Staying with the Big Feels

In this follow up to my Staying With Feelings zine, two of my containing parts discuss how we can go about staying with intense emotions when they arise, why this is important, and what a trauma-informed approach to staying with feelings can look like. In particular they build on last year’s posts on plurality and trauma to consider how it can be helpful to locate our feelings in different parts of ourselves, who can then be held and heard in various ways. There’s also more on this topic in my new book with Alex Iantaffi: Hell Yeah Self Care.

If you haven’t read one of my plural blog-posts before and aren’t sure who these people are, feel free to check out my Plural Selves zine, and my previous post about plurality. But hopefully you don’t need to get that part in order to find the content here useful.

Staying with the Big Feels Theory

James: Hey Ara, a first time for us I think.

Ara: The inner parents blogging together at last.

James: That’s one way to see us. I’m increasingly preferring ‘containing parts’ to ‘parents’ though. For one, we have three such parts rather than two, and for another I’m pretty sure Beastie would question a hierarchical parent/child model, or a normative internal nuclear family model, as a useful basis for anything.

Ara: I imagine she would. In your previous posts with her she pointed out that all parts of us are capable of containing others at times, and all parts struggle at times. That’s important. However there is a sense in us that we have four parts who hold a lot of trauma from our past, and who have been running the show for much of our life – whether more foregrounded or more in the background. That’s Max, Tony, Beastie and Jonathan. Now we also have access to three parts – you, me and Fox – who feel less impacted by the past, and more able to care for, and protect, the others in the present.

James: I think that you and I are still finding our way too: to who we can be in our inner and outer world. Perhaps that’s another blog post. In this one we want to focus on staying with intense emotions.

Ara: We wanted to write this one together because we have been the parts who have done most of the work of containing the other parts through such feelings over the last six months or so – since we last wrote the previous plural blog posts.

James: This is an update on what’s happened during that period, in a way.

Ara: What we’ve learnt during that time. 

All The Feels

James: Let’s start with what happened last August: it feels pivotal.

Ara: Good plan.

James: It amuses us now – when we can take a big perspective on it – that we wrote that Staying with Feelings zine back in 2016. Back then we thought we had a pretty good handle on being up for feeling our difficult emotions – and some great practices for doing so – which we shared in that zine. We had no idea what was coming!

Ara: Everything that we put in that zine still holds though. I don’t want to dismiss how well that version of us back then – mostly Max – was doing: finding ways to stay with feelings at all. And in many ways what we’ve done this past few months builds on the basic ideas in that zine.

  1. The evidence is clear that people do best – in terms of mental and physical health – when they can tune into their bodies and feel their feelings, and live their lives on the basis of that self-awareness: expressing their needs, desires, boundaries, and so on.
  2. Most of us struggle to do this because our culture discourages any experience or expression of emotions, particularly ‘negative feelings’, and because traumatic experiences growing up give us the message that such feelings are unsafe to express, or even to feel.
  3. In order to address this, we can learn practices – like focusing and forms of meditation – which explicitly involve tuning into our feelings, welcoming them, and learning what they have to tell us.

James: This hits very personally for us. Pretty much everybody receives the message  – from the world around them, and in close relationships – that certain feelings aren’t acceptable. But for us – growing up in the 70s – we received specific behavioural training from teachers and caregivers to try to condition us out of crying. There was a strong sense that it was vital to control your emotions and to disallow the ‘difficult’ ones. The message that sadness, fear, and anger, in particular, were unacceptable was very strong. We wrote about that in the emotions chapter of Life Isn’t Binary.

Ara: That’s why we ‘re so grateful for the Pixar movie Inside Out. It shows vividly what happens to a person when there’s an attempt to eradicate any of their core emotions. They become unbalanced when only certain emotions run the show, and eventually end up numb and grey with little access to feelings at all. 

There’s a sense of an inauthentic version of yourself operating in order to survive in a world where it doesn’t feel safe to show how you really feel; to the point that you don’t even know that there is more to you than that, or that those emotions still exist inside you somewhere.

James: We still can’t handle the scene when goofball island collapses.

Ara: In many ways you could see our process in the last few years as one of welcoming back in those core feelings – and the parts who hold them – and beginning to reshape our inner landscape with all present, and working together as a team.

James: Return to goofball island!

Ara: We feel that sometimes for sure. But we were going to start with last August…

James: Right, so I think that prior to that we had thought that we were pretty good at staying with the feelings. But in 2019 things fell apart for us – bringing us back up against a lot of the most painful times of our life which I think we hadn’t really felt at the time. Pandemic saw us locked in with all of those memories, and gradually the really big feels returned.

Ara: I see it in two ways simultaneously James. 

James: Of course you do, you’re all about the non-binary thinking *smiles*

Ara: We can tell the trauma story where we went through a series of events so confronting that we finally had to feel all of the times in our life which those events re-awoke in us. We can also tell a healing story where we were on a journey – for the last few years up till now – towards greater self awareness, more embodied practices, and sharing more vulnerably in relationships. 

It feels like it was both simultaneously. Deliberately opening up space enabled us to feel what happened to us more deeply. Feeling it so deeply enabled us to finally make those connections through the events of our life and to learn how to welcome the various parts of us – and their feelings – more fully.

