Feeling the feelings

Ok, this one is going to be hard. Nobody really wants to talk about feelings. Not women, who are so often told we have too many. Not men, who are actively discouraged from having any. So why, when our culture is firmly on the side of repressing them, am I exploring them now? Well, it turns out that they’re the driver of everything we do. Emotions fuel actions; and the feeling we think we’re going to get on the other side of achieving a goal (through that action) is the reason why we act in the first place. Our emotional life bookends everything we do.

I started thinking about feelings more deeply when my daughter started at a new school this year. She got a bit quiet before we went in, and I asked if she was feeling nervous. She paused for a bit before saying “no, I don’t think I ever learned how”. She's 14, and I didn’t push it, but it sounded pretty odd! And yet, also familiar. She’d never really stressed about exams, never bothered about studying for tests and generally showed up ‘happy-go-lucky’ to most new experiences. Even when, like this one, the change was going to be pretty major… But she and I share some traits, so it wasn’t really a surprise that feeling feelings also came up for me within that week. For me, it was around the writing of my 2021 ARC grant. The collective result of a disruptive 2020 and moving schools was that I was late, and the timeline was looking tight. But oddly, I didn’t feel stressed. I thought the Panic Monster should have kicked in, but it just hadn’t.

After ~5 years of practice (~3 of daily practice), it’s really easy for me to feel joy, gratitude and abundance. I can drop into those feelings so fast, it’s amazing, especially given that on the day I started the practice, I was so miserable that I struggled to come up with a single thing to be grateful for and had to borrow things from previous days to find 5 things to write down… But ‘feelings’ is also the stage I’m up to in my coach training (1), so I took it to a peer-coaching session. With a 3-week deadline, why was I feeling relaxed and happy? why wasn’t I panicking? In the course of the coaching conversation, it emerged, as it so often does, that I was avoiding another feeling. FEAR. Fear of failure, judgement and rejection. But that feeling was so well masked by all the gratitude and abundance training I’d been doing that I hadn’t recognised it. Even though it was clearly driving my actions.

Humans are deeply wired to avoid fear, which is a good thing, except when our brains can’t tell the difference between a tiger and a 10-page grant proposal.

In the past, I avoided negative emotion by numbing myself with food and alcohol. In the coaching world that’s called buffering and encompasses all the over-ing we do to avoid feeling discomfort. Overeating, drinking, working, exercising, Netflix, social media etc… All the things that feel good, right, and pleasurable, in the moment, but have a net negative consequence. Up until ~1 1/2 years ago, my go-to to avoid discomfort at work was food (specifically, Chinese fried noodles) and, at work and home, alcohol (any variety). Never so much as to be a ‘serious problem’ but definitely enough for the negative consequence to be obvious. Through the coaching work, I’ve learned to stop desiring them -which is pretty awesome and makes losing weight so much easier! But I haven’t yet learned not to buffer, because the next level buffers are harder to spot.

How can work, exercise, and gratitude even be buffers? A buffer is anything that gets in the way of doing the thing that’s most important for getting what you want long term. So, while exercise is essential, when I was doing two gym sessions a day during PhD write-up all those years ago, that was buffering. Many people overwork (and ineffectively at that) rather than deal with relationships at home. And what’s the negative consequence to all that feel-good gratitude? There really is no better way to get to ‘happy’ than with a solid gratitude practice. But it’s a buffer if indulged at the expense of doing the harder, but ultimately more rewarding work of a well planned and executed grant submitted ahead of time (2). And can it even be happiness when it’s plastered over fear?

Because thoughts drive feelings, you can manufacture any feeling you want with thought-work. And, because feelings drive actions, you want to make sure you’re feeling the ones most likely to lead to the actions necessary to progress the goal you’ve set. So, in the last few weeks, I’ve been adding a determination practice to my daily journaling. I have to think of 5 believable thoughts to write down and think on purpose. Things like

-I have everything I need

-I know exactly what needs to be done

-There is nobody better than me to write THIS grant

-My team deserve my best effort on this

-I can feel scared AND keep writing

Our brains are susceptible to this sort of training and rewiring is possible. But we are human and bound by the human condition; 50:50 positive versus negative emotion. My biggest ah-ha moment in this work came when one of the coaches challenged me on just how happy I felt with all that gratitude anyway. If there were an emotional scale from positive 10 to negative 10, and I didn’t let myself feel the negative emotions, wasn’t there a good chance I wasn’t really that high on the positive either? Maybe just oscillating around +1/-1? Harsh, but I’d heard that idea before.

No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell (3)

So whatever buffers you’re using to avoid the discomfort of negative feelings. It’s important to know that negative emotions will always come, it’s part of being human. The buffers are time-out, but they never solve for the actual problem. When I overate Chinese noodles, I was seeking comfort, but it turns out the comfort I get from just getting the work done (while feeling uncomfortable) and then going home earlier to walk the dog solves the problem so much better. It really has no negative consequence. The surprisingly hard part is to recognise what the feelings we’re avoiding actually are. And when they’re negative (generally the only ones we avoid), to know them, see them for what they are and just let them be. Not to avoid, or act from them. For me, the spontaneous actions deriving from fear are to avoid and hide. Not exactly what's needed with a tight deadline. The answer isn't more happiness, it's to let the fear just be.

Morning Offering (last verse)

May I have the courage today

To live the life that I would love,

To postpone my dream no longer

But do at last what I came here for

And waste my heart on fear no more.

John O’Donohue


1) I’m also at the stage in my coach training where I’m seeking volunteers to practice on. If you’re a woman working in STEM and are curious about what happens in a coaching conversation, please sign up to my email list for more details.

3) For the record, I'm yet to submit a grant ahead of time, but it is something I aspire to.

2) Quote from C.G Jung (Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self). About the idea of there being no light without dark in the human psyche.

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