My mind is always busy, though I’m often not aware. Not a single second passes without my brain doing something.
Most of the busy-ness is noise, echos of other people’s voices or thoughts about my future or past. Beneath that, though, is me.
Until about six months ago, I wasn’t sure where to draw the line between my voice and the echo. I confused memories of my past with my perception of my present. And I confused the feelings in my body with the beliefs in my mind.
I still do this and believe I always will. I believe it’s part of being human.
But my experience is different now.
I learned how to draw the line between my voice and the echos.
I trust myself to draw it because I now have the technology to do so. I have new awareness, insight, and language to describe my experience.
I never considered myself lacking in awareness. But I clearly lacked a way to capture the signal through the noise.
This changed when I discovered that meditation actually does work for me.
It didn’t for years and years, in spite of the blessings I have seen it manifest for people close to me.
I made token efforts off and on over the years to adopt meditation as a regular practice. But I wasn’t consistent, and my ego wasn’t yet ready to let go. So, predictably, “meditation didn’t work for me”.
But then it did.
There I was, listening to a guided meditation with Joe Dispenza, and the signal finally cut through the noise. I didn’t have to “do” anything. I simply let go of the noise.
Now that I think back on it, I had a similar discovery elsewhere six months before that.
I used to refer to what I called a “cognitive metabolism” in the context of feelings. I believed that I “resolved” strong feelings through a cognitive understanding of the cause.
I confused the cognitive locus of this process with “awareness”, but it wasn’t.
Feelings don’t live in my mind. They live all throughout my body. I just didn’t know it.
My focus was always external. I believed I knew how I felt. And I believed I was able to access other emotions by identifying what I, or another person needed to do to change how I felt.
This was a bad strategy. My feelings don’t belong to anyone else and are nobody else’s problem. My feelings are my responsibility.
I could go deep down this rabbit hole, but it isn’t really the point.
Insights like this one opened the door to discovering something I didn’t know I didn’t know: what I felt.
I Feel Like …
Alexithymia is a fancy word for not knowing what I feel.
I had a bad habit of saying “I feel like <explanation or metaphor>” instead of “I feel <feeling>”.
I was difficult to help because I didn’t say what I actually felt. I described, explained, and told stories. I used metaphors I believed would resonate.
For example, if a hypothetical friend named Bob asked me how I felt and I just happened to know Bob was a big baseball fan, I might have explained how I felt using baseball metaphors.
I might have said something like “I feel like a grand slam home run today” to communicate “very happy”. Or I might have said “I feel like the bottom of the 6th at an away game” to communicate that I felt tired and needed a break.
It’s comical and properly appalling to reminisce about now.
Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work well. I was much more subtle about it than my examples here would suggest. But my method was just as flawed. It didn’t work.
The Feelings Wheel
I learned a rich and appropriate vocabulary of feelings words with the help of The Feelings Wheel.
I consistently practiced saying “I feel <insert feeling word here>”.
But I still had some trouble.
A Blunt Instrument
Before I began using The Feelings Wheel, I wasn’t able to identify and label my individual feelings. I was like a blunt emotional moose that just plodded through the living room knocking over furniture and crashing into chandeliers.
I was able to identify the overall intensity of feeling on a scale of 1 to 10.
But I wasn’t able to identify the individual ingredients of an emotional 8/10.
So, I wasn’t able to use my feelings how they’re meant to be used: as messengers from my subconscious.
Sometimes I Feel Purple or Green
It turned out that I commonly felt several different emotions at once.
This manifested as intense, gnarly feelings … 8’s and 9’s on a scale of 10.
For example, I might have actually felt this:
- Disappointment: 4/10
- Anxiety: 6/10
- Anger: 3/10
… but I might have described it like this:
- Anxiety: 8/10
- Anger: 6/10
Tension, Suspense, and Resolution
Suspense comes from not knowing something. Movies and stories use missing pieces to draw us in. We watch to the end of the movie so we can find the missing piece.
A cliffhanger is a story that doesn’t completely resolve. It’s a story that creates a sense of anxiety that doesn’t go away, like an emotional tritone that doesn’t resolve.
The longer the anxiety lasts, the more intense it seems.
As a story develops, more and more information gets piled on top of the shaky foundation that we can’t quite find a way to trust. Like a towering game of emotional Jenga, the tension builds and builds and … until …
And this is what happened to me when I wasn’t able to label my feelings.
