the world, rather they are responses that honor the emotions and give them a place to be recognized and validated.
I leave you with some ideas for what you can do, beyond trying to controlling these feelings through a “power through” or “feel nothing” approach, but rather through practicing regulating your reactions and commit to giving the feelings a home and a space to be honored in your soul and also bring them into a more moderate place where you can feel that they are an integrated part of you, rather than an overwhelming force to be cut off or that is controlling you.
- Take time for solitude: If you read my other blog about isolation and inner work, you know that I’m not talking about being alone in an isolative way, but rather in a way that allows you to reconnect with yourself, explore your inner world, get curious about the feelings you have or the feelings you have cut off, and engage in something meaningful such as journaling, meditating, listening to music that inspires, color, paint, or draw your experiences. In the solitude, take ownership of your feelings. It might become easy here to start blaming or pointing fingers at others for triggering us or setting us off… they are your feelings, own them, get to know them, and see what is being called for inside of you.
- Allow Tears and Laughter: These are two of the many ways that our bodies express emotions. Tears can be incredibly healing and cathartic – having a good cry about the things in life that have wounded us or brought us grief is a natural normal human response. The other side of that would be laughter – allowing joy to come tumbling out of our bodies with a noise! It’s ok to make a racket here – your tears might come with a wail and your laughter might come with a loud cackle. That’s the juiciness of life, the full of it, the all of it, the beauty of it.
- Cultivate Creativity: How do we use our feelings to create transformations in ourselves and in the world? If you feel deeply, you might be outraged at injustices in the world, for example. Perhaps you can take this and use it to make a difference. Connect to your values and see how you can creatively transform pain, anger, shame, or guilt into something positive in the world- into compassion, love, and acceptance.
- Connect and Share with Others: Relationships are such an important part of life, in many ways they are the very essence of life. Most of the time our big and deep emotions are related to other people and the ways in which we have been impacted by them or impact them. If this has been painful, our tendency would be to cut off and disconnect, yet I encourage you to stay connected with support people, develop relationships in a community, and reach out when you are feeling overwhelmed. Keep a connection with a therapist. This can be a great, safe and sacred space to share your feelings, your experience of life, your reactions and get curious together about what is going on in your inner world.
- Practice Mindfulness: When you notice the emotions in your body and they are feeling big and overwhelming, you might notice an urge to outburst or a desire to shut down. This is where the possibility lies! Take a minute to check in with yourself, take three to five deep breaths, and ask “what do I need right now?” You might realize that under the anger, you are scared and need to feel safe. The answer to how to feel safe might be listening to your favorite music, calling a friend, grounding yourself by sitting with your toes in the grass, drinking chamomile tea, or watching a silly movie.
- Bring it into the Body: Notice how your body is responding to your emotions, where do you feel anxiety? How about love? Does it have a color? When we cut off from our sensitivities and deep feelings, we live from the neck up… start paying attention to where you feel things in your body in order to integrate the all of you. If this becomes overwhelming, seek out a therapist who works with the body, mind, and soul to help guide you in this process of connection and integration.
From one deep feeler to another, I want to leave you with hope and encourage you toward self-compassion… there is nothing wrong with feeling emotions deeply, strongly, and passionately – the intention is that we learn to befriend these emotions, honor them, and turn our reactions to these feelings into mindful and thoughtful responses, practicing compassion for our efforts.
Yes, it is a challenge in many ways, but I encourage you to be open to the possibilities.
Embrace your superpower… it just might be pretty amazing.