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December 15, 2022

What Does it Look Like to Feel Emotions Consciously?

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Emotions can occur from above (trust) and below (threat) the line. I can be angry from above the line and from below the line. The same is true with sadness, fear, and joy. 

Most people, most of the time, experience emotions below the line. They are at the effect of the feeling. It is happening to them. The cause of the emotion is outside of them; someone or something is making them feel the way they do. I’m angry because you were rude. I’m happy because I got a raise. I’m scared because my Mother is sick. Also, emotions below the line are part of the cognitive emotive loop. Feelings keep recycling and often turn into moods and postures.

Remember, emotions below the line are natural and normal.

They are simply a biochemical, psychological response to the experience of threat and lack. They are a necessary part of being human. 

Feeling feelings above the line is rare and requires practice.

And, emotions above the line are delicious, life-giving, informative, wise and relationally connecting. They are an essential part of being awake, of being a conscious leader and being in a conscious relationship.  

What are emotions above the line?

A set of physical sensations that are welcomed (even enjoyed), that have a short half-life (minutes and seconds, not hours and days), that offer information for living life skillfully, and provide an avenue for connection with others. 

Let’s look at the three key parts of this definition.

1. Emotions are a set of physical sensations that are welcomed and have a short half-life

Conscious leaders know from experience that an emotion is simply a set of sensations moving on and in the body. One of the skills they master is the skill of attention and moving attention. When an emotion arises they bring their full attention to the sensations in the body, the feeling. They notice the exact location of the feeling; gut, neck, chest, jaw, eyes, pelvic floor, etc. Then they rest their awareness on the sensations as they watch the sensations do what they do (twist, burn, pulse, expand, bubble, melt, etc). They allow the body to fully experience its experience. They don’t shortcut, dampen or diminish the sensations. They feel them in their full intensity; sometimes the sensations are quite intense. 

This movement of attention from up and out to down and in is the first key to feeling feelings above the line. When unconscious leaders have a feeling they go up and out. They go up into their heads and try to figure out why they are having the emotion, and they go out to what they think is causing the emotion to either try to get it to stop or, in the case of what they deem a positive emotion, they try to figure out how to keep it going or get more of it. 

Unconscious leaders ask, “Why am I feeling this way?”  They ask because they erroneously believe that they can actually figure out why a feeling is arising, and because they believe that if they can figure out why they feel the way they do, they can control what they feel, when, and for how long. Conscious leaders know that this is a waste of time. 

A key distinction, therefore, between feeling feelings above and below the line is the role of the mind. From above the line, the mind and thinking drop away (or recede to the distant background) and body sensations come to the foreground. From below the line, the mind looks for the “why” of the emotion. 

From below the line, feelings become problems that need to be solved. From above the line they are experiences to be experienced in the body. 

From below the line feelings look like this:

  • Anger becomes righteous, judgmental, blaming and critical
  • Sadness becomes powerless, disabling and whiny
  • Fear becomes paralyzing, debilitating and anxiety producing

The first skill for feeling emotions above the line is paying attention. Paying attention to the body and not the thinking mind.

The next skill is the skill of allowing, accepting and even welcoming the physical sensations that arise with an emotion. 

Conscious leaders attend to their senses and withdraw attention from the thinking mind.

Awareness and acceptance of feeling sensations takes practice.

I spend intentional time every day noticing where my attention is, moving it, and keeping it on what I want to keep it on. This is one of the purposes of meditation, and one of the reasons I suggest people have a daily meditation practice. I also spend time daily noticing body sensations (locating and labeling) and then allowing and accepting them. I’ve found that if I do this for a few moments every day when the sensations are not particularly intense, I’ve prepared myself to be with more intense sensations-emotions when they arise. 

Matching Experience with Expression
People who feel feelings above the line learn the value of matching their experience with their expression. To do this they begin by consciously breathing with longer slower breaths so that the sensations have room to move. When people are below the line with feelings they shorten their breath which is part of the fight, freeze, flee survival pattern. They also do this to try to block or stop the feeling. 

Conscious leaders do just the opposite. They experience the emotion as sensations. As they experience, they check to see if the sensations require an expression. An expression is simply a sound or movement. The sound or movement can be very subtle or very large. The goal is not to have a big expression but rather to match the tone, vibration and intensity of the feeling. This, along with the breath, supports the emotion to move through the body in its right timing. We are not trying to get rid of the sensation, but rather to simply experience and express it. 

