Feelings, not reasons

Last night I was “taking steps” (walking laps around the block for 10-20 minutes) and listening to the latest Creative Giant podcast (#113). Grief is this episode’s focus, which may have you cocking your head and thinking, WTF? Why would anyone opt in for this? But I treasure the wide-ranging nature of this podcast… after all, it’s a lot like what I do here: if it’s on the brain, let’s go with it.

What’s now on my brain, halfway through the episode? Angela started with a heartfelt plea for people to quit telling themselves they were experiencing the wrong kind of grief—too much for a tenuous connection or too little for a major connection. My brain says YES. What Angela said belongs with  the maxim I learned from Thea: Feelings don’t have to make sense. They’re not reasons, they’re feelings.

Thea taught me this early in our collaboration, when anxiety and depression had stopped my functioning. I’m a thinker, have always lived in worlds of thinkers, and I like things to be orderly. To make sense. But there’s a lot that happens inside depression that makes absolutely no sense. Even to the depressed person. Why can’t I get out of bed? All it takes is to swing my feet over the side… But then it’s 3pm, and I’ve only made it out of bed to dart to the bathroom and dive back under the covers.

“They’re not reasons, they’re feelings” changed my life. Brought an immediate lifting feeling, like a burden on my soul suddenly had a couple of balloons tucked beneath it. More than that, though, it gave me a very different way of approaching my interior life.

I started handling my feelings along with other facts, like weather, or gas mileage. It makes no sense that Sunday Oct 30th was 90F here, so that My Sweetie got in a muck-sweat putting up Halloween decorations. But that lack of sense didn’t cool him down any. When depression pinned me to my bed, I quit fretting over how senseless that was…and I lay in bed until I wasn’t pinned any more. Which is not something I’d discovered when trying to force sense onto my feelings.

I started drumming “feelings not reasons” into my head. My lover tells me my anger makes no sense? Oh well, it’s here, and I’m not going to swallow it so that you don’t have to handle it. I feel panicky as I walk into work one morning? I let the panic seethe, while at the same time I keep walking, quietly waiting to discover what pushed the panic button. Once my feelings became their own facts, I could observe them and wait to act.

While I was working with Thea, she point-blank told me that we were harnessing my strong intellect to support my weak feeling-skills. It worked, and continues to work…

and worked for my girls, too. B in particular has a powerful intellect, a Lamborghini of a mind, so I focused much of her early learning on how other people didn’t see things the way she did. Not as a good or bad thing, as a true thing.

I’ve known and loved a lot of engineers, and one consistent element is how quickly they dismiss any feeling they’re not sharing in the moment. They dismiss fact-based statements quickly, too, if you’re not even quicker to rattle off your logical scaffold. But feelings? Gone in femtoseconds. Emotion-dismissal had nearly broken me, and I could see it generating problems at work when a little more astuteness would have side-stepped the issue. I was determined that my girl would have the whole toolbox from the beginning.

I tried not to insist B understand other people’s feelings–that seemed like a bridge too far, and besides, didn’t I say I often don’t understand my own feelings? But we would discuss approaches, and figure out how she could effectively maneuver. Are you thinking these are middle-school conversations? We did this during preschool. And middle-school too, but then these skills evolve over time.

One of my happy parenting moments came when B was in 3rd grade. She came home with a furrowed brow: “Mommy, someone in art today asked me what I thought of her drawing. I told her; she was sad and hurt. But she ASKED me! What was I supposed to do?!” (This last in an exasperated tone.) K: “Well, sometimes when people ask for your opinion, they’re asking for heart-talk, not critique. They want to hear, ‘That looks great!’ or ‘I like those colors.'” B: (more exasperated) “Well, how am I supposed to know which one to use?!?” K: “What if you asked me what I thought of your story, and I told you I thought it was nice.” B: “I’d say, ‘No, really! What do you think of my story!'” K: “Exactly. You’re not interested in heart-talk, so you’d ask again. Start with heart-talk, and the people who want more will ask for more.” B: “Hm. Okay.”

I watched her use this technique in our Girl Scout meetings, where it was quite successful. I assume she deployed it everywhere, and uses it to this day, since as a college sophomore she’s an informal editor for her friends and colleagues.

Feelings are facts. Let’s treat them as such. If these feelings later open up and reveal some reasons, great. But we don’t have to have a reason in order to honor a feeling exactly the way it is.