James: It’s like our experience of the lockdown, that bothness. Was pandemic the final retraumatising experience that cracked the whole thing open, or was it the situation which gave us the space and solitude we needed to finally do this work? Probably both.

Ara: So to August.

James: In August we found ourselves in the grip of one of our regular bouts of post-viral chronic fatigue. It was one of the hottest weeks of the year and we were experiencing pain throughout our body, exhaustion, fever, vertigo… Somehow it felt like the final straw and suddenly all four traumatised parts of us were feeling their feelings turned up to eleven, as if our whole life finally caught up with them. It was a lot to hold. It honestly felt like we were two parents – also with sick bodies! – trying to juggle four sick screaming children during a heatwave.

Ara: And again with the bothness. Before that point we had not had a consistent sense of our presence had we James: you and me I mean?

James: Since then there hasn’t been a single time where we haven’t been accessible to the rest of them when they’ve needed us, and we are a lot more present in our everyday life. Like much of the day it feels like one of us is around, generally with one of the others either getting on with life, or caring for them.

Ara: It’s as if that week demanded us to come forward more fully because the need was finally clear. Or was it that we’d finally brought us forward enough that all parts of us finally felt able to express those long-hidden feelings? 

James: Mm I hadn’t seen it that way before.

Separating out the feels

Ara: Shall we talk about separating out the feelings next?

James: Sure, because one reason that week was so challenging was that they were feeling the feelings of our various parts all mixed together. It was really confusing. Back then we weren’t completely clear on who felt what, so we were working with a huge tangled mass of emotion, and it was loud!

Ara: This is one reason that parts work is so valuable. The more fully that we can get to know the individual parts of us, the more quickly we can locate a feeling in the part who is feeling it and work with it, perhaps at the flicker stage rather than it becoming a fire. Or even if it kicks off as a full blaze, we know who is blazing, and the kind of thing that generally helps them when they’re struggling like that. 

As Janina Fisher says, for everybody it can be more helpful to say ‘a part of me feels…’ than ‘I feel…’ because that enables it to be held rather than taking over. Also it allows for contradictory feelings to be present, rather than the common view that it’s not okay – even crazy – to have both desire for something and fear of it, or both anger at someone and yearning for them, for example. 

Even if people don’t experience themselves as vividly plural, as we did, they could use the Inside Out metaphor of imagining the different emotions as different characters in their bodymind.

James: That separating out the feelings is one of the biggest shifts I’ve noticed since last summer Ara. That sense of more clarity. ‘Oh that feeling is around, that belongs to Jonathan, let’s go check out how he’s doing before we do anything else.’

Ara: Absolutely. I would say that identifying feelings where they reside, and a radically inclusive commitment to welcoming all of them, are the two biggest shifts we’ve made. We may not always know what parts need, and we may still feel that resistance in them to bringing their feelings forward. But we generally have that clarity about whose feelings they are, and we have a pervading understanding that everything is welcome: However we feel is okay, not a problem to be fixed.

James: How does all of this relate to trauma?

Ara: Mm we’ve been thinking about plurality and trauma even more. There’s an idea in some of the literature that being vividly plural is a result of trauma. We’ve written before about the need for caution with that idea. For one thing, few people escape trauma in our non-consensual culture. For another, the sense of yourself as one coherent self is very culturally specific, and could even be the result of trauma where you’ve internalised that strong message that only a certain version of you is acceptable. Many therapies and spiritual practices deliberately help people sense their plural parts as part of healing.

James: It seems that where trauma comes in is in splitting different parts off from one another so thoroughly that they can’t communicate with each other. For some this is to the extent that they have little memory for one part when they are in another. For others there’s complete disavowal that the disowned parts of them exist.

Ara: How would you say it was for us James?

James: There was a strong sense that parts of us split off to hold those feelings which felt both unacceptable to others and unbearable to us.

Ara: Mm well put, and perhaps those go together. When you’ve been taught young that certain parts of yourself – or the feelings they express – are unacceptable then those feelings do become utterly overwhelming and intolerable. You become used to being punished by others when those feelings are around, or to being alone with the huge weight of them because you know it’s not okay to share them. For kids that kind of punishment is felt as annihilation, and that kind of aloneness as abandonment. Both can be felt like the danger of death, because a small child can’t survive if they are unacceptable to those around them and/or left alone.

James: *exhales* a lot of the early memories we’ve been with these last months have been like that. A young part of us alone in bed completely destroyed by the waves of this terrifying feeling crashing over them.

Ara: You’ve done such a good job at holding them through that James, giving them some sense of safety at those times.

James: Thank-you. I love doing it, and I hate them being there.

Ara: You asked about trauma. My sense is that the impact of trauma on us was that splitting off – not the dividing into different parts, but splitting off to the extent that those parts – and their feelings – were hidden to us. It was as if they’d all gone to different rooms in our bodymind in order to hold those feelings: to keep the part of us who was carrying on with life safe from feeling them.

James: But that meant that we weren’t able to get the important things that humans need from those hidden feelings. We were operating in life without a lot of key information about ourselves and the world. And when the feelings did leak in or break through, they often did so in damaging ways.

Ara: Let’s take those two pieces one at a time James…

Why are the feelings so vital?

