Why are we afraid to feel?

A good portion of my pondering and inspired thoughts occur when I’m on my bike… not to be confused with my motorcycle, which I often refer to as such. No, this time I’m talking about the stationary bike in the cycle room at the gym. I am an instructor. Each Friday morning I face the participants and throw out some challenges… hills, sprints, endurance pushes, etc, and ask them to “choose to stay”.

Yesterday as I asked the class to add yet more resistance as we created a “hill” on our stationary bikes, I was tired, I was dripping with sweat, I was hot, and I heard the voice in my head saying things like, “this is too hard, this doesn’t feel good, just cheat… no one will even know, you don’t want to feel this”. Because I’ve been studying mindfulness for the past two years I’ve become acquainted with observing my thoughts, noticing them, recognizing how they make my body feel, and pausing before I react so that I can act consciously from a state of awareness. In so doing, I refrained from old patterns of instinctively backing off or removing resistance when things get hard. Immediately my brain translates exercise, nature, actions of animals, and lots of experiences in life into emotional or spiritual parallels.

I quickly realized the similarity of the “hills and sprints” on the bike to experiencing those difficult times in our lives, which are accompanied by emotions.

Typically, we are not accustomed to being present in our bodies, therefore, without even knowing it we start to experience an emotion and we immediately react to it without thinking. Because we are acting from a state of non-mindfuless, we very seldom allow ourselves to feel the emotion and “choose to stay” through the duration of the emotion, realizing that it WILL pass. We are in a state of fear and believe the discomfort of the emotion will last forever, not understanding that emotions come like waves and ALWAYS pass through us eventually. I would guess that most of us have identified certain emotions as good, others as bad, and that there is a list with caution tape surrounding it of “emotions to avoid at all cost… never to be noticed, looked at, and most certainly not felt”. As I looked at the truthfulness of my observation I asked myself the age-old question… “why?” Why do we not want to feel?

Here is what happens on the bike (or running, or lifting, or hiking, or for that matter, when trying to get through anything difficult in life). We become aware of the upcoming or present difficulty and one of two things happens. We either avoid it by stopping, cheating, or justifying our reasons for giving up…. Or….. we “white knuckle” through it… which for all intents and purposes means we didn’t go “through” it, we went “around” it. We go into our heads, our minds, and we find our bad-ass self… the one who doesn’t need to feel because we are convinced that strength comes through not feeling, and we just “DO”. We avoid the learning and the expansion of self that comes through feeling and we “re-route”. Let me give you an example. When I trained for a figure competition I had seen one of the competitors at the mall a few months before the show. Each time I worked shoulders or glutes I thought of her. My mind filled with competitive and negative feelings and I used the ego-fueled energy to light the fire in my “determination and drive department” to “just DO”. The added weight or ten more reps did not come from a place of peace, self love, or confidence, it came from a place of fear, inadequacy and with an attitude of “I’ll show you”. There is no peace in that. There is no learning or growth in that, and there is certainly no confidence building or self-compassion in that. It is an animalistic, low energy, egotistical drive that gets me through that moment but does not expand my personal growth or take me any closer to being all I can be.

I ended up winning the tall and masters divisions of that figure competition. I thought my accomplishment was so great that it would prove to be life changing and give me all the confidence I needed. Sadly, only a few short weeks later I came to realize I had no more self-confidence or individual worth than I had when I began. In fact, I felt worst about myself for getting to that apex place of 7% body fat only to lose it so quickly.

Since that experience over 10 years ago, I’ve been involved in many real life “contests” (contest: real life experiences that test you to your very limits). Initially, due to lack of knowledge, lack of presence and self-awareness I used my ability to be “strong” and I “white-knuckled” through a few years of what I would consider to be HELL. I sought after only certain emotions that I believed to be “happiness”. (happiness: emotions that provide peace, laughter and absence of feeling any discomfort)

Certainly, if you know me, I believe part of your description of me would be “strong”. My definition of strong has changed tremendously in the last five years. I used to be “strong” by not feeling, by avoiding, stuffing, checking out and white knuckling.

Today I am far stronger. Today my definition of strong is having the presence of mind to observe my thoughts and emotions felt in my heart and body. Having the courage to choose to stay with myself as I allow myself to feel and experience each emotion, inviting each emotion to sit with me for as long as is necessary until I’m ready to let it go, knowing it will pass, and offering myself patience, love and kindness as I majestically acknowledge what is and have the wisdom to surrender control over things I cannot change.

Feeling is not for wimps. It is scary and it is hard, especially if it is new to you. It takes time, practice, and a desire to be the best version of your self. It requires us to look inward, to have the humility to feel discomfort as we unravel, peeling away layers of protection and begin to uncover TRUTH, OUR TRUTH, our authentic selves. I will tell you that my experience of practicing this life long process is very eye opening, although it be difficult, I believe it is an important part of why we are here on this earth, to discover ourselves at our core, to be mindfully aware of ourselves in order to learn, grow and expand by feeling our emotions and allowing them to leave behind the beautiful but majestic imprints of the lessons learned. Finding my true self that has hidden beneath piles of un-processed emotions has proven to be the most rewarding and profitable experience I’ve had and continue to have. I’ve noticed it is then and only then that I begin to know who I truly am, and am filled with true peace and joy. It is from this place that I am grounded, aligned, filled with light, able to love myself, and in turn love others fully. I have learned that when I do not allow myself to feel, when I do not have the courage to look inward, when I am not honestly taking care of my needs and setting clear boundaries, it affects everyone I interact with, dysfunction immediately begins as I only look at the needs of those around me and sacrifice my sanity to protect them from feeling, assuming they don’t want to feel because I’m too afraid of looking at myself honestly in fear of what that might cause me to feel.

I just cannot imagine the purpose of a life that is void of feeling. I have learned that growth is impossible when we do not allow ourselves to feel.

I guess the answer to my question…”why are we afraid to feel”, is not a simple one to answer. However, I believe it is a very important question to ask ourselves because therein lies the answers to your life-long questions… therein lies the key to unlock the best version of YOU.