Another ‘F’ word, it seems, has entered into the annals of disgrace. No, I am not talking about that f-word which has entered into pop-speak, versatile in its use as a verb, adverb, adjective and even noun.
I would like to talk about this other 'f' word instead — one that most of us have an ongoing love-hate relationship with: F for ‘Feelings’ (or ‘feel’ — yet another four-letter word).
For an ENFJ, it came as a rude shock when I realised how I could not give a simple honest answer to what should have been an easy question. You see, I am currently in a period of professional transition, having finally leapt off the cliff to start something new. Thankfully, I have a coach (let’s call him Coach K) — a true-blue Ozzie with all its genuine, laid-back manners unlike the frenetic culture to which I belong. As they say in Chinese, 良药苦口 — medicine which is good for you is often bitter to the lips, or frustrating to the soul in this case.
On our second session, staring out of a sunlit cafe one weekend afternoon, I burst in, raring to impress Coach K with all I had achieved in the month since we last met: incorporation, check; proposal submissions, check; first training gig, check; website, check. I had a mental checklist of things I needed to ask him, to seek his advice on in this furious propulsion forward.
I sat down, and before he could ask, peppered him with a torrid shower of updates. “So, in this past month, much has happened…” Patiently, Coach K let me finish my breathless sentence — then stopped me.
“Slow down,” he said, then again, when I didn’t quite seem to understand. “Slow down.”
I thought he meant to slow down my speech, which can tend to be fast and clipped when excited. So I did, putting in extra effort to s-l-o-w d-o-w-n till I lost my t-r-a-i-n of thoughts.
Still, he said, “Slow down.”
By now, I was perplexed. So he changed tack, instead asking the question that would go on to stump me.
“How are you feeling?”
I have to admit, I was a bit stunned, caught off-guard by what I thought was a frivolous question. “Feeling?!” Who has time to care about how I am feeling? What does feeling have to do with any of this? With milestones? With achieving? With progress?
So while smiling at my coach, with my mind racing a hundred miles (trying to figure out the real reason why he was asking this question), I coughed up some lame reply, “I am feeling happy…because you have taken time out of your busy schedule to meet today.”
“Happy?” Coach K pressed. “Happy is such a…generic non-word. Try to be a little more specific.”
Actually, if I were being honest, I would have said I am feeling tired, Coach. Being a one-woman show and racing along with only my drive and self-discipline to keep me going was exhausting. And now that the first gig was over, the post-adrenaline slump hit me, but I knew the battle was up ahead. And I was feeling tired.
But hey, I couldn’t say that. Because since when did saying you’re tired lead to anything constructive? Your coach wasn’t your physician, or your parent — what did you want him to say? Take a break? Be kinder to yourself?
So instead of saying how I really felt, I said what was still true but was really more cognitive than it was emotional. “I am feeling satisfied,” I said, “because in a very short amount of time…”.
Again, Coach K gently but firmly cut in. “Nah nah nah…slow down. Don’t go there yet, I just want to hear how you are feeling.”
That word again. ‘Feeling’. How I am feeling?!
Indeed, “How am I feeling?”
As I sat there passively registering what Coach K was saying — about how it was important to be in touch with my own feelings, to be aware of what my body and emotions were trying to tell me in the moment — it was then I realised.
I had made ‘feeling’ into a bad word. Another bad ‘F’ word to be struck down. To be suppressed. To be ignored and pushed aside, as a responsible adult should and would, in the service of higher-order needs: like the pursuit of goals, of attainment, of impact. Of significance.
If I dared pay even a minute of attention to what I was feeling, I was afraid (ironically, a feeling) I would fall into the rabbit hole and take forever to claw back up again, if ever.
So like a beach ball, I pressed down upon my emotions. Further and further down I pressed the effervescent ball into the water, and under. The longer I pressed down — with mental acrobatics, sheer willpower, the mortal fear of failure — the more my hands tired; the deeper I pressed the ball downwards, the more the pressure to bounce back up doubled. ’Twas the incontrovertible law of emotional physics.
It just occurred to me, that I’d been pressing down for so long, that my body had learnt to push past the barrier of pain. Suppressing, denying, ignoring — had all become part of muscle memory. In this post-emotional world where rationality and efficacy were king, I had quickly learnt that emotions were for the ‘weak’, were unscientific, and couldn’t be trusted. Mind over matter, they all echoed. When there’s a will, there’s a way.
Never mind that this emotional part of me was what lit up righteous anger from within whenever I saw kids being neglected, domestic helpers being abused, or any form of injustice being wrought. Never mind that these same emotions — the molten cushy core of me — was what gave rise to the ability to empathise, to reach out, to find common ground with those who are left out. Never mind also that this desire to liberate others from their mental shackles and break free into their truest calling, which was the very reason why I struck out to do my own thing in the first place, stemmed from the heart.
Never mind all that: when it came to work and goals, emotions (like Sadness in Inside Out) had to be ring-fenced and penned up. Just stay in there, till I say you can come out. Please, just please, stay in there and don’t mess things up.
“How are you feeling?” It was in that moment, in response to a question that I should have found easy to answer, that I realised: I had made ‘feelings’ a bad word and it needed to stop. Before the suppressed beach ball finally broke free of my tiring grip — or sprang forth from the unstoppable force of personality and nature — and broke me. To wake me up.
It is time to realise that unlike our calendars — which we can compartmentalise with colours and encircle with fixed time boundaries — we were never created to be fragmented. Feeling was integral to our be-ing, which then led to do-ing. Not the other way round.
And besides, if we compartmentalised everything, we wouldn’t get the beautiful secondary colours of green, purple, pink, and orange. All the colours that we love, and which make rainbows and sunsets so striking to behold.
So, ask yourself: Do you have a beach ball you have been pressing down the surface for too long? What colours of your soul have been waiting to burst forth?