If you were wondering if this was a reference to an almost twenty year old Pixar film, you were correct. Rather than fish are friends, not food, I’m saying feelings are friends, not food… Keeps the alliteration going.
One of the things growing in awareness for most people is naming feelings as they arise i.e I feel furious as this jerk cuts me off on the highway or I feel irritated because the dishes are, yet again, not done even though he/she said they’d be done. And I’m all here for that; labeling is the most important and crucial step regarding making sense of feelings because it is the first step.
But it’s definitely not the last.
Spotting & Sorting & Soothing
Labeling that feeling is what I like to call spotting. Like a third grader on a field trip at the zoo, “spotting” the feeling is simply noticing its presence. Some feelings are docile, even friendly, like a “koala” of peace after finishing a work deadline or an “elephant” of joy when we reunited with an old friend, as examples. These feelings we tend to emphasize more and want to increase more of, obviously so. But when we spot the “tiger” of rage or the “snake” of tension, i.e. negative feelings, we either sort those all those feelings altogether, making it harder to determine which feeling is actually spotted and irritating the “zoo system” of our emotions, or we suppress those feelings until we later get “bit” by them.
This leaves us, out of sorts (pun intended). Feelings always come out, and they usually come out worse if they come out sideways. But if we learn to tame them after naming them, they can be our friend, rather than foe.
By “sorting” feelings after “spotting” them, we learn to observe what the feelings are telling us. Perhaps that “tiger” of rage about your child’s repeatedly messy room is, in fact, not beginning with the messy room but is instead “roaring” right as you recall that as a kid, your parents expected an immaculate and spotless room. To be honest, your feelings won’t immediately tell you where they need to be sorted, but over time, you’ll see that the “tiger” isn’t the same as the “snake.” They’re both scary and at first wild, but over time are simpler to manage when sorted separately. Holding them differently is necessary because they need different kinds of taming.
“Soothing” a snake is a whole different animal than a tiger (again, cheesy dad pun). That “snake” holding tension can’t be tamed by all the same methods as the tiger, although they both start “soothing” the same way: exercise, good sleep, healthy diet, investment in social networks, etc. That “snake” might require journaling, meditation, and even checking in with your counselor, while the “tiger” might need participation in extreme or physical sports or specific breathing exercises.
Overall, when we spot a feeling, sort it into a different “pen” than other feelings, then begin to soothe it individually and particularly, we realize our feelings aren’t there to hinder us but rather to help. We can begin to honor all of what it means to be a human and have a healthier internal “zoo” of different but equal feelings.