How to Build Emotional Capacity
Updated: Jul 7, 2021
I wanna talk to you about one of my favourite topics... emotions!! Oh emotions. Such a huge part of the human experience, but one that so many of us have great difficulty with. Especially the "negative" ones. I used to spend a lot of time avoiding my feelings. In fact, I spent so much time avoiding them and being in my head, that I couldn't even identify my emotions when asked.
Sound familiar? No worries if this is you. I've been learning to feel my feels over the past several years and I am happy to report that a) you can do it and b) it does get easier, though it is a process, to say the least. Feeling our emotions can feel really big and scary. And for lots of good reason. But it can also be the key to living a rich and fulfilling life. Because the thing is, if everything we do or don't do in our lives is to feel or not feel an emotion, then everything you want is on the other side of feeling your feelings. Make sense? Essentially, your biggest fear, the one that is perhaps holding you back from what you want in life, is feeling a feeling. For example. Perhaps I'm scared to start my own business and take some of the necessary risks to "put myself out there" because I am afraid of failure. I'm afraid of having a thought about myself or not meeting my own expectations and feeling sad or disappointed or ashamed. So instead I play it safe in my job that is eating my soul because that is more familiar and comfortable. The emotion attached to that thought is easier to manage than the one that taking a leap might cause.
Does that make sense? In the butchered words of Life Coach Brooke Castillo, "If you are willing to experience any emotion, there is nothing you can't do". Therefore: Everything you want is on the other side of emotion. Read that again. Pretty solid case for being willing to experience your emotions, isn't it?
Simple as that is, lots of us don’t know how to identify and/or feel our emotions. Most of us weren’t taught it. In fact, lots of us are told to “calm down”, “quit crying”, “cheer up”, or to “stop being so sensitive”.
As a child, I was definitely sensitive (still am) and spent a lot of time trying to ignore my “big feelings”. Then through a series of situations and relationships, I learned that my feelings weren’t valid, so I learned to repress them. BUT, over the last few years I have learned how to identify and experience my emotions (though I still sometimes struggle), and let me tell you, it is a GAME CHANGER. So I wanted to share with you a few of the tips I’ve learned along the way.
1. Understand that your thoughts create your emotions
The first step in identifying and feeling our emotions so that we can achieve what we want, is recognizing that our thoughts create our feelings. They don’t just come outta nowhere, though I know it feels like that sometimes. You have a thought about something and that creates an emotion.
For example, you may have a thought like “I’m such a fuck-up”. That could create any number of emotions; shame, sadness, anxiety.
Conversely, a thought like, “I’m doing the best I can” could create feelings like compassion, calm, confidence.
Try thinking a thought right now and see what feelings it illicits. Go on, try it.
So often when we notice a feeling; we may not even be able to identify or name it, but we do notice we are feeling something. Rarely do we go back and find the thought that created that emotion.
Understanding that our thoughts create our emotions and being able to identify the thoughts and the emotions they create, is super helpful in developing emotional capacity.
2. Get familiar with what you do/don’t do to feel or not feel an emotion
Since everything we do (or don’t do) is to either try and feel or not feel an emotion, it’s important to get clear on what you do when you feel emotions.
Because most of us aren’t taught how to “sit in our difficult emotions”, we will do any number of things to avoid them or to try and experience different, more pleasant ones. Getting clarity on what you do will be a helpful step in building emotional capacity.
Do you avoid them by any number of activities, like numbing out watching TV, or scrolling mindlessly on social, or eating without paying attention?
Or do you try to create other “better” feelings, through the use of things like drugs, gambling, shopping, obsessive exercise, etc?
Or do you take it out on others like yelling at your kids or starting a fight with your partner?
Noticing how your emotions are driving your actions (and creating your life) is a game changer. For reals.
3. Recognize emotions as sensations in your body
When we break our emotions down to their most basic form, they really are just sensations in our bodies. Energy. We experience them viscerally. They are an embodied experience. They’re called feel-ings, after all.
Maybe we experience emotions as tension, temperature, pain, etc. I find breaking the feelings down to their simplest form makes them seem far less scary, and can help us be willing to experience them. Which brings me to my next pointer…
4. Be willing to experience any emotion
Opening ourselves up to experiencing any emotion is KEY to going after and achieving your goals.
If whatever you want is on the other side of some emotion such as fear of failure or teh frustration of doing hard things, then by logic, being willing to experience that emotion will help you move through it and get to the other side.
5. Know your emotions won’t kill you
In order to be willing, we need to understand that our emotions won’t harm us. They may feel fucking awful. They may be unpleasant, but most likely, they won’t kill you.
But you know what will?
There’s lots of research (none of which I am sourcing here so you will have to go look, but I recommend Gabor Mate) that suggests that repressing our emotions can lead to all kinds of health problems, some of which can be fatal.
6. Be willing to be uncomfortable
While emotions won’t kill you, they sure can be uncomfortable. Know that feeling emotions can be uncomfortable, especially when we aren’t used to them, and that’s okay.
However, the more we resist feeling them, the more uncomfortable they become. Be willing to sit in discomfort to help you be willing to experience any emotion.
7. Narrate/track sensation/what if feels like in your body
This is important.
If it feels safe for you to be in your body and turn your focus inwards, I highly recommend tracking the sensations of emotions as a way of processing them and giving them space.
When you have a thought, identify the emotion it creates, if you can.
Then tell yourself, “Okay, I’m willing to experience _______." (insert emotion if you can name it). "What does _____ feel like in my body?”
And then track it. “There’s a pit in my stomach and heat in my face. My arms are tingly”, etc.
Sometimes I even narrate out-loud what is happening. It helps me tune in and focus. I find when I am able to give my emotions this space, the sensation dissipates or lessens far faster than when I try to ignore it.
8. Identify what various emotions feel like in your body
After some time of tracking the sensation of emotion, you will begin to recognize what certain emotions feel like in your body.
I often give clients worksheets with some of the core emotions on them and then we spend time coming up with thoughts that create those feelings and notice what happens in their bodies.
Then we write it down so they have an inventory of what each emotion feels like. Doing this helps them become quicker at recognizing when they are feeling something and what.
9. Remember that emotions are part of being alive
Remember that emotions are part being human and the wonderful experience of being alive. “Negative” emotions are necessary for feeling “positive” emotions; part of the reason they feel so good, is because we know what it’s like to feel so badly. So look at them as indicators of what you want and of being alive and well.
Emotions may seem scary, but I swear that practicing these tips opens you up to experiencing all of them, which opens you up to a world of possibilities.
So next time you’re feeling the feels, don’t ignore it, embrace it, and know that by doing so, you are beginning to change your life.
If you want support in gaining these skills, coaching can help, visit my coaching page. If being in your body feels terrifying and/or you’re working through trauma, you may want to see a licensed therapist. If you are constantly struggling with chronic depression or anxiety, you may want to start by speaking to your doctor.