Using the same example above …
- Disappointment: 4/10
- Anxiety: 6/10
- Anger: 3/10
… but only being able to describe it as this:
- Anxiety: 8/10
- Anger: 6/10
… the discrepancy, particularly the increased anxiety was simply due to the additional and circumstantial tension and emotional dissonance I felt from not realizing I also felt disappointed.
Now here’s the real problem.
That additional anxiety only existed inside me. It didn’t exist for anyone else.
Among a group of people, I would have been more anxious than others. And nobody, including myself, would have been able to explain why.
My anxiety could have spread to others. It probably did. It very likely did. Ok, I can’t confidently say it didn’t so I should really say it did.
But what about that anger?
If I really felt a 3/10 anger, why did I believe I felt a 6/10 anger, and how would I have acted?
I feel shame welling up as I admit this. I also feel acceptance rising to meet it.
I got too upset about things. I overreacted. I was difficult to appease and I sometimes put people on edge. I was difficult.
I wanted to do better and I would have done better if I could have.
My mind wants to spin out of control with explanations and apologies for my behavior. This is a big clue.
Both my past behavior and some of my urges now, as I write, are all trauma responses. They’re all parts of survival strategies I learned as a kid.
It’s completely dysfunctional outside of the context in which I learned it. And it kind of sort of blended in through my teen years and into my twenties. I mean, a lot of smart people do a lot of dumb things well into their twenties and beyond.
I did a lot of dumb things which made sense to me because I wasn’t aware of what was going on.
I didn’t know how I felt because I didn’t need to know. In fact, as a child I probably would have been punished for saying how I felt if I had even known who to tell.
My point is … I learned to be blind to my feelings, I learned to normalize feeling anxious, and I learned to confuse trauma responses (fight, flight, freeze, fawn) with emotional expression and honest communication.
Ouch. Mistakes were made.
“Wait … what? What did I just say?” …
My noisy signal and resulting emotional dysfunction was all learned behavior. I’m not broken, but I did have bad habits.
I learned some really, absurdly dysfunctional behaviors as coping strategies as a kid. Believe it or not, those strategies served me well by helping me get my needs met back then.
This still blows my mind. It still sounds completely tragic and ludicrous to think that any of that ever seemed viable.
It isn’t. And it wasn’t. But it was for a while.
Do you know what isn’t a trauma response? Empathy.
Active listening isn’t a trauma response either.
Patience isn’t a trauma response. Kindness, acceptance, and many more ..
Being in a “freeze” state or acting apathetically mimics patience in some ways. But being in a “freeze” state is more of a dissociated state of forced imprisonment where the oldest part of my brain just says “stop everything right now”, and I just do. And apathy is just giving up.
Patience is not like that.
A person might appear to be listening while in a “freeze” state, but they aren’t. They can probably hear what’s going on around them. But their brain is focused on frantically scanning the environment for any opportunity to make a break for safety. ADHD anyone?
In the environment in which I grew up, this is just the way it was.
In an environment like that the name of the game was learning how do what other people did without knowing what they knew the way they knew it, or feeling what they felt the way they felt it.
Nothing quite worked as advertised. Feedback from the universe (also known as “consequences”) was confusing and distorted. People were tough to figure out.
It turns out though that in the end it was all me.
Full Reverse Thrust
About 2 years ago I had had enough.
Nothing was working. Job, relationships, A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. All of it.
Enough was enough. Something wasn’t right and I needed to figure out what it was.
… fast forwarding past the dramatic and explosive scenes depicting my life falling apart …
I started a journey inward.
I talk about this whole process as “reversing the polarity of the universe”. It was like discovering the real world after living my whole life in “The Upside Down” from Stranger Things.
I found irony in everything. I had countless frustrating insights and discoveries as I became aware of myself and learned to see the universe through a new lens.
Gah … the frustration was punishing.
I learned just how resilient perspective tends to be.
Having seen the world a certain way for so long, learning to see the world through a new lens, with a new perspective was like a long, confusing, uncomfortable, weird night full of heebie jeebies and wiggly things.
It seemed like there were emotional monsters under my bed and in my closet. But there weren’t. They were just old toys and clothes and things I hadn’t seen in a very long time and no longer needed. So I threw them out.
I found dusty, but nice things, which I cleaned and put back in their place.
I found things stuck on the wall, which I scraped off and then repainted.
