feelingsLately, I’ve heard a couple of people say regarding politics and the news that we live in a post-fact world where feelings are what matters. As a musician, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, reading about, and generally paying attention to emotion. I study this condition we are all suffering from called “Being Human.” I have to in order to do my job, to be expressive, to connect with others, and to accurately convey my own experiences in relatable ways.

So here are the two things you need to know about your feelings:

  1. Your feelings are important.
  2. Your feelings are irrelevant.

Welcome to the paradox, Alice. Let’s head down the rabbit hole.

Your Feelings are important

  1. Your feelings are real. Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise. If you feel scared, you feel scared. Physiologically in the body, when the fight/flight/freeze response is triggered, there are things that start happening. Your muscles tense, your breathing tends to get shallow and high in the chest, adrenaline starts coursing through your body, your heart races. If you’re feeling in love, you get a dose of dopamine in your brain…or maybe oxytocin. When you feel at peace, your body will relax, your breathing will deepen and slow. If you meditate, you literally change your brain waves from alpha or beta waves to gamma waves. Feelings are real things. It isn’t just in your head, it’s in your whole being.
  2. Feelings do not have to follow rational or logical reasoning. They might be logical and rational. A large truck almost runs you off the road, and your fear response kicks in…that makes perfect logical sense. They can also make seemingly no sense. You might just suddenly feel sad one day for no apparent reason. You go looking for the cause to try and fix it. Maybe you track it down to a stray thought that popped into your head about your childhood cat that you were reminded of because of a similar looking cat in a Facebook video you saw before your commute. Maybe, you just got hit with a wave of sadness. We can always invent a backstory to explain our emotions. Sometimes that’s helpful, but it doesn’t change the fact that at the end of the day, rational or not, you have to feel your feels. You’ve got those chemicals in the body. Find healthy ways to work through them.
  3. Your feelings tell you about your experience of the world. While your feelings don’t have to have any rhyme or reason, sometimes they can give you powerful insights into your core beliefs. I think the best way to explain is to share an example from my own life. Last year, I went to one of the protests in Baltimore after Freddie Grey’s death. Hundreds of people were chanting, “Black Lives Matter,” and I felt incredibly uncomfortable, anxious, and scared. I asked myself, “What about the circumstances of this event evoked this response from me?”I’ve long held a deep belief in the value of all life, and my feeling were coming from that “All lives matter” place. It was also coming from my empathy, feeling the anger from the crowd that I felt was somehow directed at me. Rather than being reactionary, though, I took time with my feelings to feel them and a new feeling started to come forward…I was feeling guilty and responsible, using my anger to mask my sense of culpability. It’s so natural to go on the defensive if we feel attacked that we often don’t even notice it happening. When I got home from the rally, I did some research on the Black Lives Matter movement. Turns out, it started as “Black Lives Matter, Too.” I have kept educating myself, learning about myself, trying to know myself and my experiences. Now, I’m much more comfortable saying and supporting the Black Lives Matter movement,  and engaging in dialogues about race and reconciliation. This work is my way of trying to be a better human being on this earth.

