Feelings.  I really like working with feelings. People often ask me what I actually do in session.  “What do you DO? What do you TELL people?”  “Hmmm…Must be nice getting paid for sitting around asking people how they feel.”  Well okay.  To be fair, I do, in fact, ask people how they feel, but that’s not all I do! I promise!

I have a game called The Feelings Wheel. It’s a therapy game that has a circle of feeling words written on a square piece of cardboard.  You can choose how to play it. We like to pick a spot, roll the dice, move our game token and land on a feeling word. The person on your left or right gets to ask you any question about that feeling.  “When was the last time you felt overwhelmed?” Or, “When was the last time you felt hurt by someone in your family?” A fun one for youth is, “Who makes you feel lovestruck?” And, “When was the last time you felt rejected and how did you deal with it?”  On the colorful board, there is a small circle in the middle called, A Safe Place. One can go there if they feel unsafe answering the question. In 15 years of playing this game, I’ve seen the Safe Place used less than a handful of times. People want to share! I’ve played this game for several years in several settings. The most recent was on a houseboat trip at Lake Powell. Our hosts had a graduating senior son and about 5 of his friends, all heading off to college in the fall. These are big, strong, tough guys. Each one really enjoyed the game. They wanted to play several rounds and asked to play again the next day.  Surprised?  I wasn’t! That’s how it is most every time. The girls AND boys alike love to play. It’s fun, scary, nerve-racking and quite intimate. It’s a fantastic way to practice using the words and to get to know the people around you. I was impressed with this bunch, a group of kids who have known each other for many years. They had a lot of laughter and joking at first but they buckled down and took it seriously. I learned about their dreams, fears and painful experiences, their questions about adult intimacy and some funny stories. I later told my friend that her son has an excellent group of friends. They were good to each other and supportive and felt safe sharing very deep feelings.

I worked at a community mental health agency for 2 years. There was a male therapist who had a Feeling Flip Chart.  The chart allows you to pick your personal feeling for the day and/or moment, and sit it on your desk so to share with the world your current emotional state.   It’s sort of funny. I laughed nearly every day as his was almost always on guilty!  I think I related!

These games exist because therapists are trying to introduce feeling words at an early age to children in an effort to increase their emotional IQ. Studies have shown that people with a higher emotional IQ have fewer bouts of depression, anxiety, and anger management issue. In addition, studies show that people who have high emotional IQ’s have longer lasting relationships that self-report higher levels of satisfaction.

Feelings are God given.  They are  signs given to us so we can be aware that something is happening in our lives that need to be addressed. They motivate us to action. They move us in a direction that is needed for us to feel peace. Let me explain.

Our bodies want to reach a constant state of homeostasis. Things are happening every moment that take us out of our body’s norm. Things like glucose levels, fluid volume, heart rate and body temperature are all examples of processes that need to be in balance. Homeostasis refers to metabolic balance maintained by processes. In therapy, I educate people about homeostasis in terms of our bodies getting back to where they feel normal.  We have physical signs that tell us what we need. When we need fluids, we feel thirsty. Our mouths feel dry and we may get a head ache. When we need energy, we feel hungry. Our stomachs may growl and we may feel light headed. When we need rest, we feel tired, so we sleep, giving our body the rest we need. If we get overheated, our body feels too hot – we know we need to cool down. A broken bone causes pain. This slows us down, preventing us from extended use that might lead to further damage.  Likewise, our bodies give us signs  when we need to change our environment. These signs are more internal. They are called feelings, or emotions. Some are positive feelings, like joy, love, and hope, while some can be negative, like agitation, embarrassment, or guilt. What many are not accustomed to noticing is that we actually have a feeling thermometer within us. This helps us to know the intensity of our emotions. For example, one can feel irritated, angry, or irate. Each of these warrants differing levels of action.

The natural man in us does not want us to feel negative emotion. It’s not fun. It hurts.  We want it to go away as soon as possible. Remember though, we are to overcome the natural man. It’s been said that the natural man is an enemy to God. If we are not able to use our negative emotion to regulate our lives, we will not progress. We cannot move forward.

I have a conviction that Satan does not want us to progress. Although he will never win the war, and he never has more power than our God, he is fighting the fight with small battles. He has a toolkit he’s working on to stump us. A major tool he uses is fear. But I will address that in another article. The tool on my mind today is ignorance.  He wants us to be ignorant and walk blindly on our path so that growth experiences are missed. AWARENESS is the antithesis of ignorance. Again, feelings are God given. We need them in order to make decisions that are exponential, in other words, they help us to grow, to become bigger and better. If we are not aware of what we are feeling and why, we cannot grow.

A large amount of my therapy work is with people who want help overcoming harmful life habits, and/or addiction. I teach my clients that we will be working on three levels, our belief systems, our feelings and our behaviors. One of first things we work on is the distorted belief system that negative feelings are simply bad and need to go away.  This is exactly how negative coping becomes habitual. Negative coping is generally based on the belief system of, “I feel bad, I need to feel good.” The pleasure principle is at work here. The pleasure principle is the instinctual seeking of positive feelings. I believe this is also God given, but it most certainly can be misused. Our experiences with the pleasure principle are as follows.  “These berries are good, I should have more.” Or,  “It is so fun playing with babies and I want to do it again!” Or, “I feel so refreshed after that run, I need to run more.”  “It feels so wonderful when you massage me at night, could you do it again?”  And of course, “That chocolate cake was heavenly and I want 2 more pieces please.”  Lastly, “I feel so awful after our argument, this drink is very relaxing, I need it to calm down.”

