This is an idea borrowed from Buddhism with a little help from Transactional Analysis.
Imagine standing by a river which is flowing from left to right.
On the left, feelings arise and come to the water’s surface, they flow past us then, somewhere to the right, they disappear in the stream. There is a constant flow of feelings arising, flowing by, then disappearing.
Our inner World of feelings is just like that.
Our feelings are like the weather. There is never a time without weather. The weather is never ‘gone’. Rather, it changes from one thing to another – A bright dawn, a raging storm, ‘heavy’ clouds, a clear night…
As we stand by the River of Feelings the water never ceases and feelings arise, flow by and disappear only to be replaced by the next feeling, and the next… This moment sadness, this moment boredom, this moment restless, this moment resigned, this moment cheerful…
Some weather is pleasant weather, some weather is harsh weather. And we use words like ‘good’ and ‘bad’. With feelings too, some feelings are easier to experience than others.
As we stand by the River of Feelings we can choose to;
- Not look at the river, not look at the feelings flowing by, but instead look way across the river to the other bank or, even further, to the horizon (see 1. below)
- Notice a particular feeling flowing by, get so ‘hooked’ by it we lose our footing and ‘dive in’ after the feeling (see 2. below)
- Simply choose to ‘just observe’ the feelings flowing by. (see 3. below)
Are any of these three approaches to ‘doing’ our feelings familiar to you?
The River of Feelings – 1. Being Strong
If ‘doing’ feelings was something that wasn’t really ‘stroked’ when we were growing up it might be easiest not to look into the river too much. We may have learnt that –
- Having feelings makes us weak
- We should stay ‘in control’ of our feelings
- If we show our feelings then it will make others feel bad
- Our feelings would be overwhelming – like a genie, once they’re out of the bottle we’re in trouble.
If we have early-life decisions about ‘not feeling’ then feelings may start to ‘leak’ around the edges. These ‘leaks’ of feeling may show up –
- By ‘somatisation’ – e.g. instead of feeling sad at losing someone close we may experience chest pain (‘feeling broken hearted’). Physical feelings can be more ‘acceptable’ to us.
- When there is an enormous invitation to ‘feel’ e.g. losing a parent or being physically threatened, the invitation to ‘look into the river’ has a higher voltage and the feelings may ‘leak’.
- When we’re more ‘off guard’ e.g. drifting into sleep, during dreams or as we awake.
- When a highly-functioning individual arrives in therapy asking ‘Am I going mad?’
Putting feelings aside can be a useful coping strategy sometimes. If you are a paramedic who attends the scene of a road accident or a soldier who is injured in combat the most effective may through may be to suspend your most natural reactions to feel e.g. sickened or fearful. However, too much of this can be costly.
When we meet someone who has difficulty looking into the river of feelings we need to be with them compassionately. Early decisions about ‘not feeling’ are not easy for this person to override. ‘Beginning to feel’ may be a frightening experience.
However, there is a benefit to overcoming this and being able to observe the river of feelings as the feelings flow by – The information that each feeling offers us becomes available to inform our decisions and choices from moment to moment.
The River of Feelings – 2. Diving In
For those who are more aware of the River of Feelings flowing in front of them there is another way to lose the benefit of the information that our feelings are offering us – ‘diving in’ after the feelings and getting all tangled-up in them.
I get into work and see a colleague using my desk & chair. I feel ‘cheated’.
This is giving me some information about a resource I call ‘mine’ which ‘another’ appears to be denying me. Within this organisational structure a boundary has been crossed and, in order to continue in my role effectively, I need a resolution. The boundary gives us a clue that ‘cheated’ is a fancy flavour of small-to-medium size ‘angry’. An effective solution is to approach this colleague, ask what they need, state what I need and negotiate a solution. Something like; “Yes, of course it’s fine to make your call but I have to make a start so you’ll need to stand.”
However, suppose I have beliefs like “They always just take what they want” or “You can’t trust them”, this ‘cheated’ feeling may resonate with something very old. Perhaps I was the youngest sibling in a family where there wasn’t ever enough to go around.
I start to run with it. “This colleague confirms everything I knew about people… And I’ve a good mind to tell my boss, not that she’ll do anything, she’s as bad as the rest… if he hasn’t gone by the time I get back from the coffee machine I’ll…”
This feeling is only too clearly felt. I invite it into my whole being, I’m drowning in it. I’m clinging onto the ‘cheated’ feeling and being washed downstream. Importantly –
- The information that the feeling offers me (about a boundary being crossed) is being missed. Instead, I’m using it to reinforce very generalised & outdated views of ‘how the World is’ and how I fit into it.
- My thinking has been suspended – sure, my ‘cognitive process’ is running but real problem-solving from a rational place is ‘on hold’. So I’m less likely to get what I need, and less likely to see how good I am at fixing these sorts of situation.
When we meet someone who is drowning in the River of Feelings we need to be with them compassionately. Early decisions about ‘how the World is’ and ‘how I fit into it’ are not easy for this person to override. Beginning to think and feel at the same time may be very challenging.
The River of Feelings – 3. The Way Through – observing our feelings.
Standing by the River of Feelings and simply observing the feelings as they arise, flow past then disappear is the way through. Imagine watching the weather through the window. There’s no need to look away, or get all ‘caught up’ in what we see.
To experience at least the more weighty feelings then, if necessary, use the information that the feeling are offering is an effective way to be in the World.
Here’s some information that you may not know – We can Think and Feel at the same time. Just as we can watch the weather, and decide that the best course of action is to wear a warm coat, or hang out our laundry in the breeze. These are good decisions based on what we’re experiencing.
It is possible to experience a feeling and remain able to ‘think’ whilst it’s going on. Many people do this. By ‘thinking’ here we mean actual problem-solving, not just cognitive background.
It may take some practice to contact the majority of feelings as they flow by and use the information they offer. Mindfulness or relaxation techniques can help develop this skill.
Getting support with feelings
Remember that everyone is different and any self-help process can only offer ideas in general terms. It may be that ‘dealing with feelings’, especially uncomfortable ones, means working with someone who is qualified to support you.
Why not book an initial assessment session with a counsellor/therapist who is registered with a nationally recognised professional body (such as BACP or UKCP in the UK)?