Identifying our feelings can be difficult and confusing. For a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, it can seem daunting. If you are a survivor, like myself, you have been successful in avoiding sensations in your body through dissociation, which is a very skillful way to separate from yourself. To further disconnect, you may have turned to addiction, such as being a workaholic, food, drugs, alcohol, shopping, sex, or relationships. Your body is at war with itself . . . to feel is frightening.
Often when a survivor is asked what he/she is feeling, the survivor will reply with a thought. There is a difference between thought and feeling, which are sensations in your body. For example someone may talk about a scary memory while simultaneously experiencing shortness of breath, a tightening in the chest, a dry mouth or tension in the body. In order to know you are afraid, you must experience the connection to these sensations. The thought the person states is “I am afraid.” The sensation is shortness of breath, tightness, tension or tingling to name a few. It is both a thought experienced in your head as well as a connection to your body’s sensation.
Often someone may say “If I let myself feel, I will fall apart.” Feeling in and of itself is scary. You can shut feelings down, or numb them out, but they don’t go away. They turn into something else like depression or anxiety. You cannot avoid your feelings even if you think you are. Emotions are energy in the body. You shut down your emotional energy, you shut down your aliveness. You are held hostage to your suffering living in their symptoms. You are not free. Instead you continue to live in the very thing you want to get away from.
There are many ways to get in touch with your emotions. For survivors, safety is crucial: a safe place, a safe person – someone with whom you can be honest. In my recovery, I sat by the water whenever I wanted to get in touch with myself. It soothed me; I could breath better. The safe spot can be inside or outside, but it has to feel safe in order to give yourself space to connect with yourself.
Try this: Close your eyes and notice where sensations are in your body. Ask yourself, Where do I experience my sensations? Focus on the top and front of your head, your face, eyes, and jaw, your throat and neck, your shoulders, your arms, your back, your hands, your breathing, your chest, your abdomen, your pelvic region, your buttocks, your stomach, your legs and your feet. Sensations can be anywhere from head to toe. Focusing on your breathing is good since it is a signal that something is going on inside you even if you think it is not.
Some examples of sensations can be tightness, a lump, tingling, fluttery, throbbing, clenched, dry mouth, dizziness, fullness, emptiness, hollow, shaking, constricted or pressure. You can note and write about these sensations and describe them more fully. Hand writing allows you to move your energy while focusing on your emotions. You can pick colors that represent each sensation and write about why you chose a color. You can use art, movement, music, painting, sculpting, writing, dance or yoga. For example, you can stand up and stomp your feet while imagining stomping on someone that hurt you.
One tool that I used to get in touch with my feelings was finger-painting on large poster boards. I bought bottles of finger paints in red, black, yellow and blue. I put a sizable amount of paint on the poster, stood up, then started to move the paint around. At first I was hesitant, but soon I was moving my entire body as I painted with my hands. It helped me express feelings as well as paint abuse memories. I then wrote about each painting without censoring and got in touch with what I was feeling as well as my abuse memories. You do not have to be a painter; you just need to be able to pick a color and begin. It is freeing.
Expression that involves the body, including hand writing, is important in expressing your pent up energy. It is not just a thinking experience. Feelings need contained expression to bring about relief. By contained I mean focused and purposeful. You have to begin with a body awareness. There are many mediums to help with expression. It is worthwhile to explore if you are drawn to something. Don’t wait. Take action now and experiment to find out what works for you.
Use the wheel below to help you identify your emotions and sensations.