Your Feelings Are Irrelevant

  1. Your feelings are real, but they aren’t true. The only truth to any feeling is the fact that they exist in your body and mind. They do not have to have a bearing on the actuality of the reality. That politician you hate isn’t evil because you hate him or her. That time that you saw a sketchy man walking up quickly behind you and felt scared? He wasn’t necessarily a threat. This doesn’t mean that the politician is good or that the man wasn’t a threat. By all means, listen to those gut instincts. Especially if it’s an immediate threat, do what you need to manage your sense of risk. BUT! If it isn’t an immediate threat, do your research and do your self-reflection. So when that man is following you, walk faster or duck into the public store. And when the politician makes you scream, “SATAN-INCARNATE!!! BE GONE FROM THIS FOUL EARTH!,” take a deep breath, and go start looking up their record, find primary sources and documents, look at news media and op-ed pieces from as many perspectives as you can, evaluate ALL of your sources. Then, come back to tell us, “SATAN-INCARNATE!!! AND HERE’S ALL OF THE PROOF I’VE FOUND THAT THEY’RE GOING TO BREAK THE SEVENTH SEAL TO THE GATES OF HELL!” Or tell us that we’re all blowing things way out of proportion.
  2. You are the only one feeling your feelings. You are walking around in your own little skin bag, coursing with hormones, provoked by the sensory input from your two little eye-windows and all those other sense. All of that input is getting filtered through the sum of your experiences. You wear your own brand of tinted glasses. But we are wired to be social creatures. We look for reassurance that we aren’t crazy seeking out people who share our feelings. It leads to confirmation bias where we are more likely to accept things that reinforce our narrative. We all suffer from it because we’re all fighting the lonely. But we are also all equipped with a part of our brain that’s dedicated to empathy, to identifying and feeling what other people are feeling. We can find cohesion by self-selecting input to confirm our world view, but we can also build social bridges by engaging our empathy, trying to connect and understand others.
  3. You can’t control what feelings come up, but you can control what happens when they do. It’s hard, and it takes practice. So much of the physical reaction that goes through our body is out of our conscious control, but we can control our breathing. The breath is our point of conscious interjection into our emotional state. That’s why people tell you to take a deep breath when you’re upset to help you calm down. Learn to identify what emotions feel like in your body. Learn to breathe deeply and interject your consciousness into the physical emotional experience.

I know it’s hard right now. There’s so much rancor in our public discourse that just glancing at Facebook or turning on the news for a few minutes can trigger waves of indignation, of anger, of disgust, of anxiety. We need calmer heads in the game. We need agents of de-escalation to improve our public discourse. The first step always starts within you.

In the past few years, conversations about “fat-shaming” have exploded over the internet. Memes of what “real” bodies look like have popped up like dandelions in spring, only to be met from the skinny community as “Skinny is real, too!” I think in many ways, this conversation pushing against normative ideals of beauty is a worthy endeavor. I also think that the conversations about image are problematic in that they reinforce an image driven society.

Holley Mangold!

In our society, image and health/well-being get conflated into one thing; looking good and feeling good, all in one box. But fitting the norms of beauty means nearly zero when it comes to health. I’m reminded of the first season of Dancing with the Stars when supermodel Rachel Hunter was kicked off after the first episode. She might have had a supermodel’s body, but she had no strength or stamina. On the flip side, Holley Mangold is an olympic weight lifter. Her body is antithetical to the supermodel ideal, but she could bench press three of me.

All of the focus on image has obscured and muddled the conversation on health. Maybe you live in a big body. Great! I hope you love yourself and all of your body! Now, are you healthy? Maybe you’re a chicken-legged stick like me. Great! I hope you also love yourself and all of your body! Now, are you healthy?

I wasn’t. A few years ago, I was horribly out of shape. My slender frame was able to hide the twenty pounds I’d put on, but I knew it was there as the scale would always gladly remind me. And I couldn’t talk about it because I was skinny and would always get a “Oh Craig, you’re fine.” But I wasn’t, and I knew it.

I made a change by defining healthy for myself and setting measurable goals. Now, I’m a huge advocate for ditching image and shame, and focusing on goal-oriented health outcomes. For me, it started with running a mile, then a 5K, and now I’m working toward a fast 5K. It progressed to being able to do five pull ups. My body hasn’t changed all that much, but when the zombie apocalypse hits I’m gonna be ready.

Here are some quick thoughts on goal-oriented health outcomes:

  1. What your body can do matters so much more than what it looks like.
  2. Health has to be defined in the context of the individual. If someone has an illness that prevents them from running, its illogical to expect they run a mile.
  3. Set clear goals with measurable steps and an actionable plan.
  4. You are the only yardstick that can measure you. Don’t worry about what the person next to you is doing. Do your best.
  5. Support whatever you are doing physically with good food and good sleep. That’s a huge part of health, too!
  6. Learn more about your body as you work towards your goal. Its the only one you’ve got. Work with a trainer, take a class, research online, read a book. Experience will also teach you, but only if you are willing to learn.
  7. Be kind to yourself.
  8. Don’t be so kind to yourself that you don’t also push yourself to discover and overcome your perceived limitations.

And the next time you hear someone fretting about body image, ask them if they feel healthy. The next time someone tells you how great you look, tell them how great you feel. Change the conversation.