signals

I have almost never understood my feelings.

Reading Susan David’s Emotional Agility in October, I grew more perplexed by the page.

With rare exception, I’d always thought of feelings as noise, or “the random, unwanted variation or fluctuation that interferes with the signal.” Typically considering feelings to be merely distracting noise, I didn’t pay them too much conscious attention.

The way David described feelings, though, it was almost as if … feelings could themselves be the signal? And that, even when not themselves the signal, they could actually help find the signal?

When understanding finally dawned, I was flabbergasted:

You mean feelings are useful data? And I’ve been discounting that useful data my whole life?!

WHAT.

If feelings were useful data, and David’s case for this was certainly compelling, then …

That meant there was probably a helluva lot I was missing about the world, and my place in it.

(Argh.)

In November, I decided it was time to open myself up to my emotion datastream.

All right, feelings. Let’s do this.

I imagined this gentle, meandering trickle of feelings drifting slowly by as I named and claimed them.

Give me a day or two, and I would master that entire dataset, for sure.

What actually happened was a tsunami. A lifetime of feelings went, “Oh, now you’re interested in hearing us, huh? Here we all are! Every single one of us! All at once!”

I spent months absolutely flooded, able to access but not to make any sense of the data,

and overwhelmed by the revelation that:

There is no containing a tsunami.

It must run its course.

(I couldn’t put it back.)

In yesterday’s post, I wrote about my “personal total-mystery arena.”

That arena: my feelings.

By the time my best friend and I had the talk with which I opened yesterday’s post, I’d been flooded by emotions for months. I still barely understood the data conceptually, and the prospect of ever understanding it in actionable ways seemed increasingly preposterous.

It was just not going to happen. Not ever.

Nick’s faith in me was invaluable to help keep me moving forward instead of simply shutting down. I’m so grateful for that faith. But probably most important of all was how he reframed the matter for me.

He encouraged me not to think of the search as one about “feelings” (implicitly, immediately outside my comfort and skill zones). Instead, he urged me to think in terms of patterns (implicitly, immediately within my comfort and skill zones).

If I’d continued trying to understand individual feelings in the wild, I’m pretty confident I’d be dejectedly wandering the wilderness for ages to come.

Instead, primed to search for and name patterns among and across sensations and feelings, I started seeing “glimmers of the cohesive underlying code.”

One early example of applying this thinking took place a couple weeks back at a train station in England:

  • My train data told me to expect one thing. My friend’s train data told her to expect another.
  • I was confident I was right; however, she (1) was equally confident she was right and (2) has an enviable track record of being right.
  • This all brought up strange sensations within me. Wait, I thought, I had these sensations yesterday, too, also in a context of contradictory data. I think that makes these sensations … “confusion.”
  • I wondered what one does with the feeling “confusion.” I decided I didn’t need to solve for every confusion ever at that point; in this case, the answer would present itself when the train arrived in five minutes.

(If only all answers were so clear! “Just wait five minutes.”)

That time, my first time applying Nick’s suggestion to feeling-related patterns, was the most effortful for me so far.

Since then, each time, it’s gotten a little less effortful,

as I assume will continue to be the case

the more I practice.

Last night, I spent hours sobbing after cleaning all coffee-related items from their former place in the kitchen.

All the tears baffled me. I don’t have a healthy relationship with coffee, and living in the world in a state of perpetual overcaffeination is increasingly terrible for my health. So why on earth would I be crying over giving it up?!

I went to bed furious with the very existence of feelings. To quote Resident Alien‘s Harry (Alan Tudyk) on my feelings then, “This is some bullshit.”

By light of day, both my confusion and my fury had passed.

I wasn’t crying over the coffee.

I was crying over the embodied memories of coffee and conversation made in that corner;
the memories of conversation over coffee made outside that corner;
beginnings and endings and growings and stallings; and
farewells that somehow don’t feel so real
until the Keurig is gone from the
once-was coffee corner.

This morning, then, I smiled to understand last night’s feeling-hage more clearly:

That was my noobish overwhelm, to again be faced with a (mini-)tsunami of so much more feeling data than I could process;

as I grow in my skill, these surges of feelings won’t always be so overwhelming.

I’m just getting my bearings. That’s all.

October-me was perplexed by the idea that feelings might not be noise.

April-me has only just begun to intuit some of the patterns within all these feelings, but my early conclusions are as follows:

Feelings are noisy, but that doesn’t make them noise.

Sometimes, the feelings themselves aren’t necessarily simply signal or noise but also An Experience to be savored (!). Just because.

I have missed out on some of the most exraordinary parts of the human experience, having treated feelings as noise to be dismissed.

While my feelings are messy and loud and hard, for now, for me to treat respectfully, I would not, now, want to take back my decision to open up to my feelings;

the world is richer, more vibrant,
and fuller, when I do pause
to heed their
signals.

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