Lately I have been spending time both personally and professional talking about the power of emotions and the body. Emotions are central to the human experience. We are born to feel.
From anger to ecstasy human beings experience the gamut of emotions. Take a newborn, for example, whose caretaker removed the bottle mid-feeding. Anger ensues within in nanoseconds. No conscious effort required. Babies are experts on soothing their emotional needs. Their innate ability to comfort is lost during the maturation process. Our relationship with emotions becomes tumultuous. Many are conditioned not to feel. To disconnect from emotional experiences. To become numb.
Consider your family of origin and what it was like when expressing feelings. In some family units’ unwritten rules governing the expression of negative emotions like anger are permissible but sadness or depression are forbidden or publicly shamed. In family systems like this an individual often severs feeling emotions and compartmentalizes what occurs in their daily. In my experience as a therapist I notice a numbness in my clients. Feelings become unsafe or dangerous.
Emotions are our survival mechanism. They kept us alive, safe, and protected. Our evolutionary ancestors used their emotions to protect themselves and their kin from danger. Our wellbeing and success depend on our ability to cultivate that infant like emotional awareness. Our physical bodies keep record of our emotional experiences.
Try this exercise for a few moments. Allow your shoulders to raise up toward your ears. Hold them in position for about 10 seconds. Gently lower them. Notice any tension or discomfort you might hold there. Try doing this from your head to your toes. Stay with what you notice. Clients I have worked with discover most often is the language of emotions in their bodies. The tension or discomfort is emotions hidden deep within the fabric of skin, muscles, connective tissue and fibers.
A recent Finish study from 2014 (Bodily Map of Emotions) demonstrated how involved the body is in experiencing emotions. One thousand research participants recruited for the study rated how intensity they felt various emotions in their body, their mind, how good each emotion feels, and their ability to control the emotion. Emotions were evoked using movie clips, stories, and pictures. Participants then colored a black outline of a human being on a computer screen to register bodily locations for the emotion. Across all levels of analysis cultures, language, socioeconomic status, ages, and sexes, the researchers demonstrated emotions live in the body.
Listening to the body is like learning a foreign language. It requires effort and practice. Give yourself permission to actively listen and notice what your body is telling you. Honor your emotions.
At first developing awareness of emotions might feel overwhelming or inconceivable. Be an observer without judgement. Bring a sense of curiosity to what you experience. If you feel overwhelmed bring your attentional focus to your breath. Ground yourself on the in breath and out breath.
Psychotherapy and counseling have evolved to include practices in mindfulness and somatic therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, trauma treatments, and many other modalities to help you gain confidence in living a full emotion-enhancing life.
We would love to hear about your journey to learn the language of emotions in your body.
Share your story below.