James: So the big feels that surprised us in August were these ones:

  • Max (flight): Trapped fear and deep grief.
  • Jonathan (fawn/freeze): Terror of dangerous others and of being plunged into shame.
  • Beastie (fight): Furious rage.
  • Tony (fasten/attach): Desperate yearning for love/connection.

So I guess we’re saying that, previously in our life, we hadn’t really allowed feelings of fear, sadness, shame, anger, and loneliness. We tried to avoid those feelings, or at least some aspects of them. Like maybe we’d allow sadness in ‘appropriate’ situations, but not inexplicable waves of grief. We’d let ourselves be – often very – angry with ourselves, but not with others. That kind of thing. To be honest I think our story of ourselves was that we barely ever felt angry feelings, or any of those yearning feelings like loneliness or jealousy.

Ara: And that maps onto the sense of those feelings being held by our most disowned parts: Tony and Beastie. A bit like when feelings are cast out of the control room in Inside Out. We were more familiar with Max and Jonathan. Max was our foregrounded ‘getting on with life’ part who tried to work hard and be ‘good’ in order to protect Jonathan from ever having to feel that deep fear and shame that he holds. But even Jonathan was split off because Max wasn’t aware that she was protecting him, just that she had to be good and keep busy. 

A lot of Max’s grief now is the realisation that she was dissociated a lot of the time – whether in the busyness of work, or going into a kind of ‘faking through it’ mode when dangerous things happened. There’s a sense of her as a kind of puppet performing through everything, hence her horror of being trapped now.

James: How would you say the hidden feelings are valuable Ara?

Ara: Well putting it simply it’s something like this:

  • Fear enables us to know when a situation or relationship is risky for us.
  • Anger enables us to protect ourselves from non-consensual or unsafe behaviour.
  • Loneliness, longing and related feelings move us in the direction of connection with others, which is a vital human need.
  • Sadness and grief help us to process the painful things that happen to us so that we can move through them rather than holding onto them tightly forever.
  • Shame – when we are able to feel it as regret, rather than collapsing in the unbearable sense that there is something fundamentally wrong with us – enables us to look at our potentially harmful behaviour and make changes to act with more integrity and compassion.

The first two feelings are vital for protection. Without fear and anger we are at great risk of continually placing ourselves in harm’s way, because we find it so hard to discern when things are unsafe, and so hard to protect ourselves when they are. 

Yearning and sorrow are vital for connection: without them we won’t relate with other people and can’t handle the loss of those relationships. 

And if shame can’t be felt safely – without the sense it will destroy us – then both connection and protection are very hard because other people feel dangerous (they might see that we’re fundamentally not okay) and we don’t feel deserving of protection (because we believe that we’re fundamentally not okay).

James: Ah that makes sense of our feeling that shame is at the heart of everything. We had to work on shame for a long time before it felt possible to welcome in anger and yearning particularly.

Ara: The trauma literature is really helpful for understanding the terrible impact that not feeling the feelings – and therefore not being able to connect and protect – has on mental and physical health. But I’d love to get onto the process of how we actually go about welcoming the feelings James. I feel like we’ve learnt so much about that during this period. 

First though can we briefly touch on the other reasons why it’s so important?

Leaking out and breaking through

James: What you said about how otherwise those feelings can leak out or break through?

Ara: Right. Now that we know our parts – and the feelings they hold – so much better, we can see that they didn’t stay completely split off throughout our life. Rather they leaked out in ways we didn’t recognise, and occasionally broke through in ways that were extremely confusing and destructive.

James: Tony’s yearning leaked out by propelling us towards connection in ways that weren’t very conscious or considered, to say the least. Beastie’s rage – unable to be known or expressed – reflected back on us in the form of a vicious inner critic, and occasionally leaked out in the form of a desire to ‘tell the truth’ about things, which got us in trouble more than once. And Jonathan’s terror of shame meant that we’d often act in hypervigilant and people pleasing ways which were exhausting for us, and probably felt as inauthentic by others.

Ara: Again I’d emphasise how valuable all of those parts and feelings are. Even in their hidden/leaking forms it has been wonderful that we’ve been so driven to connect with others through our life and work. That truth-telling impulse has been behind much of what we’ve written about the problems with cultural norms and oppressive systems, which has been helpful to other people as well. And the care and compassion for others inherent in our little people pleaser is a beautiful thing.

James: The sense is that the more we can welcome them – all of them, and all their feelings – the more we may be able to connect, to create, and to care, without getting ourselves in the kinds of trouble that come with doing those things unconsciously.

Ara: Our other past experience with those feelings was that they could come crashing in in ways that were disorienting and overwhelming for us and for others. I expect it’s a common experience when you hide these things that they break through in situations when your guard is down, or where something intense enough happens that you can no longer hold them at bay.

James: Right. So common ones for us were that when we really let another person in close – or spent a lot of time with them – generally a partner, we would start to have melt-downs where those huge intense feelings suddenly spilled out.

Ara: It was terrifying when we had no understanding of it, like a sudden plummet into overwhelming fear, rage, shame, and/or yearning. That’s why it felt so hard for us to be around another person 24/7: the horror that they might see that, and that we might hurt them with those feelings.

James: It’s been incredibly hard to finally be living alone and to experience those kinds of plummets by ourselves, without much access to support. But it also feels like a vital part of the process of finally learning how to be with those moments, rather than desperately wanting somebody else to make it better, at the same time as being deeply ashamed that they saw us that way, and terrified that they’ll abandon us – or harm us – because of it.

