Introduction to a Field Guide to Feelings

Photo by Ryan Magsino on Unsplash

I get it if you don’t think it’s important to talk about your feelings. I really do.

You see, I haven’t always been a therapist, asking people about their feelings. I used to do hard work: building things, cooking things, and growing things. When I was younger, I played sports that had me hurl my body towards other bodies and make them hurt. Having done that, I know there are many settings where feelings are out of place.

I was a roofer once. When you’re a roofer, you bust your hump, carrying packets of shingles up a ladder. You swing a hammer till your hand falls off. It’s a hundred and ten on the roof, with no shade. If you thought about your feelings, you wouldn’t be up there; you be in the shade, having a beer. Feelings do you no good when you’re putting on a roof. Feelings get in the way.

I also worked on a farm. Things are always breaking down on farms. There’s no one else around to fix them, so you figure it out. You can get upset and throw your wrench, but feelings aren’t going to help you find a leak in the hydraulics. When you need to get the hay in, feelings don’t solve the puzzle of a tractor that won’t start. Feelings get in the way.

I played football. When you play football and hit someone, you’re getting hit, too. It hurts. You walk it off and play another down. You don’t cry to the coach that they’re mean on the line of scrimmage. You finish the game and leave everything out on the field. Feelings do you no good in football. Feelings get in the way.

Feelings are the wrong tools for hard work and hard play. That’s not to say they’re out of place everywhere, but if you spend a lot of time doing the things that involve ignoring your feelings, no wonder you don’t think they’re important. If you don’t think they’re important, then of course you’re not going to be proficient with them.

On the other hand, knowing your way around feelings is pretty handy when you’re dealing with people and their feelings, when you’re selling them something, or teaching, or you’ve gone from player to coach. When you’re a healer, too.

Well, not always when you’re a healer.

There are plenty of surgeons with poor bedside manners. The reason is because surgery is another place where feelings get in the way. The surgeons has to learn to slice someone open with a scalpel without hesitation, clamp their arteries, and sew their skin with a needle and thread. He learns to silence his feelings, so he can perform the operation. When he has to deal with people, like when he has to tell the anxious folks in the waiting room the patient has died, the surgeons needs to understand feelings. The surgeons can understand their feelings only if he understands his own. When he chooses his words, he should know how they are going to react about what he could say. When he’s deeply affected, he should be able to talk about his feelings, rather than popping pills he prescribed for himself, yelling at a nurse, or kicking the dog when he gets home. They don’t spend enough time in medical school learning about feelings.

In the same way, the roofer, the farmer, or the football player who is effective by ignoring his feelings, must be able to use them when he comes home, and finds his wife distraught by something the kids did. If he responds to her feelings by shutting them down, she will not be happy. If he just tries to fix the problem, as if he was fixing a tractor, she’ll say he doesn’t get the point. If he talks to his kids the way a linebacker interacts with a fullback coming through the line, he may get arrested. Even if you don’t need to listen to your feelings most of the time, you still have to, sometimes.

Feelings are the right tools for a lot of big jobs. If you’re not accustomed to handling the tools, you won’t understand the tools, you won’t use the tools, and you may not even recognize the tools.

This series is intended to be a primer for the person who doesn’t often handle his feelings, understand them, use them, or recognize them. Men are famous for not being good with feelings. That may very well be the case. I get a lot of men who come to me for therapy, and who are sent to therapy by their wives, so they can learn to talk about their feelings. It’s not all men, of course, and it’s certainly not only men.

Men are often in those vocations and avocations that require them to shut off their feelings. But there are other reasons a man may have this disability. If you’re a man, brought up in a family where, in the past two or three generations, the men worked with their hands, fought against fascism, survived the depression, and were the sole breadwinners of the family, then your parents needed to quiet their feelings, so they could get through it all. Your parents raised you to succeed in the life that they had, not the life you will have. They didn’t know what live you would have. Those are the smart parents. The not-so-smart parents just did what their parents did. They thoughtlessly raised their children the way they were raised, to succeed in the life that their child’s grandparents lived.

Many families value durability, devotion, and dogged determination. These values are reflected in our culture. Therefore, even if you didn’t grow up in a family with those kinds of values, if you have ever watched a truck ad, saw a cop movie, or viewed a pornographic film and admired a character for those qualities, then you’ve been indoctrinated into the belief that feelings need to be swept aside. Our culture programs a cowboy ideology into you without you realizing.

There’s another set of people who are mistrustful of feelings, but not because of any occupational hazard. They are the ones who learned that no one wants to hear about their feelings. They are not allowed to have feelings because their feelings will get someone angry. They come from families where only one person’s feelings are allowed. These people silence their feelings because it’s not safe to have feelings.

Of course, just because things were one way in your family when you were a child, doesn’t mean they have to be that way, forever. You might have grown up and chosen people to be with who care about your feelings. In that case, they would ask you about your feelings and you wouldn’t know what to say. You are so accustomed to hiding them that you never know when it’s safe to bring them out.

Then there’re folks who don’t trust their feelings because their feelings are untrustworthy. Perhaps they are easily wounded, hypersensitive, insecure, or fly into extremes. They get anxious for no good reason, depressed even when everything is going well for them, preoccupied with something that happened long ago, or hear things that aren’t there. They shut off their feelings the way the roofer has, perhaps with the help of a chemical. They get out of practice with feelings, even though they’ve got plenty of them. If they paid close attention to them, so they would learn to handle them.

Finally, there’s the person who appears to only have one feeling. It’s usually anger. Anger has been the answer to everything for this person; but underneath the fury are other feelings, bubbling and churning around, underutilized, but effecting things, just the same. If his anger has gotten him into trouble, and it will, then he will have to learn to call on the others.

So, you see, there’s plenty of people who need a field guide to feelings. They need to accept, identify, sort out, and utilize these important and necessary tools for living. You might be one of them.