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Feeling my feelings

Noticing, acknowledging, and accepting my emotions is the best skill I've learnt from therapy. I wanted to share what this means, and why I think it matters, especially for autistic folk.


Why "feeling your feelings" matters


Noticing your feelings is important for everyone. I like to think of feelings as data. Data about what you need, and when you need it. The more you notice, the more you can meet your needs. The more you meet your needs, the more fulfilled and content you can be.


Feelings won't go away if you ignore them. Which I am sure we have all learnt the hard way a few times. You can distract, press them down, reject them... as much as you like. But one way or another, they are coming out.


By noticing them and letting them "be" in the moment, that happens in a more controlled way.


By ignoring them, they'll come out at unexpected times, and probably in less healthy ways. Ways like: suddenly losing your temper with someone, withdrawing from people you care for, substance abuse, physical symptoms, or suddenly burning out when you didn't even see it coming.


This matters for everyone. But, I think it can be an especially valuable skill to work on if you are a late-diagnosed autistic person. For two reasons.


First, if you are autistic, there is a decent chance that your interoception skills aren't naturally great. Interception is your ability to notice internal bodily sensations. This includes signals about emotion, as well as the more basic things like hunger or temperature. When this is the case, you need extra signposting. It is something autistic kids might receive as an intervention e.g. learning the names of emotions and their associated internal sensations. This is all part of learning to self-regulate.


Second, a late diagnosis often comes with some degree of previous trauma. It might have been bullying, social isolation, physical or emotional abuse. Even just on its own the fact of having felt high levels of unresolved anxiety over significant periods of physical and emotional development. Whatever the case, that means a high chance of ongoing triggers that need identifying and looking after.


 

How "feeling my feelings" helps me


Learning to acknowledge my feelings has helped me engage more with my own needs. That means I can help myself, ask for things, and set boundaries.


It has also helped me process a lot of pain that I previously would have ignored. One way or another that stuff needs to come out, in order to move on and grow.


Previously, I interpreted pretty much every sensation as "anxiety". At my diagnosis, one of the psychiatrists said this is common for undiagnosed autistic adults. Perhaps because there is an underlayer of anxiety throughout most experiences before you put coping strategies in place... On top of issues with interoception, making it difficult to distinguish emotions.


But, treating everything as anxiety (including positive emotions!) meant I was not responding to what was actually happening in my brain and my body. Understanding which feelings are in fact "excitement" or "sad" now means I can respond to those quite different needs appropriately.


 

A brief interlude about autism and empathy


There's a myth about autistic people not being empathetic. In my experience - of myself and the other autistic folk I know - the opposite is true.


I often feel others' emotions so strongly that it can be overwhelming and it causes me to withdraw. Not because I don't feel it, or because I don't care, but because I feel it too strongly, and take too much of it on myself.


It's the same with my own feelings. In the past, I withdrew from them entirely. I felt constantly detached. There was a long period where I wondered if I might have something "wrong" with me because of this. That I just didn't really have any proper emotions.


Since learning to engage with my feelings, however, I know this is not true. They are certainly there... And I now know they were just too overwhelming to engage with without a helping hand. Certainly alongside all the other anxiety that life throws at an undiagnosed autistic child, teenager, adult...!


 

What does "feeling my feelings" actually mean?!


This used to feel very vague and confusing to me. So, I will try to explain what I do step-by-step, as clearly as I can. There are probably lots of ways to think about this, but this is my way. It is mostly basic "mindfulness" principles.

  1. Notice and label. "Something feels odd, do I have a word for this feeling?" Sometimes I don't have a word. Just noticing that something feels odd is still good.

  2. Decide if I can engage. "Is this a good time and a safe place for me to stop and feel this feeling?" If yes, continue to step three. If not, I acknowledge "I am feeling X, I know that is there, and I will come back to it later". This is not the same as burying it. I am still respecting that it is there... I just also need to get on with my PT session or my train journey, or to not burst into tears in the middle of the street!

  3. Sit with the feeling. "How does my body feel? Where do I feel any odd sensations? Hot or cold? Tight or relaxed? Heavy or light?" E.g. "I am feeling sad and I can feel it in my chest and my throat, my chest feels tight, my throat feels tense like there might be some tears coming". Sometimes I will listen to music to try and draw this out if I'm not quite there yet.

  4. Remind myself to sit with the feeling, not solve it. This is the hardest part. The instinct when I start to sit with a feeling is to think or explain or run through stories in my head about what is going on... I am learning to force myself to stop. Feel, not think. Often out loud I will remind myself: "It is ok, sit with it, notice where it is, you don't need to explain, it is safe to just sit here and feel and breathe".

  5. Decide if there is a need to be met. After a few seconds or minutes of focus on how the emotion feels in my body, it almost always dies down a bit. Once the feeling is "quieter", sometimes - not always - it becomes clear that this was my body giving me a signal that I need to take some action. "I am feeling X, so that might mean I need Y"... I've written some specific examples further down in this article.

  6. Say well done. Honestly, this still feels like such a new and unusual skill for me that I still congratulate myself out loud once I have calmed down... Not an essential step, but nice to do when no one's listening ;)

Optional step at any point: If what I am feeling is too overwhelming, I will tell someone. Sometimes there is just too much going on to compute by myself. If I can't calm myself down or stop crying, I message or phone someone. Getting it outside of my brain and knowing someone else is there really helps. It almost always makes the feeling feel a bit smaller. If for some reason I can't or don't want to do that, I write things down instead.

 

How do my feelings feel?


I've listed below the feelings I am now ok at noticing, how they feel, and what things they might "need" (step 5 above). It's not always this formulaic, but I wanted to share some examples that are as concrete as possible.


Anxious

Feels like: shallow breath, tightness in upper body, churning stomach, either frozen or can't sit still, no focus

Might need: breathing exercises, yoga, addressing sensory needs, talking to someone about what triggered this


Excited

Feels like: very similar to anxiety but with a lightness in my body, talkative

Might need: breathing exercises if it's getting in the way of other things, or just enjoying and sharing! The extra energy is helpful if I can focus it on something


Sad

Feels like: tightness or heaviness in my chest and throat, tearful, tired

Might need: something cosy, talking, writing, gentleness, removing expectations


Hurt or disappointed

Feels like: similar to sadness but usually my body is also quite slumped over, an almost stinging-like feeling in my throat, unable to process very much (taps into difficulties with things being "unfair")

Might need: same things as sadness, addressing the specific trigger with someone if relevant


Angry or jealous

Feels like: a sudden spike of adrenaline, hot, tense, sometimes physical pain, unable to process (as above, taps into difficulties with things being "unfair")

Might need: deep breaths, movement to let out excess energy, perspective e.g. talking to someone or writing things down, again the specific trigger may need addressing with someone if relevant


Happy

Feels like: light, a sort of surging bubbly feeling in my chest, sometimes talkative and distracted

Might need: noticing and enjoying :)


Relieved

Feels like: my whole body feels very heavy almost as if I need to slump against a wall, breathing is deeper, sometimes smiling, sometimes tearful

Might need: noticing and acknowledging whatever brought that about, it is usually significant and a sign of what I need more generally (or, what I don't need!)

 

As with everything, I'm still not "done". It does not always go exactly as I've described above...! Sometimes I don't notice, and get caught off guard by sudden tears or exhaustion later down the line.


But, the more I practice noticing, the easier this gets.


I have felt a huge improvement over the last year or so. Both with emotional regulation, and my ability to recognise and communicate my needs. All thanks to paying attention to the most fiddly data source I know: feelings.


Lauren x

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