Ara: There you go, right there is a great example of why it’s so helpful to separate out the feelings and to feel them in the various parts of us. All those times we did plummet with another person we were also having all those contradictory feelings about it at once: Tony clinging and desperate for them to prove we were loveable in spite of it, Max full of shame at being seen that way, Jonathan fearing attack, Beastie expecting abandonment.

James: Ah yes, I hadn’t seen that. No wonder it felt like such an impossible spiral of emotion to be stuck in. 

Ara: When parts and their feelings are very disowned, the other impact is that any situation that triggers old trauma can bring them up very vividly. 

James: And that would be what we experienced as periods of post traumatic stress in our life: times when something so terrifying and shame-inducing happened that we couldn’t hold those feelings at bay and they crashed in for a while, making everyday life incredibly hard. Basically we’ve just been going through the fourth period like that that we’ve had in our life, but this time with the gradually increasing capacity to tease out the different parts and to hold them through it.

But even now it is incredibly disorienting, because we know that we are this person with all our experience, knowledge, and support to draw on, but – because the parts are still to some extent split off – we can quickly drop into feeling like the terrified child again, for example. It’s very hard to navigate life at such times, or to plan for the future. Hard to know whether to ask people to treat us as they always do, or to treat us as an extremely vulnerable person.

Ara: Because we are all of that, trying to learn how to hold all of that! Onto how we’ve been trying to do it…

Staying with the Big Feels Practice

How to feel the feels

Ara: Okay so that’s the theory – and how it works for us. Shall we get to the practice?

James: Let’s. Usual caveat that different things work for different people at different times. This is what we’ve found useful during this period, but other people will need to find their own path through it I’m sure.

Ara: That’s vital. So easy for hearing somebody else’s experience to become yet more fodder for the inner critic – like somehow we should be doing everything that everyone else suggests. We’ve found that it’s vital to adapt suggestions to work for us, to reject those that don’t work right now, and to trust our inner wisdom to guide us on our path, which will be different to everyone else’s.

Where would you like to start James?

James: I’d love you to help me think through some paradoxes that are really confusing to me in all of this.

Ara: I’m so up for that.

Big space and close up work

James: Okay so a major one for me is that you and I seem to approach being with the big feelings in very different ways, and I’m wondering how they can both be ‘right’.

Ara: Go on.

James: The way it’s shaken down between us is that you’re ‘in charge’ of holding our parts – and their feelings – in the big space, or the gap. I’m ‘in charge’ of what we think of as ‘close up work’: holding and hearing the parts in their feelings, exploring them in that more ‘focusing’ or therapeutic kind of way.

Ara: Both approaches involve ensuring that whatever part we’re in – and whatever feelings they experience – they are now accompanied, which is the vital piece I think. But you’re right that my approach and yours towards accompaniment feel very different James. 

James: Do you want to say a bit more about what you do, and I’ll do the same?

Ara: Certainly. So it seems that I’m around when we meditate – which is something we’ve come back to, having struggled with it in the past. In an average session what that feels like to me is that I’m sitting in this wide open space, and then one of our parts will surface and I can observe them, and notice the feelings they are having and how they’re responding to those. The whole thing is infused with the sense that anything that arises is welcome, and that we can simply notice it together and come back to the present moment – perhaps the sunlight on the roofs opposite, or a bird flying past.

When a much more intense feeling is around, my big space approach is to take the part who is feeling it on a walk, maybe sit up in the hills, and we keep noticing how they go into big spirals of tough thoughts and feelings, and how it’s possible to recognise that they’ve been swept up in that, and return to right now.

James: I remember you doing that with Jonathan one time and it was eventually even possible for him to get quite excited at the next spiral: seeing it as an opportunity to practice this new superpower of getting swept up and coming back to ground.

Ara: Several nights with him we sat looking out at the night and just focused in on one small lit up window and the way the telephone wire moved across it. Somehow we could return to that in brief moments throughout the tumultuous mass of traumatic feelings.

Do you want to describe your approach James?

James: Sure. So when I feel any part of us having strong feelings I engage in conversation with them. If they’re feeling bad I often lie down – so it feels like I’m lying holding them, even with a hand on their belly, or stroking their arm. Hm I notice that this feels way more vulnerable to describe than your practices Ara.

Ara: Interesting. We’re not encouraged to love ourselves in such close, tender ways are we? Talking with ourselves or giving ourselves nurturing touch? Meditation is somehow more culturally palatable. What kinds of conversations do you have? 

James: I guess it’s something like focusing – which we described in the feelings zine – or the ‘befriending questions’ that Janina Fisher uses. I try to tune into what that particular part needs on that occasion. So I might ask them to describe the feeling, to tell me where it is in their body, to do a stream of consciousness about what comes up with them around it in terms of images or memories. Sometimes it stays in the present, exploring what fears are going on for them, and reassuring them, or reminding them how we’ve got through such things in the past. Sometimes we go back in time remembering all the times we’ve felt this feeling before. Occasionally we’ve zeroed in on an earlier time and gone over that memory in our mind, maybe bringing you or me in to act it out differently in our imagination – what it would have been like if we’d been there to hear and hold them back then. We got that from Sarah Peyton’s work.

