posttitle = 3 Loops of Expressing Feelings titleClass =short len =30

3 Loops of Expressing Feelings

By request, a published resource elaborating slightly on my response to a question a friend asked in a groupchat:

A lot of advice is some variation on “express your feelings to not be haunted by them forever,” but what do people mean by ‘express’ here? On one end there is being alone in a room and naming the feeling silently in your head, on the other end is telling your married boss you’re crushing on them, in between is stuff like journaling or going into the woods to scream and writhe or talking it out with a friend.

One model is that the key is to “let yourself fully feel the feeling” and the relevant sense of expression is whatever moves you towards that. Another is that feelings are for taking action in the world so apply appropriate thoughtfulness and discernment to avoid being rash and stupid but ultimately figure out what this trying to make you do and do it, and that will be the relevant expression. Does anybody find this advice helpful and wanna try to convey what it actually means for me?

From my perspective, there’s:

  • a loop that just involves yourself
  • a loop that involves a third party
  • and a loop that involves the person who the thing is about (eg the boss you have a crush on)

I’m calling these loops because they all have a kind of feedback loop quality to them, even though the feedback is quite subtle. There’s a sense of something landing.

AI art by me, generated as 3 separate images that I then composed

I mean what I mean

The first loop is about cultivating the sense of “I mean what mean“. Articulating something. Modifying it if it isn’t quite right. Trying again. Saying it out loud and feeling if it resonates. Getting to the point where you’re like “Yeah! THAT!”

Think of a time when you try to explain something to somebody, and they didn’t get it. Whether that was a model or a framework, or some emotional or relational thing or whatever.

So you tried to convey it, and you had something that you meant. And there’s a thing it would have felt like if they got you. But instead they were like “whatever” or they were like “oh yeah, this thing!” And you were like… no, not that thing. That is not what I meant. I meant… what I meant.

That feeling of knowing what you mean and being able to tell the difference between what you mean and not-what-you-mean, is loop one. This is the “Gendlin Focusing” move. And sometimes in order to fully resonate with the truth of the feeling, you may need to sob or shout or even do something about the situation like break up with someone or cut ties or talk to a friend or whatever.

Social sensemaking & shame-salving

The 2nd loop is about being seen and understood by someone who the situation isn’t about—to have your experience and sensemaking welcomed, folded in, included., by the larger social contexts that contain you—and potentially contain the situation itself, to some degree. Indeed, talking to a therapist can be helpful, but sometimes you need somebody who actually knows the people involved, or who is part of your life in such a way that they do have some stake in how you live, even if they aren’t involved in a particular dispute or whatever.

Having someone else know is that it means that you no longer are sitting with a kind of secret. Even if you don’t feel like you’re ashamed of something, it can still be surprisingly relieving to be open about it with someone you care about—as long as they receive it well. And that’s a trust-dance to navigate.

A different friend describes how and why to do this loop way better than me:

Personally, it resolves if I express it in a way that could help my community help me make sense of what’s going on for me. This usually means I actually do need some information leakage to be theoretically possible, to cause things in the world. And some chance for people to accept or reject me based on the thing I’m carrying, so the fact they still accept me is meaningfully relaxing

It definitely backfires if for some reason I choose to share it and they act weird about it, but that’s historically rare, because usually I’m doing a pretty incremental dance between marginal disclosure that feels right, and marginal relaxation that confirms it was right. It really helps that I have access to all kinds of softenings and obfuscations, like “I have a secret that’s stressing me out, I don’t want to talk about the secret yet but I’d like to talk about how stressful it is to keep this secret”.

Or “I was recently processing some stuff that happened to me at 16 that was confusing and painful.” and then later saying “The confusing painful stuff involved things I agreed to do but actually I didn’t like.” or something, and each increment happens only if the disclosure conversation seems to naturally call it up to feeling ready.

Brene Brown talks about this in her shame writings: how important it is to choose the right person to disclose to. That not everyone will support and hold you, and it’s important to protect yourself.

Clearing the air

The third loop is about clearing the air—getting something off your chest. It involves talking to the person that your feeling is about.

Sometimes, eg in a close friendship (though maybe not a boss) it’s best if you do acknowledge the attraction. Maybe it’s reciprocated! But if it’s not, then it can now defuse because there isn’t secret hidden excitement. That does require being willing to experience the resultant rejection.

Sometimes, getting closer or closure with a parent or former-[partner, roommate, therapist,.] might involve naming that time they betrayed you, so that can be in the open. Maybe you have a request, but maybe it’s just “by the way, it’s pretty fucked up that you guys cut my foreskin off when I was born, for no particular reason.” Even if they don’t get it, even if they won’t acknowledge that they did something and they still blame you… you at least had the chance to say it.

But it’s not quite just about saying it. You had the chance to say it and find out how they respond. You may prefer one response over another (eg them understanding and resonating and empathizing, vs dismissing) but you can’t control that. But you can make good on a kind of honesty on your end by showing up to say what’s real for you, and by receiving however in fact it does land for them.

Sometimes that’s not safe or viable or whatever, and one sends a final letter or message, that says “please don’t contact me”, before blocking. But where possible, it can help with closure to actually close the loop and find out what happens when you say what you need to get off your chest.

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Intend, a system for improvisationally & creatively staying in touch with what's most important to you, and taking action towards it.

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