Here are some examples of misuse. These are prime examples of people NOT being aware of what their bodies are telling them. They are seeking to rid themselves of negative feelings and replace them with positive feelings. They achieve a positive feeling for a short time, but have not addressed the need, therefore the feeling returns. Oftentimes this leads to increased frustration due to the need continuing to be a need and more often than not, the need grows in frequency and intensity, leading to more pleasure seeking.  This behavioral pattern can quickly become a habit or full on addiction. This is textbook bad coping.

“I FEEL LONELY. I’M ALL ALONE. NO ONE WANTS TO BE WITH ME. I  NEED A PINT OF BLUEBELL ICE CREAM.  THAT WILL HELP ME TO FEEL HAPPY. I WILL GO GET SOME.” (Person proceeds to buy and eat a pint of ice cream.)

How long does this person feel happy? Did it remedy the feeling of loneliness? Is he no longer lonely?

Another example:

“I FEEL UPSET AND STRESSED EVERY TIME I PAY BILLS.  I CANNOT HANDLE THIS. I WANT TO EXPLODE.”  (Person proceeds to take a pill in an effort to calm down so she can more readily pay bills.)

Has her problem been fixed? Why was she feeling anxious? Did her pill solve the need?

“I’M ANGRY. MY WIFE AND I ARGUE ALL THE TIME AND THERE IS VERY LITTLE LOVE AND INTIMACY. I NEED TO CALM DOWN.” (Person then proceeds to go to a bar to drink in an effort to calm down, and engages in flirtatious then inappropriate intimacies to meet his physical desires.)

Has the reason for his anger been addressed? Have they worked through their marital challenges? It’s clear that the real need to deescalate and to further address marital problems has been ignored. He did not use positive coping. What he actually did was further damage his body and his relationship. He did not engage in the unselfish act of working through a problem.

The skill I want to offer my readers today is this:

Address FEELING (then) NEED (then) ACTION –   In THIS order.

Learn to be aware of what you are feeling, (What exact feeling – sad, overwhelmed, tired, stressed, lonely, agitated) what the exact need is, (I need sleep, I need to leave this abusive relationship, I need to spend time with my children, I need to reach out to someone for  companionship) then decide on the action that meets the need, then finally,  proceed with that action, ( I will exercise, I will sleep, I will deep breathe, I will spend less money, I will go for a walk.)  To do this, you have to first be aware that you are feeling negative emotion. You stop right then and ask yourself, “What Am I feeling and why?”  (Note that anger is a secondary emotion. If you are feeling angry it is because you are feeling something else that has led to anger, for example, “I was very embarrassed when he tripped me in the cafeteria and now I’m mad at him.” Or “I felt betrayed at his infidelity and I’m angry.”)  After becoming aware that, first, you are feeling charged or negative emotion, then second, the exact feeling you are experiencing, you then decide what the need is and subsequently choose the action that best meets that need. “I need to calm down, therefore I will go for a walk, or do some deep breathing.”  Or, “ I need to pay my bills on time every month so I don’t end up so stressed each time I sit down to pay, so I will work to manage my budget better.”

If I was somehow limited to five skills only that I could offer my clients who come to see me with bad habits or addiction, and also those struggling with depression and/or anxiety, this is one of the skills I would give. It’s undeniably imperative that we learn to identify what our body is telling us. We must learn to recognize signs that something needs to change, rather than run from and hide from anything that feels bad. We must learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable and believe that there is a good and healthy reason we are feeling this way. Our body recognizes something is off balance and it’s doing its best to help us to get it back on track. Let’s listen! If we can learn to listen and act in a way that helps us to become bigger and better, then we have won that battle. We are evolving into wiser, stronger, more aware individuals. Wiser, stronger, more aware individuals are better individuals, family members, workers, and members of society. It’s literally exponential. We all win!

I believe this is what God wants for us. He wants us to learn, to grow, and to be more like HIM.  It’s hard sometimes, to put aside our natural man’s desire to run from pain. It’s scary and unsettling to sit in the pain and search for knowledge. I see it as a sacrifice.  Surely it’s a sacrifice of a few moments of pleasure for a lifetime of growth.  Gordon B. Hinkley said, “You will come to know that what appears today to be a sacrifice will prove instead to be the greatest investment you will ever make.”  And CS Lewis said, “No great wisdom can ever be reached without sacrifice.”

It’s a sacrifice to take the time and energy to be aware and to grow, to feel, and to work.  I know though, that it is well worth it. The saying, “Ignorance is bliss,” is a lie. It’s one of the tools the great deceiver uses to keep us at a level that is not a threat to him. Be aware and learn and grow and evolve and use the power that God has given us and become more like Him every day.  It’s the plan. It’s our destiny, and it IS possible.  I’ve experienced it myself and I’ve witnessed it in the many lives I’ve had the opportunity to touch.

So… yeah. I certainly DO ask people how they feel – with purpose and intent and respect and hope and love and with all things good in my heart. And I’m happy to say, I’m proud of it. Ha.