Ara: Maybe we can say a bit more about how we use some of these tools later James. For now d’you want to say what you’re aiming for with your approach?

James: It’s what some authors call regulation, but we’ve preferred to call attunement. There’s often a click moment with ‘close up work’ where the struggling part feels really held and heard in their distress. We’ve heard people compare it to the ‘attunement bliss’ or ‘coregulation’ that can happen between a parent and child, or between therapist and client, or close people when they feel really understood by each other. It can happen, for example, if the part finally feels able to express their feelings and I hold them as they cry. Or it can happen if we get to an understanding of what happened that has eluded us before. Or it can happen if we remember that we’ve been here before and what got us through.

Ara: Going back to our earlier understanding of the big feels residing in split off parts, each moment like that seems like welcoming that part home, even more, and demonstrating to them that nothing that they bring with them will be rejected or unwelcome – quite the opposite. Some call it a kind of ‘soul retrieval’: fragmented off parts of us being brought back into the whole. We think it’s also what can give us that ‘earned secure attachment’ over time: welcoming all those parts back into us fully and sharing them with safe enough others in our life.

James: And it seems to be a gradual process. We know all of our parts now (unless we’re in for another big surprise!), but it seems like each of them is slowly bringing more and more of the feelings they’ve been keeping to themselves, perhaps as they trust more than those feelings can be held and heard here.

Ara: We often feel an initial resistance. They are so used to having to repress those feelings, and so scared that they will ‘ruin’ things for us by bringing them. But the more you encourage those conversations, and the more they end in that ‘reward’ of attunement, the more it feels safe – even good – for those parts to bring their feelings.

Which approach to take?

James: I’m still confused though Ara. Our approaches seem so opposite to one another. Is it better to hold feelings in the big space and watch them bubble up and drift away, or is it better to go towards them and explore them in the way that I do? I guess I worry that my approach encourages our parts to be in these incredibly tough feelings more, when they could just have let them go if they’d gone to you.

Ara: Mm, my strong sense is that both approaches are necessary and that they work very well alongside each other, whereas one without the other might be risky.

James: Say more.

Ara: Can we touch on the theory behind them first? I guess my approach is rooted in the Buddhist / mindfulness theory that suffering happens when we struggle against what’s happening: either our outer circumstances or our inner experiences. The big space is about welcoming all of it, and noticing how pain of any kind passes if we don’t escalate it with storylines about how bad it is, or with our struggles to escape it.

James: Whereas my approach is rooted in the therapeutic understanding that we lock trauma in our bodies when painful things happen which are not regulated – or heard and held – at the time. I’m ensuring that they are heard and held now – both present pain, and the past pain that underlies it.

Ara: So I think the risk of my approach without your approach is a kind of spiritual bypassing James. We could take every tough feeling to the big space that way, but perhaps we would then never have fully felt it, understood where it comes from, shown it that it is welcome now – that we can hold it and hear it. I can imagine a me-centric version of us who got attached to spiritual practice but still struggled to be back in the world with other people, where these things got triggered, because they hadn’t really been dealt with.

James: I’m trying to think what the equivalent is for me. What does a James-centric version of us look like?! I’m thinking that, in recent times, parts have got edgy when a flicker of a tough feeling has come up – like it means that they’re due another two hours on the couch with James looking into it! Occasionally we’ve had a shorter meditation at those points and sensed that it didn’t need such intense work, just to be acknowledged and move on. I wonder if my approach without yours could get quite heavy going, or keep us quite mired in the pain of our life past and present.

Ara: I don’t know for sure, but I think that might be part of the need for balance. And of course our third ‘containing’ part does something different again. 

James: Fox. They are the part who can simply delight in whatever is going on right now. They don’t go towards the feelings at all. They’re just with the immediate sights, sounds, smells, sensations around us – being present. They can bring that sense equally to a walk where they notice everything, or to gentling up and enjoying a good meal and a TV show. When another part is around and struggling they welcome that part alongside them with whatever is going on, sharing the wonder with them.

Ara: Pema described something like this in a recent talk we heard: accessing a part of yourself who is patient and kind, another part who has deep trust in your capacities, and a final part who can appreciate those fleeting times of contentment in the moment.

James: We should say it’s taken nearly 50 years for us to have full access to those three. Five years ago we’d only experienced the tiniest glimmers of these parts of us. Somehow we patchworked ‘us’ together from those glimmers, from other people who modelled this for us, from fictional characters…

Ara: So going back to your question I don’t think that any of those three approaches – mine, yours, or Fox’s – is ‘better’. It’s more about tuning into each time feelings are up and asking what they seem to need. And being up for trying one thing, and then another, if that doesn’t work.

James: Rupture and repair is important too isn’t it? Where we try something and it doesn’t help, and we can acknowledge how painful that is to a part who is feeling desperate, and suggest trying something else. We actually build trust between us through such moments.

Ara: Being up for acknowledging our imperfection, and having got it wrong, rather than making them feel bad for not feeling better. Again that’s healing for times in the past when people have protected the blame onto us when they haven’t been able to be around our feelings, or have felt inadequate for not being able to help.