When the emotion is anger this expression can look like making a loud sound or a growl or moving the body by clenching fists, biting with the jaw, or hitting a pillow. With sadness, matching can look like tears flowing or collapsing the body. Fear often involves shaking of some kind. 

The key is to simply follow the lead of the body, of the sensations. Let them show you how they want to be expressed. Most adults have forgotten how to do this, but children and animals do this instinctively. Watch them, learn from them, and join them. 

When sensations are welcomed and matched with expression they move through the body in a very short amount of time. This is usually minutes, not hours and certainly not days.

Another learning that occurs for conscious leaders who feel feelings above the line is that they look forward to the sensations that accompany emotions. They learn to love and appreciate the feelings of sadness, fear, anger and joy. When I was in my 30s I believed what many people believe: that emotions were painful and dangerous. I was afraid that if I let myself feel my sadness, my brokenheartedness, I’d never stop crying. I thought that if I allowed my anger, I’d hurt someone else or myself. I believed that feeling fear would paralyze me. 

I can tell you now from my own experience and coaching thousands of other people that these beliefs are simply our ego identity trying to control our body’s experience. The mind is afraid to let the body feel what it feels. In reality, the body is wonderfully capable of taking care of itself and at both feeling and releasing the energy of emotions. Once you’re no longer afraid of being overtaken by emotions you can relax into just experiencing them and discover that they provide so much aliveness and richness.

One caveat to all of this is that if you have meaningful trauma, you should seek the support of  a skilled professional at the beginning of your journey of letting the body feel its feelings. Such a person will help you titrate the experience so that it is friendly and not overwhelming. At CLG we’re big fans of Somatic Experiencing Therapy  based on the work of Peter Levine. Several of our coaches are trained in doing this work and offer wonderful support. 

2. Emotions offer information for living life skillfully

The second aspect of feeling feelings above the line is to open oneself to the wisdom of the feeling. Notice, this is the second aspect, not the first. First, is feeling the sensations in the body through to completion. Second is getting the wisdom.

Once the feeling has flowed through the body conscious leaders pause and wonder with open curiosity, "What is the feeling here to show me?"

Feelings are information. In some contexts we suggest that they are a data set just like thoughts and numbers. 

Notice the difference. Unconscious leaders who feel feelings from below the line ask “Why am I feeling this way?” “What can I do to get rid of this feeling or keep it going?” “Who or what caused my feeling?” Conscious leaders ask “What is the feeling here to show me, teach me, and/or inform me?” They ask with an open mind, heart and body; they ask with wonder and curiosity. 

We’ve written before about the basic information - wisdom - each feeling is offering:

  • Anger: something is not of service. Something needs to stop. A boundary needs to be put in place or respected. Something needs to be destroyed so that something new can be created. 
  • Fear: something needs to be fully faced or paid attention to. Wake up!
  • Sadness: something needs to be grieved, let go of, completed. The heart needs to break so that even more love can flow through, even more connection can occur.
  • Joy: something needs to be celebrated

And, there is so much more beyond the basics. 

3. Emotions above the line provide an avenue for connection with others.

Finally, when emotions happen below the line, drama happens in relationships. One person blames another for their feelings or one person tries desperately to help the other person get over their feelings. If connection occurs at all it is a pseudo connection as one person has pity for another person and the feelings they’re feeling. 

From above the line real connection is possible. This connection occurs in both directions. The person experiencing the feeling has the experience of being fully witnessed, completely gotten, walked with, held and seen. This is because the one witnessing is not trying to fix, help, correct, solve, rescue or blame the one having the feeling. They are just being with them. WITH-NESSING them. This presence creates an incredibly powerful connection when someone just holds space for us, breathes with us, feels their own feelings in their own body while we feel ours in our bodies. This is what true empathy is. 

For the person witnessing someone feeling a feeling, connection is also possible because it is a connection beyond the mind (why are you feeling this way?, what can I do to help?). Rather it is a connection of the heart and body (I see you. I get you. I feel you) and feeling another person, entering into their experience through your own experience is one of the characteristics of intimacy. 

Yes, it takes commitment and practice to be with feelings from above the line and the results are so worth it. Feeling emotions from above the line creates aliveness, wisdom and connection. 

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