Awareness that Heals

How Challenging Feelings Can be a Guidepost to Our Needs

How Challenging Feelings Can be a Guidepost to Our Needs - ATH BlogOften, it’s quite hard to tolerate or accept our most troublesome feelings. That’s why we use our capacity to seethat these feelings are the deepest source of our suffering. However, our negative reactions to these difficult feelings are what causes the more sustaining pain and suffering than the original feelings themselves, although that’s rarely obvious to any of us. This requires looking more deeply at ourselves and asking, “How do I feel about this deepest suffering?”

We will most likely find derivatives of “I hate it”, “I don’t want to feel this way and am (unwittingly) burying it or at least putting it to the side.”  This may happen in our awareness and oftentimes outside of what we can see.   There are also frequent times when we can see it for brief moments, what I have called fleeting awareness and it will only stay with us for a few moments. For example, if we feel insecure because our partner feels like they are possibly attracted to someone else, it can be a difficult feeling to tolerate. It burns, it’s scary, and most of us either contract in our body and tighten up, accuse our partner of insensitivity, or suppress it. In the last way, our unconscious feels more distant from our heart and our lover’s heart.

It’s essential to learn how to tolerate our original feeling (in this case, insecurity) and develop our ability to recognize our needs (in this case, to feel more secure). This is a Herculean task for most of us — to stay aware and sensitive to ourselves and our partner. 

How can we identify that the feeling isn’t the central cause of sustained suffering?

A critical insight to have is that the original feeling isn’t the primary source of ongoing suffering. Instead, it is our fight/flight/freeze reaction to the feeling and the ways in which we hate the feeling. This shows itself in the accusation and contraction, stuffing it into our subconscious, where it creates distance from our hearts. This highlights the need to stay aware of our challenging feelings so that it doesn’t lead to a constellation of emotions and defenses that eliminate or lessen our capacity to move toward well-being or healing. 

Our first challenge is to stay aware of our most challenging emotions, which is the necessary starting point for guiding ourselves to our needs. As you read this, take a moment to look at your most challenging, troublesome emotion. It’ll be helpful for you to see how hard it is for you to tolerate and then accept it. Then, as you read on, see how you would typically justify, rationalize, defend or suppress. Seeing these patterns will allow us to see ourselves in our most innocent simplicity. 

When trying to feel better, can you see that you can’t force yourself to change your feelings by demanding them to obey? Take a look at how giving yourself a hard time or pressuring yourself to change has worked out? Especially when you think you’re feeling too anxious, angry, depressed, empty, or confused? When you look closely, you’ll realize that demanding a change in feelings is like wanting to drive fast when you’re in stop-and-go traffic. It isn’t possible. So, we need to find another way to guide ourselves that is helpful when we are truly suffering.

The first steps are to identify what you’re feeling and what you need

Fighting feelings with feelings is like being a wave in the middle of the ocean and wanting to be on dry land. It is hopeless, and it is only by finding an alternative way that we can care for ourselves when we aren’t feeling good. This is particularly hard to remember when we’re challenged emotionally because our minds tend to go blank or get negative when we’re hurting, angry, anxious, or insecure. We need to develop a different kind of basic training that can really be supportive. This becomes possible for us to do as we know we’re making it a priority not to go through this kind of extended and expanded pain.

This process of being aware of the challenging feeling, tolerating or accepting it, and discovering the most important need to support ourselves is vital. All of us will have these times regularly when we will have these painful feelings. 

It is at this time when we have learned to identify and tolerate the feelings and inquire: 

“How I can best take care of myself when I feel like _________?”. 

This dedication of our attention guides us to co-exist as an observer by identifying these challenging feelings. It also allows us to be curious about what we may have needed in the first place before the suffering started and at other times we need to respond when we are faced with challenging feelings. We will discover that underneath our challenging feelings, there are specific needs that we must do our best to identify. Then we can shift the focus to finding and fostering our needs instead of being frozen in our feelings and negative reactions toward them. 

For those of you that have difficulty identifying the specific challenging feelings and needs, it would be helpful to look at our two introspective guides that give you a list of 75 of the most common challenging feelings and essential needs. This makes the identification of the direction you need to focus on much easier. Look closely at your inner life, especially focusing on where you have repeated challenges. Notice if it is easy or hard for you to identify your emotional state during these moments. Do your best to identify it without judgment, seeing that most of us tend to want to spend as little time there as possible. 

However, when we recognize that these feelings are a distress call for us to be alert, we can become highly motivated to give them our full attention.

They’re almost like red lights flashing, screaming out — please pay attention as I need something important, for me to turn green and learn how to move forward in my life.