James: Mm, and I’m also thinking there’s something here about us being alongside our other parts rather than doing this for them. There’s a sense in which rage is Beastie’s, grief is Max’s, longing is Tony’s, and terror is Jonathan’s. It’s important that they get to learn what works for them, and to apply it, with us helping them, but not taking over for them. Does that make sense?

Ara: Yes, empowering each one rather than taking over for them. On an inner level it mirrors the outer level. Bonnie Badenoch says that people need others to believe in them and support them in finding their path. It can be really damaging if a therapist, friend, or other person decides they know better, or gets into ‘fix it’ mode because they can’t handle being around the pain.

James: Right, but again with the paradox, because it’s also felt helpful to remind those four parts that they don’t have to do anything – like figuring things out or fixing them – they just have to be: bringing their feelings when they are around and trusting us to hold and hear them, and eventually act upon them if need be.

Escalating emotions or taking them seriously?

James: Okay here’s another one for you, related perhaps. We were just reading Pema’s ‘Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change’, which references a finding that feelings only last one and a half minutes unless you fuel them. The idea is that the thing to do is to let them pass through, to recognise their impermanence. You do that by ‘dropping the storyline’ you tell yourself about them. You try not to escalate the feelings with your stories about how bad they are, and how that means you’re bad, or somebody else is bad, or something like that. All those thought spirals somehow make the feeling fixed and solid, instead of allowing it to pass like a cloud in the sky.

Ara: Mmhm.

James: How does that fit with the trauma therapy idea you shared earlier that these emotions are vital motivators towards connection or protection, and that our problem in the past has actually been not feeling them enough?

Ara: I wonder whether there’s almost two phases to feelings-work James. There’s the phase of just being with the feeling – whether in the big open space, or in the kind of close-up description work that you do. Then there may be a second phase for more exploration of what the feeling brings up. Sometimes all that’s necessary is to welcome the feeling, fully experience it, and let it go to get back on with daily life. Other times the feeling is pointing to something important that requires more attention. 

James: Right, I’m thinking about how therapy tends to have components of helping clients to finally feel their feelings, and components of talking about the events of the past and present, for example. Or how Buddhism emphasises mindfulness practice and also applying the teachings to your everyday life.

Ara: So, for example, I recently meditated and Beastie was there feeling angry several times. Afterwards I chatted with her and we thought through together what the different angry feelings were about – why they were of value. We were able to see some that were a response to having repressed anger for so long – turned it in on ourselves. Some were about injustice – others having access to freedoms we don’t have. Some were about the specific pain of people offering something they don’t really have to give, and we could link current examples of that to early experiences. 

Beastie is very concerned, at the moment, that the capacity to feel anger more vividly doesn’t flip us from turning it in against ourselves to turning it out against others. We wondered about how we might ensure that it remained more of a counterbalance to shame. In the past we’ve too readily accepted others’ stories of everything as ‘all our fault’. Perhaps we can use the opportunities of Beastie’s anger to see other people’s stuff that might be in the mix, and wider cultural stuff.

James: I sense another blog post coming on! But if I can draw something out of that for emotions in general, you’re saying that it’s another both/and. There’s a place for noticing how we escalate emotions, and practicing doing something different to that. And there’s a place for getting curious about the feelings that come up regularly – and what triggers them – and using that as an opportunity to learn.

Ara: About ourselves and others. The first time Beastie felt hate outwards vividly she had a huge flash of understanding for those who have hated us. Previously we’d struggled to connect with how horrific hatred feels, and how people can act so violently out of it.

I think the difference is intentionality James. Taking emotions seriously is very different to escalating them. Instead of letting the storylines spiral round and round we’re deliberately reflecting on the feelings. And we also try to refrain from speaking or acting out of the feelings until we’ve reached a better understanding of them, and considered whether such speech or action is the wise and compassionate thing to do in that situation – for us and the others involved.

Different practices for different intensities?

James: I realise I’m asking a lot of questions here!  Another one I’m with is about the intensity of feelings. When we wrote ‘Staying with Feelings’ we didn’t have much trauma understanding so we just suggested practices for staying with feelings no matter what they were, or how intense. 

Since then we’ve come across trauma-based understandings which suggest that it’s all about the intensity of the feeling. Ideas like the emotional thermometer or zones of feeling suggest that we might want to do very different things in different zones.

Ara: A helpful way to see them is concentric circles with the comfort zone in the middle, the challenge zone after that, and the overwhelm zone as the outer circle. The trauma idea of ‘expanding the window of tolerance’ encourages us to keep moving from comfort zone into challenge zone and back again with our feelings, without pushing into overwhelm. In overwhelm we retraumatise ourselves – which may well shrink the window of tolerance – which is how spacious the challenge zone is.

James: We learnt that one well before we read any trauma literature. We decided to list all the traumatic events of our life so we could go through them one after another. That’s a fast track to overwhelm right there!

Ara: It can be really hard to learn that we have to go slowly, and that pushing into trauma tends to make it a lot worse. It’s much more about learning how to tune into our bodies so that we have a much better awareness of where we are in those zones. What are the signs that we might be heading towards overwhelm? Can we learn to notice those and pull back at such times? Can we learn what we need when we have tipped over to bring ourselves back?

James: So we shifted our perspective, last year, from ‘always feel the feelings’ to ‘feel them in the challenge zone’, but in overwhelm just focus on bringing yourself back to a more settled nervous system: using grounding practices and that kind of thing.

