If you ask yourself “How do I feel right now?” You may draw a blank … at first.
Very often, to be successful in our society, we must pump up our thinking abilities. Many of us lead very rich thinking lives and we certainly benefit in practical ways because of it. We must be able to problem solve and analyze and wordsmith. So if you are a skilled thinker, it can be easy to start using thought as your primary tool for interacting with the world. But we have an opportunity to live in two dimensions – to think and feel. Leading a rich, yet balanced, thinking and feeling life is actually essential to good health – both mental and physical.
In all the hours I’ve spent with clients, the most common phenomena I see is a kind of mild depression in which they feel more numb than anything else. Sure there are specific criteria to categorize or diagnose the type of depression. But in practice, the semantics of a particular diagnosis often do little to imply the urgency that leading a “numb” life should.
Emotions point to a truth. In general, changes in emotion are the natural and healthy catalysts for action. Ideally we use the information they provide to motivate us to meet important needs. But as humans have evolved in our thinking capacity, we have developed a possibly dangerous capacity to ignore our feelings as they happen. As we become a more intelligent and principled society, implications of what we should feel and should prioritize are being adopted as “truth” (by our thinking minds at least). From a high-minded and theoretical perspective this can be a good thing. But the devil is in the details. The importance of balancing authentic emotional experience with thinking is vital for true happiness and health.
This is an important context for every part of our daily lives. When our thinking and feeling capacities are out of balance, it is a difficult thing to correct. Often we’ve trained ourselves (with the help of some families and society) to distract attention from unpleasant realities by disconnecting from our emotion about them.
And why wouldn’t we want to disconnect from unpleasant experiences? Who wants pain? This is very natural. But too much disconnection over time can begin to dampen your emotional senses across the board. This is often how non-organically based depression begins. Maybe you’ve learned to “stop letting things get to you.” Typically this figure of speech implies not letting the “bad” things get to you. But the generality of the literal statement is ironically accurate. There is a symmetry to our perception. If we cap pain – then we cap joy.
So what do we do? Ideally if you could describe the majority of your feeling states as numb – I think mindfulness-based counseling offers wonderful resources. But for obvious reasons you may have a valid hesitancy to sit down and talk about feelings.
The good news is that plenty of other options to begin working toward a richer feeling life. Just briefly checking in with yourself can be a start. I often suggest that clients take a moment to ask themselves how they feel before each meal time. And any non-thinking method you can find to connect with yourself is often a good way to access off the radar feelings through the back door. Things like music, drawing, working with your hands or physical sports are all ways to give the thinking a break, and rebuild connection with the rest of who you are.
Mindfulness activities such as yoga or meditation are also great options to learn to quiet the mind. Over-thinkers may have a hard time seeing the value of ‘not thinking’. But the answer any of these suggestions provides is not to stop thinking – it’s to allow room for the full range of our feelings – more regularly and more real time. When we have a regular connection to the emotion of each given moment – then we don’t ‘save up’ toxic emotions for other unrelated situations and we feel joy that we may have otherwise missed.