It doesn’t help to turn away. 

It might be more than one need we have, but it is clear that we need to be receptive to what we’re not able to give to ourselves. It might be helpful to say — “I am going to train myself to move toward this feeling, rather than away, to enable me to learn how to move in the direction toward what I need.”

“I really want to take care of myself when I’m most suffering and in need. Nobody else is going to be able to see it as intimately as I am. So I need to be the caregiver when I’m hurting.” This could be your inspiration to find the best source of supporting what you need.

A simple example to put this into perspective

Let’s take one of the most poignant examples that reveal the potential compounding effect of listening to our feelings and learning how to lean into and activate the fulfillment of our needs. Even if this feeling and situation aren’t ones you directly identify with, please substitute your feelings and needs to let them apply to you. 

Think that you’re a mother caring for your kids, and you have suffered from anxiety since early childhood. This has resulted in internal overreactions to common fears like illness, strict routines, the dangers of going out close to the street, and protection from people or dogs in parks that look dangerous. You realize that it is a healthy protective instinct to want to protect and to feel some anxiety, but your extra anxiety creates excessive fear not only in yourself but also it is unwittingly being gradually passed down to your kids. 

Your children will likely show signs of overreacting to fears in their life. You now have double the motivation to find ways to take care of your needs and to be more relaxed in your responses. Both outside yourself and as much as possible inside, for both you and your kids. What if your inner dialogue was something like the following?

“Hello anxiety, I know you well even though I keep you mostly private in my experience. I recognize this is having a lifelong effect on me and now there is a danger that it will be affecting my kids too. I can see that some of the needs I have from looking at the ‘list of needs’ is to develop calm, relaxed breathing,  pause, trust and to practice containment of spontaneously and indiscriminately expressing out my emotion. I am going to talk about this openly with my partner, therapist or close friend depending on who are the best guides. I am going to stay committed to the question or inquiry, ‘How can I best access these calming qualities when it matters the most when I am triggered into anxiety? How can I bring this pausing gap before overtly reacting into my present life right when it matters the most?’ I can see this is of the utmost importance both for me and my kids.”  Even if you have been working on this for a long time, it is important to intensify the development until it is well integrated as the stakes are so high.

Now let’s take a moment to look and ask yourself, “Which area of my life has repeated difficult feelings like anxiety, frustration, anger, insecurity, emptiness, competition or annoyance?” 

Take your time and let yourself know that you want to embrace this feeling without judgment so you have time to really feel it and can increase your capacity to become a stable observer. Without allowing any significant judgment to blur your awareness of what you feel, this stability will allow you to be calm enough to ask, “What are my biggest needs that will help resolve my feelings? What steps do I need to take to identify and accept the feelings and then guide myself to act on the needs tangibly and specifically?” This is not usually instant gratification, especially if the feelings have been with you for extended parts of your life.

Some of the most common examples of challenging feelings and situations that I’d encourage you to consider to bounce off of to find your specific needs are:

  • You’re angry that a friend or your lover has ignored your requests for some kind of consideration.
  • You’re hurt because your family isn’t showing interest in you the way you want them to (it could likely be a specific member of the family).
  • You’re frustrated that your economic situation isn’t what you want. 
  • You wish you could find a sense of purpose, but you’re having difficulty narrowing it down to something tangible rather than repeating this abstraction.
  • You or your partner are dissatisfied with your sexual life but haven’t found the courage to do the work on yourself, communicate with your partner or both to really find your potential.
  • You don’t know what you need and keep spinning around feeling incomplete.  You’re frustrated and angry at yourself because you can’t stop certain habits that are unproductive or create extra distance from your heart and others. 

Like most of us, you have one or more things that you’ve likely been avoiding because of hard to tolerate fear, anxiety, frustration or anger, and you need to gather the courage to face the situation and let the feelings guide you to the thoughts, qualities, and actions needed. There is an almost universal tendency to procrastinate more than we realize about something because of exaggerated fear or avoidance of what we don’t want to possibly happen or see inside ourselves.

I hope you are motivated to do this inner work that is a part of developing the greatest trust and self-love we can build inside ourselves. It is also supporting anyone connected to us as we give them a chance to really understand and respond, rather than very likely be confused and alienated. 

It is essential to realize that these are just the beginning steps to really using our feelings as guides to our needs. Once we really understand what we need, it is vital to do the inner and outer work to truly implement them. Some of these needs can be taken care of quickly, and others will be a process for years or even the rest of our lives. 

The key is to take the next step and realize that following this, it will be necessary to not just think about it but to actively pursue the steps needed. We’ll also continue to explore how to take care of our needs in the best ways possible.