Ara: But you have a question?

James: I suppose it’s sometimes felt more complex than that. Like a big feeling has come up and been with us for several days, and by continuing to be with it – gently but thoroughly – we’ve eventually got to some major revelations about our life, and a huge sense of relief.

Ara: It feels like the process Brene Brown described in ‘Rising Strong’: being prepared to be with the messy middle.

James: It’s happened for us when it simply doesn’t feel possible to ‘bring ourselves back’, the feeling is so intense, so it’s more about weathering it and trying to have faith that it will get clearer at some point: that it likely has some pretty important learning for us if we can just hang on in there with it.

Ara: I don’t think those views are incompatible James. What we’re committing to is to not repressing feelings or trying to resist them.

James: Is the overwhelm zone what happens when we resist them? 

Ara: Sometimes I think so. They get louder and scarier when we resist them, in an attempt to be heard. But sometimes it’s more that we’ve reached an experience which is too much for us to deal with – at our current capacity – and it’s tipped us over.

James: Non-resistance then is more about recognising we’re in overwhelm and that’s okay, it happens. And being as gentle as possible with ourselves while we’re there, trying to remind ourselves that there probably is a big learning here: about what things are still an edge for us in the present and/or about how things were for us in the past.

Ara: We’ve found ‘reminding ourselves this is okay’ to be gold in all this. Instead of punishing ourselves for having got overwhelmed again, we remind ourselves that this is just okay. Even on the worst days there are moments that are calmer, or more connected.

James: I remember one time I held Beastie and we found this dot. Like the comfort zone had shrunk to a tiny dot, but if we stayed on that dot she could feel okay. Any attempt to think about what we were going to do next, or how we were going to handle some situation, would tip her directly into overwhelm, but we kept coming back to the dot over and over until eventually there was some buffer zone around it again.

Ara: I like that sense of all the concentric circles expanding and contracting over time. Long term, and even over the course of an hour or a day.

James: I wonder if it’s ever possible to convey this to those who haven’t experienced trauma feelings so starkly. Like we had whole weeks when Jonathan kept being pushed into overwhelm by the thought that our IPad battery might not last the whole day for an event we’re doing in several months time. When the comfort zone and challenge zone have shrunk that much, we’re in incapacitating overwhelming emotions for much of the time and anything can re-trigger them. Sometimes the whole day’s work is just bringing ourselves back from overwhelm for a moment or two. It is exactly like being a terrified child stuck in an adult’s body, but still as convinced – as he was back then – that terrible danger is about to befall him.

Ara: And there’s another huge paradox to all this. While it was agonising and debilitating, there is also a sense that it was a helpful thing to go through. For example it stripped away all the strategies we used to use to avoid painful feelings – like working too hard or wanting somebody else to ‘make it better’. It made those vital feelings far more accessible to us than they ever were before. 

James: I do feel a sense that when those young/traumatised parts of us are around it’s a kind of miracle, that we kept them safe enough all this time that they can now be here and share their feelings. And we’ll be able to live our life so much more wisely and compassionately now we have access to them. Also this whole thing has given us so much empathy for other people who are collapsing under the weight of these big feels. And for all those who are racing around in various ways trying like hell to avoid them.

Ara: Mm we notice how easy it is to go back to that avoidance too. To talk the talk of ‘welcoming the feelings’, but as soon as a flicker of one of the tough ones is around, viscerally that sense of trying to push it back down or pretend it’s not there. And if we manage to do that, there’s this sense of dissociation: being a bit vague or fake or performing.

James: Those times the feeling often comes back with a vengeance afterwards, and in confusing ways so it’s harder to know whose it is or what it’s about. Our sense now is that the more we can go towards all the feelings as soon as they arise, the more we can make our inner landscape safer, so there’s not that sense that we might stumble across something that is ‘too hard’ – because we know it all and are familiar with it all.

Learning from the big feels

Ara: Shall we finish with a bit more about our daily practices with this James, and what we’re learning from them? I’m aware that this changes somewhat week by week for us though. Maybe that’s one of the biggest learnings. One day it feels important – when we can – to be with the feeling all day long. Another day it feels right to get on with life, with pauses to be with whatever feeling is around every now and then. One week we seem to need huge amounts of rest. Another week we have big energy for getting out moving, or for creating things like this.

James: Yes, flexibility to go with that seems helpful, and another way of trusting the feelings – and the parts that hold them – to know what they need.

Ara: But we do have a few standard practices now.

James: Right. Every day you do a meditation sit in the morning and in the evening. After that one of us does a check in conversation with the ‘big feels’ parts to see if they have anything they’re feeling that we didn’t notice in the meditation.

Ara: That seems a great way to encourage regular feeling, and to check if there’s something there we haven’t noticed. If there is a bigger feeling present in that check-in, you might do some close-up work with that before we move on. Or we might journal about it, or go for a walk if it feels like it needs to move.

Another practice that has been helpful for just showing us that we can bear an intense emotion is feeling it in the body as a kind of vibration, trying not to even label it or understand it but just feel it as pure energy or something. Occasionally even an intense feeling has ended up feeling almost soothing when we’ve managed that.

James: And our therapist shared one about imagining the feeling as just one cell of our body and picturing it in front of us – seeing what texture, colour, size, and shape it is. 

