I only realized the importance of feelings after I burned out completely a few months before turning 30. I knew that something was wrong as I was feeling irritated and angry all of the time and just plain old miserable. At first I thought I was just a bit overworked and in need of a vacation but when I returned to the office after a two week Christmas break, I just felt worse. It wasn’t until I dialed the number to schedule an appointment with a therapist for the first time that I realized that I was burnt out and struggle with depression.
In my first couple of therapy sessions, my therapist introduced me to what felt like the ABCs of taking care of my mental health and my feelings. Of course I had heard about feelings before but I had just never really thought of them much. I knew that I could be happy or sad, angry or afraid, but that was pretty much it. And besides, the different feelings didn’t matter much because I was usually fine. Several partners had asked me to be more open about my feelings and to share what I was going through. I nodded along, said I would improve but honestly, I didn’t really know what they meant: “What do you mean share my feelings? I just said that I’m good?”
Burning out introduced me to my feelings for the first time and the experience taught me three fundamental truths about feelings:
Number 1: Feelings exist to help us
I used to believe that feelings were part of our “old brain” and that they had become redundant with after the development of our newer, thinking brain. Our prefrontal cortex and our ability to reason set us apart from all other living animals on this world so surely it must be better. Why feel when I can reason? Rationality was good and right. I understood emotional as something bad. As something that if relied upon would lead to clouded decision making based on impulses.
I now know that I knew nothing about what I was talking about. Instead of being relics or distractions, feelings are data. They exist to help us make sense of the world. If we’re feeling anxious, it’s because we’re afraid of something bad happening. If we’re feeling angry, it’s probably because we feel that a boundary of ours has been crossed. If we feel happy, it’s because we’re doing and living in a way that’s aligned with what we want and value. All of this is important for us to know and information that helps us live more fulfilling lives. How on earth could ignoring it be helpful?
Number 2: Ignoring feelings doesn’t work
Which leads to the second truth I learned: feelings cannot be ignored. We can try to ignore and distract ourselves from the emptiness and unhappiness within us but the chances of success are slim to none. Instead, the signal from the feeling will only grow stronger until we can ignore it no longer. Like my burnout, had I paid attention to my feelings leading up to it, I could have avoided much pain. It wasn’t until I couldn’t get out of bed or speak coherently with my partner that I did something about my situation. What if I had listened and taken in the information that my feelings tried telling me sooner?
Number 3: Talking about your feelings builds stronger and more genuine relationships
Talking about feelings seemed uninteresting to me before because I had such a low opinion of them, but also because I was terrified of it. Not being experienced in talking about my feelings, I felt like I didn’t have the vocabulary necessary to make myself understood. I was terrified of talking about my feelings because I was afraid of what it would mean to acknowledge my feelings and say them out loud. Would telling my partner that I was unhappy at work lead her to believe that I was weak and couldn’t handle the pressure? Or what if I stayed in the job I had told her made me unhappy? Would that mean that I was afraid of change? I was so afraid of talking about things that I myself didn’t understand or fully grasp. Now i’ve learnt that it’s immensely relieving to just being able to share what i’m feeling. Nobody has to do anything. Just being able to open about feeling afraid or anxious immediately lowered the pressure growing within me.
I was also afraid of the attention I would get if talked about “my” feelings but I found the opposite to be true. By daring to be open with my friends, I signaled to them that I trusted them and that I’m there for them too, when they’re ready to share. Instead of gossiping or talking about the latest night out, a new tv show or a football game, I was able to form stronger and deeper bonds with my friends that were built on vulnerability, courage and genuineness.
It’s never too late to begin appreciating the importance of our feelings. I understand that it’s scary, frustrating and will, at times - actually, probably often - feel pointless but, the alternative of bottling up just doesn’t work. So, give it a go.