All our lives we will experience feelings. Feelings are inner movements, responses to our own selves and to our environment. When we first feel them, they try to make themselves known to our body and our mind. Our job is to formulate an understanding of what these weird sensations mean to us, and respond accordingly.
Unfortunately, sometimes our feelings get blocked or denied. Hidden away, our authentic, deeply-felt inner self becomes unfamiliar to us. We become shallow and dissociated. We may find ourselves enacting self-harm habits. And we may be unable to speak up for our own happiness.
Feelings manifest in three ways:
These are feelings we don’t even know we’re experiencing. We may find ourselves acting in strange ways, but we have no access to any depth of understanding as to why.
These could be feelings that we’re denying because we, or others, would find them unacceptable. Think of the conscious mind as ‘police’, and the feelings as ‘criminals’. The feelings hide from view, afraid of being caught.
In childhood we may have been taught that certain feelings were unacceptable. So the feelings bypass our conscious mind and find their way into our actions without us knowing. Other people experience the consequence of our inner feelings, but we’re blissfully unaware of what we’re doing.
An example is anger. We may cause suffering to others due to unacknowledged anger, but then absolutely deny that others’ suffering relates to any original urge in us. We regard it as coincidental that our actions have hurt them. We even learn to blame the objects of our anger for their suffering at our hands. This is how bullies are made.
Through the same mechanism, we can also cause suffering to ourselves (self harm). We may then deny that our suffering relates to any original urge in us. Our self-harm habit is just how it is. In this case, sometimes, again, the ‘criminal’ is anger, and the ‘police’ is the conscious belief that such anger, if acknowledged, would be unacceptable.
These are feelings we know we’re experiencing, but that we can’t contextualise. We may have trouble speaking about what we’re feeling, and we may feel confused or out of control.
This can happen when we experience something unfamiliar. For instance, we might go to a loud concert for the first time. While everyone else enjoys it, we experience sensory overload. We alternate between excitement and fear. Our feelings have no home, and we can feel profoundly uncomfortable and out of control.
We can see this in some autistic people, who may need a long process of introduction to feel safe and calm in new situations.
This can also happen when we begin, in therapy, to become aware of previously unknown or denied feelings. For instance, if we don’t see ourselves as an angry person, then we may feel confused, having no narrative for ‘angry me’.
These are feelings which are well known to us, and have a well-rehearsed context in our lives. We know where we are with them, and feel relatively confident acting on them.
For example, if I grow up in a secure family environment, where I can express pleasure and displeasure openly, then I may build up a clear picture of my likely feelings and behaviour in different contexts. I will know what I like and don’t like. I will become familiar with how I feel under different conditions.
I will also have time to develop a repertoire of socially-acceptable behaviours which express my feelings, and match them to my environment. This repertoire will form my main character, my familiar patterns of behaviour.
BIG VOICE AND LITTLE VOICE
When we are on familiar ground, where we feel welcome and which we have experienced before, then we are likely to have a good, confident discursive repertoire. This is what I sometimes call ‘big voice’ – the part of us that can speak loudly and confidently on emotional ‘home territory’. In short, familiar situations breed familiar feelings, which elicit from us a familiar response.
On the other hand, when we are on unfamiliar ground, which we have not experienced before, then we are likely to have a hesitant, uncertain, or even absent discursive repertoire. This is what I sometimes call ‘little voice’ – the part of us that is quiet and unsure of itself.
THE EXAMPLE OF GREG
For example, Greg’s father was prone to angry outbursts. As a child, Greg learned to keep quiet and get out of the way when he saw anger coming. He would run to his mother, who would speak gently. His ‘big voice’ was the one he used more confidently with his mother. In adulthood, he met and married a woman who was very like her, softly spoken and unthreatening. He felt confident with her.
However, Greg’s boss was angry and aggressive, like his father. Greg had never developed a repertoire of how to deal with angry and aggressive people, except to run away. So, when his boss was like that, Greg went quiet and disappeared. He felt speechless and powerless.
ALLOWING LITTLE VOICE TO DEVELOP A LANGUAGE
In time, Greg learned to stand up for himself in aggressive situations. Initially, his ‘little voice’ had no language. Eventually, though, he became able to assert himself, even with angry people.
At first, he was unaware of his feelings about his boss. When he first went to therapy, he would even say how grateful he was to be in his job. He never mentioned any negative feelings against his boss; instead, he reported a self-harm habit which he couldn’t explain: when work got difficult, he would scratch his own skin red and raw.
As time went on, he began to look at the self-harm habit in more detail. He noticed he did it most when his boss was ‘on the warpath’, and he remembered what it had been like to live under the shadow of his father’s angry moods.
Slowly, he explored how he felt about both his father and his boss. He became aware of half-formed, unfamiliar feelings emerging. At first, he just called it confusion. Later, he was able to contextualise it as his own frustration, anger even, at being dominated.
In therapy, he found more and more language to describe this unfamiliar feeling. It became more familiar, and less scary or deniable. The ‘little voice’ of his own frustration developed some volume. He resolved to try out a more assertive repertoire at work.
In time, Greg became familiar with the feeling of standing up for himself. He learned to recognise when he felt powerless and hemmed in, and he developed more and more ways to offer an assertive response to his boss. His boss, in turn, learned to accept emotional feedback from Greg. Greg’s skin-scratching habit got better, and eventually disappeared.
Our job, as conscious beings, is to understand and interpret our own authentic inner response to events. Unfortunately, sometimes we do the opposite, and block or deny our inner feelings.
- UNKNOWN FEELINGS – Blocked and denied inner feelings are unknown to our conscious mind. But they still cause us, unknowingly, to harm ourselves or others. In therapy, we can resist even going there. We have no access to ourselves. We are dissociated and alone.
- UNFAMILIAR FEELINGS – Feelings may eventually come to awareness, but at first they may feel unfamiliar, and make us feel unconfident and inarticulate. We feel unstable or confused. This can happen in therapy as we start to engage with previously denied ‘little voices’, or ignored parts of ourselves.
- FAMILAR FEELINGS – In a safe environment, such as therapy, we can spend time increasing familiarity with our inner feelings. We can learn to empathise with ourselves, and can then develop a more confident language to express what our previously ignored ‘little voices’ want to say.
One of the greatest benefits of therapy is a rebalancing of the self. We learn to quieten down ‘big voice’, the confident, but distorted, self we have projected for years. And we learn to listen to, and help, ‘little voice’ – the neglected self. In this way, parts of us that have lain dormant for years can find a new language, and a new lease of life.