Another one that’s been great when it feels stuck is to lie down and breathe in to the chest, then the belly, then exhale. That kind of breathing often seems to allow a kind of release, often tears.

But it isn’t always those more formal kinds of practices that are needed. Occasionally the thing to do has been to find a song that matches the feeling, and listen to it and allow the feeling to come. And we got a lot out of re-reading the Stephen King book, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, so we can flash on the way she went still and steady in the face of fear, when fear comes up for us.

Ara: Again there are so many possible ways to be with feelings. The main point is that we are welcoming them – not resisting them or reacting out of them.

James: It’s moving from resisting to responding, and reacting to refraining (from action) until you feel clearer and calmer.

Ara: There’s a couple of nice metaphors about welcoming feelings and how vital it is. One is the Tibetan Buddhist story of Milarepa in his cave, and how he had to fully welcome all of the demons – or feelings – who came to stay with him there – big or small, subtle or overwhelming. The other is the Islamic poet, Rumi’s, famous poem The Guest House. Again that sense if you can welcome all fully then there’s nothing more to fear in our inner world, and perhaps also in our outer world given that we’re familiar with it all in here. 

Often the parts with the feelings are convinced you’re going to send them away, or become overwhelmed by them, because that’s what’s happened in the past. So it’s a practice of showing them – gradually over time – that you don’t need to eradicate them or merge with them, you can just be with them patiently.

James: A couple of other learnings I’ve noticed. We’ve found that what we learn from one feeling often helps with others. We started with sadness. We did an irreverent reverse version of the behaviour modification of our childhood and decided to award ourselves a gold star whenever we cried! We’ve got really comfortable with sadness, sorrow and grief, where in the past we struggled so much with those feelings. Sometimes when we’re struggling with another feeling we can at least access that sadness about how painful it is, and release it in that way. 

Lately we’ve also found that many of the practices we developed with fear and shame last year work well for being with loneliness and rage too, as well as developing some new practices for those.

Ara: What else did you notice?

James: That fear and shame aren’t the only trauma feelings, as we’d previously thought. Loneliness and rage are trauma-related feelings too, just more about abandonment – for us – than annihilation. And that each part holds a whole cluster of related feelings. Like Beastie holds self-hatred, blame of others, self-protection, and anger at injustice. Tony holds loneliness, yearning and jealousy, but also a kind of ‘high’ joy when he’s pinned that on a particular person or situation, shame around being ‘too much’ and getting ‘sent away’, and a more steady joy when he’s allowed to be himself in the world: open and connecting. 

Ara: It’s useful to understand how the different feelings they hold work together. Like Beastie’s self hatred is often a sign something non-consensual happened to us and we didn’t give her a chance to get angry about it. Tony’s joy is more steady when we help him grieve for the losses of the past.

James: There’s something about the need for a pendulum swing I think. If you’ve tried to only feel ‘positive’ emotions much of your life, or if you’ve repressed and covered over tough feelings a lot, it seems like there is a period where you feel all the feelings you didn’t feel at the time. Perhaps you have to swing into recognising how bad some things were that you didn’t recognise back then, maybe because they were gaslit by yourself and by those around you. 

I think one of the very hardest things is taking that leap of faith, repeatedly, that having done this process things will become easier, now that we have access to the feelings and can act on them. It’s hard to make that leap of faith when right now all you’re feeling is way more pain than ever before.

Ara: There can be some nostalgia for the more ‘covered over’ time when things didn’t feel this intense, disorienting, and incapacitating. My sense is strong though that being able to feel the hard feelings will make them less overwhelming over time, and that it will make the other feelings more accessible too. That Kahil Gibran quote: ‘The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.’

James: We experience that in the way long periods of tough feelings often end in much deeper understanding of ourselves, and/or others. Also there’s an intense relief when we crack through to some grief or gratitude, by being up for hanging out with a tough feeling.

Ara: I’d like to end with the multiplicity of learnings that are possible each time a big feeling is present. 

James: Please do.

Ara: We find it helpful to remind ourselves of this when we’re in them:

  • This is an opportunity to learn how to be with this feeling more readily, so we’ll be more able to do so in future, expanding our window of tolerance.
  • This feeling being touched and awoken right now gives us a chance to go back to our earlier experiences – when we didn’t get heard or held in such feelings – and do so now, perhaps putting that memory to rest finally.
  • This feeling gives us the potential to do the general practice of dropping our storylines and being with whatever is present.
  • This feeling – if we can allow it – gives us deep insight into what others with similar feelings are up against, and why they act in the ways they do, increasing our sense of compassion and connection.
  • This feeling has something of value to teach us about the current situation if we can listen to it without repressing it or reacting quickly out of it. For example, it may be that something has reached the limits of what we can deal with right now, or that a situation or encounter was ‘off’ in some way.

For more on this topic check out my new book with Alex Iantaffi: Hell Yeah Self Care.

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Plural tag: This post was by James and Ara.

Meg-John (MJ) Barker (they/them) is a writer, zine-maker, collaborator, contemplative practitioner, and friend. They are the author of a number of zines and popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including graphic guides to Queer, Gender, and Sexuality (with Jules Scheele), and How To Understand Your Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (with Alex Iantaffi).