The Power of Feelings

There’s been a trend in much of United States more liberal or “emotionally-tuned” in culture to lift up and celebrate the importance of feelings. The standard line goes something like this: “There’s no such thing as an invalid feeling. All feelings are valid.” The reason for this pushback, of course, is that there has been a tendency in our culture to invalidate people’s feelings, to ignore them, pretend they aren’t there, or actively require people to invalidate them. And the pushback is good; invalidating and ignoring our feelings is absolutely unhealthy. Feeling, naming, and being present to our feelings, and the having the ability and a safe space to share our feelings with others – all of these are an important part of a healthy human experience.

I’m not so sure about the second part of that statement though, “All feelings are valid.” I’m not so sure, for example, that shame is a “valid” feeling – at least not one that should be honored and accepted just the way it is. Shame, of course, is feeling bad about who are as a human being, that there is something wrong with the essence of you. Guilt on the other hand is feeling bad about a behavior or a choice we’ve made. It’s the difference between saying to a misbehaving canine, “bad dog” and “no, don’t do that.” Or in human terms, between saying “I’m stupid, I’m such an idiot,” versus “I made a mistake.” Shame addresses the essence of who we are, guilt looks at our behaviors. Many if not most of us have some shame that resides within us, with one common theme being “I’m not good enough.” What can often happen for those of us who have “I’m not good enough” shame, is that critique, even valid, helpful, gently shared legitimate constructive critique, can trigger our feelings of shame around not being good enough.

I happen to be one of those folks who hold some “not good enough” shame, and so while I’ve made a lot of progress, my shame still gets triggered sometimes – and it certainly happened a lot more frequently in the past. One example was when I was serving as the very part-time student minister at one of our Unitarian Universalist churches in Massachusetts during seminary. Part of my weekly supervision experience with the senior minister, my supervisor, was to submit to her a theological reflection on a theme of my choice, which I wrote and e-mailed to her on a weekly basis. And the day before supervision, I’d get an e-mail back, with all of her edits, comments and suggestions – marked in bright red text. And man, did that wall of red trigger my shame. I had a hard time even looking at some of those documents she sent back, they triggered such strong feelings of badness and unworthiness in me. And so I shared my struggle with her, and we responded with the traditional “all feelings are valid” response – we didn’t talk about why I was having these feelings, or what was behind them, she just changed how she was providing me feedback. No more wall of red, we shifted to verbal feedback. Problem solved.

Except that it wasn’t, because we didn’t address the shame within me at all, we just changed the external trigger. What I wish we had done in retrospect was to look at the feelings I was having, and question their validity. Not that I should have then repressed the feelings of shame, or ignored them, because that would be unhealthy too. But I wish we had examined the feelings I was having together, so I could address them head on, and try to bring some healing. Because shame is not legitimate – none of us should ever feel like we’re wrong and bad as a person. Regret our behavior, our mistakes, our choices, yes, absolutely. But not feel bad as a person. And our shame can often get so wrapped into our sense of who we are, that we can be misled into believing that we ARE our feelings, instead of HAVING our feelings. When we think we “are” our feelings, the negative feelings, especially shame, can feel overwhelming. When we “are” our feelings, we think these feelings of shame and hurt cannot be changed, or adjusted, or coached, and so we work to change the external circumstances that triggered the shame instead of working to heal the shame within us. I stopped having shame reactions to my supervisor’s constructive feedback because she changed the format of the feedback that was triggering my shame response. But all that did was leave the shame there inside me, waiting to be triggered by the next external event that it could glom onto.

Our feelings have power – power over us, power in our lives. The conventional wisdom about not invalidating feelings is spot on. We ignore our feelings at our peril. What we resist, persists. If we don’t attend to and feel our feelings, they usually find a way to come out and express themselves. Ignoring and invalidating our feelings is not a successful or healthy approach. But neither is fully accepting and embracing every feeling just as it is without questioning it or its validity. The ignoring and invalidating approach underestimates the power of feelings. The blindly accepting them as they are approach gives feelings too much power. At the end of the day, we “have” feelings, but we “are not” our feelings, and we need to find the balance of tuning into them without giving them free run to control our day-to-day experience. My supervisor and I, we both let my shame feelings control our choices around her sharing feedback. I could have, instead, taken responsibility for my feelings, my shame, and worked through it, and done the work of healing. Because otherwise I and we end up in this constant battle of trying to adjust and control the external, so that our shame doesn’t get triggered. And that’s an exhausting battle to fight.

So, as we go about our days, as we go about our lives, as we go about our business of trying to be a caring and loving and supportive church community together, I hope we can seek and find this balance with our feelings – of not underestimating their power, and of not giving them too much power. By doing so, we can claim our own power, and enhance our ability to bring healing to ourselves, and to the world.

See you in church!

peace, love and blessings,

Rev. Seth