Like an intergalactic battle cruiser, it took ages to slow down my upside down momentum before it began to accelerate right-side up.
And it seemed insane to me. It was like the director of my life had called “Cut! Now once more with feeling!”
“But, what do you mean?” I wondered. I was so confused.
There was absolutely no doubt in my mind that my old ways had run their course and that I was on the right track through all of the confusion. But I was so far down the rabbit hole … I couldn’t tell which way was up or what time of day it was … until I “got it”.
It didn’t matter. None of it mattered.
It didn’t matter what time of day it was. How did I feel?
It didn’t matter which way was up. How did I feel?
It didn’t matter what I was doing or who I was with. Who was I and how did I feel?
This is when I started to realize that I was at or near a threshold.
My dysfunctional intergalactic battle cruiser had finally reached full stop.
All Systems Go
As I continued my journey inward …
I would have a weird day. “It’s OK. This too shall pass.”
I would say something stupid. “It’s OK. This too shall pass.”
Then I would have a good day. “This too shall pass.” … and it did.
But then another, then another. And here and there, two in a row.
Then three. Then bad. Then another good, and so on.
And on and on it went.
So what changed?
I once heard that a real musical masterpiece is something you can listen to a thousand times and hear something new each and every time.
This is what it was like.
All the emotions that I hadn’t been aware of in the past were like missing instruments in an orchestra or missing characters in a play. The overall performance just didn’t come together without those missing parts.
One single habit is what changed everything for me.
The One Habit that Ruled Them All
As a child I learned to navigate life like this:
- Something happens.
- Am I safe?
- If yes, OK. Feel anxious. Be anxious.
- If no, What’s the threat? Fight the threat.
- Is the threat dead?
- If yes, OK. We’re safe. Still anxious, but better.
- If not, be difficult and just don’t let the threat destroy me.
- Is the threat dead now?
- If yes, OK. Still safe. Less anxious over time, but alert (ADHD).
- If no, … and down the rabbit hole we go.
This was a habit. It didn’t work, ever. Ever.
How to Invert the Universe
To live a life of suffering ask “Am I safe?”.
To thrive and live a life worth living say “I am safe!”.
We see the world as we believe we are. But many people don’t know who they believe they are.
“Can that be true?” Well, sure. “But how?”, you ask.
First, thank you for asking me to speak on behalf of “everyone”. Alas, I can only speak for myself. But I digress …
How did I not know who I was or how I felt? I simply never took time to ask.
The world today is so full of noise outside ourselves that we can’t hear the signal within.
No matter what you think you know, or what you believe, it is there.
The polarity of the universe reversed when I stopped looking “out there” to “find” what I “felt” I “needed”.
I turned the volume down to zero. I powered off the screens. I closed the door and sat in a comfy chair, legs crossed, big exhale … I closed my eyes and rested my hands on my knees and just sat there, quiet.
And out of the quiet, I emerged, already full of all I needed.
I had spent all those years looking, and yet never made time to see.
Finding Leverage For Heavy Things
The great thing about habits is that they’re durable by default. They’re low maintenance once you get them trained.
Most people live at least part of their life, I imagine, believing that because habits are durable by default, they’re solid. But in reality, habits can be shaped and molded as we please.
I mentioned above the bad habit that I learned as a child in terms of how I experienced the world.
In that dysfunctional world the only thing between the world around me and the version of me I presented to the world was my brain. The only thing between stimulus and response was a choice incentivized to search for safety.
From a very early age I had become so accustomed to anxiety that it was like a train passing in the distance every day at 2. It came and went. It didn’t seem to cause any trouble. And I didn’t even notice it, except when I did.
I wasn’t aware of what I had learned to ignore and I didn’t have words for what I never learned to say.
But now I was aware, and I did have words. So I used them.
I Cultivated Awareness
I worked to replace my old habit with a new one, this one:
- Something happens.
- “What happened?” Observe and acknowledge what happened.
- “How do I feel?” Say “I feel <feelings>”.
- “Is that all? Is that exactly how I feel?”
- If no, say more.
- If yes, good job.
- If unsure, pause and reflect. Look to The Feelings Wheel for clues as needed.
I‘m going to pause here to share a story.
This was hard.
Around this time I was seeing a therapist I’ll call Steve (not his real name). Steve was genuinely helping me and I appreciated his help.
