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“How does that make you feel?”

September 11, 2019

Lots of people think this is a counselor’s favorite question.  It’s not mine.  And for a couple of reasons.

First of all, I think it’s epistemologically wrong.  In truth, nothing makes me feel anything, emotionally.  Physically, I can be made to feel many things.  Pain, hot, cold, wet, dry.  But emotionally, things are different.

My feeling are certainly real.  They’re most often the result of events that happen to me or around me.  And my feelings are often powerful.  Overpowering, even, sometimes.  But after the initial moment, after the shock and impact, I feel what I feel because I choose to continue to feel it.  After the physical-physiological shock of an event – good or bad – I feel what I choose to feel.  This is often the difficult first step on the journey I take people through in counseling.  They have to admit that what they are feeling is what they have chosen to feel.   They have to have ownership of their feelings.

The second reason I don’t like this question is because there’s a better question that gets to reality: How do you feel about that?  Because I can both own my feeling and tell you what it is.

It basically comes down to who’s responsible for what/how I feel?  Usually, it’s easier and more comfortable to be able to blame someone else for what I feel.  This assumes that you can be made to feel something by someone else.  If someone can make me feel sad, angry, frustrated, resentful, bitter, then I don’t have to own this feeling.  It’s not my fault.  I didn’t cause it.  They did.

My brother, Ken, gave me a term for this.  He called it “victimstance.”  He meant that a person can take the stance of a victim.  He should know.  He’s been the victim of MS (Multiple Sclerosis) for 40 years.  He’s totally disabled, wheelchair-bound, living in a nursing home.  He’s not a cheery ray of sunshine, and basically never has been.  He’s a realist.  He knows that he isn’t getting better, and at this point there’s no medication that will make him get better.  He won’t recover from MS.  He will  die with it and because of it.  But he has chosen not to live as a victim.  He hates the disease (I do, too), but he’s not blaming anybody else for it.  For these last 40 years (which is actually a long time for a person to live with MS), he’s owned his life and his situation.  He told me he refuses to take up victimstance.

The world around us these days promotes victimstance, though.  It’s organized us into groups and causes according to our victimstances.   This promotes the idea that someone else is responsible for what I’m feeling, and by extension, what I do about what I feel.  If you Facebook, just scroll  through your feed and see if there’s not a pretty sizable number of victimstances illustrated there.

There are true victims, though.  People who have been made a victim by the choice and action of someone else.  Injured or killed by a drunk driver.  Murdered.  Raped.  Mugged.  Fired without cause.  Betrayed.  You can fill the list out with lots of other actual victimizations.  All of us have probably been a victim at some time in our lives.  I do not take these things lightly.

Being a victim and living as a victim are two very different things, though.  Some of the most powerful and inspiring stories are from the lives of victims who have chosen to not live as victims.  Nick Vujicic  comes to my mind first for this.  Born horribly deformed, the victim of genes getting somehow hacked, Nick has chosen to own his life, and, instead of living like a  victim, he has made an incredible impact.  Take a look at his website and be inspired:

Owning you feelings, learning how to own your emotions, is one of the five big things I would want your kids to take with them in their life-tool kit when they leave home.  It’s one of the most significant indicators of personal maturity.  Mature people own their emotions.  Immature people don’t.

But before an emotion can be owned, it has to be identified.  This is where things get difficult for most of us.  The more specific I need to be about my emotion, the more difficult the whole thing is.  I’m pretty good at generalized emotions.  You are, too.  I feel good.  I don’t feel that great.  I’m mad.  I’m sad.  I’m happy.  You know, the surface things.  Getting down deeper into a more specific description to identify feelings takes practice.  Difficult things usually do.

And on top of that, most of us came from families where emotions weren’t welcomed.  Especially the negative ones.  Or the extreme ones.  Lots of us grew up believing the best thing we could do with our feelings was to just not have them.  Or at least not show them.  If you could, assassinate them.  At the very least stuff them down where they’d stay out of the way.  Because emotions were always so messy and embarrassing.  They show weakness.  If you didn’t grow up this way, you need to thank God and your family, because you’re in a very small minority.

So some of us have very little practice at identifying our emotions and a lot of practice pushing them away, denying them, burying them.  The problem with pushing them away or burying them is that they don’t stay pushed away and they don’t stay buried.  They come back or resurrect at the worst possible moments.  Emotional eruptions rarely happen at convenient times.  You’ve probably got your own stories.

OK, so what are we supposed to do with emotions if stuffing and assassinating them doesn’t work.  This may sound silly, but I challenge you to make a game of identifying emotions with your family, because identifying feelings is the starting gate for dealing with them appropriately.  I call this little  game The Emotional Alphabet.  Your kids will need to be old enough to know the alphabet to play.  Here’s how you do it.

The first person starts with the letter A.  Name an emotion that starts with the letter A.  The next person names an emotion that starts with the letter B.  You go through the alphabet as best you can, naming emotions.  Obviously some letters are going to be harder than others for this.  I can’t think of one for X.  If you get stuck, everybody gets one “Pass,” meaning they can go to the next letter.  Meal time is a good time to do this.  So is drive time.

The object of this silly exercise is to expand your emotional vocabulary.  And being able to name your emotions so you can own them is the front end of building a skill and habit that will set you and your kids up to live and love well.



From → Marriage, Parenting

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