As I explored on my own about alexithymia I discovered a researcher online that had done a lot of work on the subject.
This researcher used “feelings flash cards” to help people name their feelings.
I bought a deck of index cards and made up a set of feelings flash cards for myself.
I carried these cards with me and used them for a few weeks when I felt the need, and they really, really helped.
Now when I first saw Steve, he asked me how I felt about a situation I had described. I “explained” how I felt.
He responded “I didn’t hear any feelings words. Can you say ‘I feel X’?”. I was very confused and in denial. His question scrambled my brain.
But over the next few sessions I began to understand what he accurately called out.
This was a profound insight that got the ball rolling, and for which I am truly and eternally grateful. But my relationship with Steve halted in an instant months later.
Fast forward a couple of months ...
I had made a lot of progress and had “done the work”.
Steve asked me how I felt about something and I honestly didn’t quite know. So, I pulled out my flash cards for help.
Steve stopped me and said “Come on. You know how you feel. You don’t need your flash cards.”
I felt small.
Wait, small isn’t a feeling … I felt afraid, angry, anxious, ashamed, disappointed, disgusted, embarrassed, guilty, humiliated, hurt, judged, overwhelmed, regretful, rejected, sad, surprised, vulnerable and worried.
In that instant, Steve became a threat to me. I didn’t trust myself to trust him.
As good as I felt about Steve a moment before, thats exactly how much of a threat he seemed to me only a moment later.
This is what trauma does to brains. Childhood trauma had scrambled my brain.
There’s a lot to talk about around this moment. Suffice it to say that my reaction was a trauma response. My subconscious responded to what Steve said by summoning feelings about a zillion moments from my past all at once.
Steve could not have known this would happen. But he did disappoint me.
I have heard of men being mocked or shamed for being too emotional. “Suck it up” and “real men don’t cry” are not completely foreign phrases.
But I had never heard of a man being mocked for not knowing how he felt, admitting it, working to figure it out, trying, and needing a minute. This seemed like the exact opposite of being too emotional. I didn’t know how to respond.
Steve went on a long planned vacation after that session. And I never went back to see him.
The point of this story is simply this. Learning to experience emotions in a whole new way is a very, very difficult process. Nobody feels what you feel when you feel it. Nobody else knows what you feel. Nobody knows when your behavior doesn’t align with your actual feelings until you tell them.
In spite of all of Steve’s training, he didn’t seem to understand how difficult the process was for me.
In any case, back to the new and improved habit I cultivated …
When I didn’t know how I felt, I paused. I created a brief space between stimulus and my response to become aware of myself in that moment and respond with intention.
Instead of this:
… I began to do this:
- Intentional Response
This works much better. It's more advanced technology, and it's not hard once you know how.
Stutter. Jolt. Bump. Repeat.
As time progressed I got more and more consistent in defaulting to my new habit instead of the old.
But some days I stumbled. Some days I really just felt like I might never get really good at it.
But then I started to notice similar patterns in other people.
I had more empathy for others while also feeling more empathy for myself.
I started to see how all of my old behaviors blended in when they blended in and stood out when they stood out for all those years. I wasn’t the only one with bad habits.
Again, good moments sometimes strung together into good days. Then I would hit a brick wall. After a good night’s sleep I was usually ready to give it another shot.
One good day turned into two. Two into three. Three into a week.
I got good enough so that even when I did slip back into my old ways I was able to recover more and more gracefully.
Once I got the hang of it I really started to enjoy my new self.
I felt more confident. And my new habits were just more functional.
My progress really started to flow.
Flourish. On Writing
Everything I described about discovering feelings applies to writing. Learning to write has been a similar process.
It’s a recent discovery of an ancient technology. It’s learning to hear a signal that has always been there, but was indistinguishable from noise, until recently. It’s learning a new language to describe a familiar world. It’s learning to tell the difference between upside down and downside up.
When I write, I often don’t know all I’m going to write about beyond a general idea.
I outline my ideas. I create sub-outlines for each bullet point where I can. And then I write.
I need to pause from time to time to reset my perspective while I write. In the space of these pauses I find I know some things and can’t quite come up with language for others. Eventually I find all the language I need to express the words that need to be heard.
The stuff I find in those pauses is me. It’s what I feel or believe but didn’t quite know how to say until I tried. A lot of the easy or obvious stuff is just scaffolding.
Writing it down seems the only way to find it all. It’s been in me all along.