What are feelings for?

Kyle Henry
24 min readJul 13, 2020

“Your emotions are like an internal compass. When you read it, understand it and use it, you will be able to move your life in the direction you want to go.” — Calvin D. Banyan , Secret Language of Feelings

“Emotion is pure motivation. Its a psychological pressure to act.” -Calvin D. Banyan

After reading The Secret Language of Feelings, I realized something very profound that I did not understand previously. There is a direct correlation between our feelings and our needs.

Emotions are the energy current that conduct our relationships. How we relate to each other will strongly depend on if our wants and needs are being met. When our needs, wants and desires are being met, life is great. We will feel happiness generating emotions like joy, satisfaction, excitement and peace. When wants and needs aren’t met, everything spirals. We feel other emotions like boredom, anger, guilt, sadness, loneliness, inadequacy, stress and fear. It’s a chain reaction when you see the simple emotion of feeling inadequate is connected to an insecurity (feeling unsafe = a second emotion of fear) around a past event (trauma) of a girlfriend cheating on you with a stronger, good looking guy (true story). So you form this belief that you are not handsome or not as handsome as other guys (true story) and you walk around life with this fear that every time a good looking guy pops into the frame, your love is going to run off with him before you can even pay the bill.

I am going to change my language around a few things I believe to be important. If we change our language, we can change the way we understand ourselves and each other. I believe this area is ripe for improvement relating to our mental health. Further, I believe our current and collective understanding of challenges like depression, addiction and mood disorders (i.e. bipolar) are focused on the symptoms and not the ultimate (root) cause.

Instead of saying “I am depressed”, I want to replace this with saying “I have debt in my wants and needs”. Depression is not an illness striking victims at random, this is a well understood outcome by some that see the ultimate cause of wants/needs not being met, how emotions will first surface when this happens and then over a prolonged period, it will effect the body’s system, creating a low and what we refer to as a “depressed state”.

There are others I respect that look at the human responses of fight, flight and freeze — that draw a direct link from freeze to depression. When we freeze, like a gazelle in the jaws of a lion, we are physically and emotionally disassociating from the current situation…for our survival. We have determined we cannot fight and we cannot flight. Freeze becomes the next best option. One of my favorite mental health thought leaders, Bessel van der Kolk postulates that disassociating in the midst of a traumatic experience will be the foremost predictor of developing PTSD symptoms later on. Instead of saying “I have depression”, I am offering that we can also say, “I have a past trauma where the freeze response was utilized and my body has yet to fully heal and process this state, making me more sensitive to stressful situations and experiences that resonate with the past trauma.

“Instead of saying “I have an addiction”, I want to replace this with “I have pain from the past that is not fully processed that I’m distracting myself from”. Addiction is the big one, but obsessions and compulsions are siblings to addiction. In my recent past, I have had compulsions towards sex. I would sleep with women and felt this was beyond my control to stop this behavior, even though I would end up regretting it afterwards, every time. My mom has even noted that I can become obsessed with a new topic or interest, so much so that I change my whole life or identity around it. I go all in and when I lose interest or it eventually decreases, things will come crashing down for me. Its another behavior pattern that brought with it so much guilt, shame and feelings of inadequacy that I can now see were not due to having some disorder (doctors did throw around the word with me hypomania, a smaller form a mania or manic-type tendencies). This is the issue that stems from the diagnose and treat the symptoms approach. I’m being told something is wrong with me, which there is always a pill to mitigate and solve, but we aren’t getting to the root and ultimate cause. When Megan came into my life, my sexual compulsions immediately dropped significantly. Why was that? I believe now after having several periods where Megan and my relationship has had ups and downs, I see the compulsions come back when I feel a lack of love and connection, which maps to the feeling of loneliness (and core human need for love and connection). It can be an addiction to alcohol, drugs, food, video games, porn, social media, anything, it doesn’t matter what you are addicted to and we spend too much time analyzing what we are addicted to and why. This all goes back to the “want/need debt”, we have something very important to us that isn’t being satisfied. And so, we are distracting ourselves, its very common, normal and human. And we can change it.

We all have coping behaviors and mechanisms. We can learn a lot by these behaviors as they are signals that connect us back to the feeling that we are distracting ourselves from.
Distractions are what further remove us from every identifying and meeting the want or need that isn’t being met. I believe the unmet want or need is what lies at the root of so many outcomes like depression, addiction, mood disorders, etc.

The benefits of hypnotherapy for me were that I was able to reduce or decrease the times and intensity of my triggers. I noticed this when I told my mom I would be traveling with Megan for 3 months (the longest trip yet) and she unleashed with a screaming and anger tirade right in my face. I had just completed the hypnotherapy and I was shocked how I was able to watch her yell and scream, almost removed from my body, fairly calmly while I compiled my response for her. I now see that being triggered is an automatic reaction of the body’s nervous system that actually causes a distraction from these emotions as well. If we go into fight/flight, we aren’t going to process our emotions, much less communicate to others about what we are feeling and requesting that a specific want or need be met.

Why is it so hard for us to identify our own individual wants and needs? First, this isn’t language or thinking that we learned from our parents or in school. In a hierarchical, dictating system that is organization of our society, there is little room for this discussion. Those in power and control likely feel threatened by this notion. If we are learning the behavior of denial and coping with our wants and needs not being met, we will get into a behavior pattern where we don’t know our needs and wants. We won’t know how to know. This is where triggers come in, the indicator of a want or need not being met. And if we can bring this to our awareness, that we are triggered, then we can dig deeper to the emotion and associated want or need that is unmet.

Personally, I have a need to be heard, seen and to express myself. If I can share my feelings and get them out of me, there is a better ability I’ve found to process them. This is why therapy is likely helpful, if done right (by both parties). But therapy once or twice a week for an hour isn’t enough for all that happens in our life and all that we are left to process. We have to do the work ourselves and our social environments need to support that. When I think about the 8 primary feelings, I have this sense that many of our core needs, the ones we all share are the mirrors of these feelings. For example, boredom is a primary feeling which is a mirror to our need/want to always be growing and be challenged. Anger is another primary feeling which mirrors the need/want most of us have for some semblance of fairness for ourself and others.

What emotions are we unwilling to feel?

There are so many that I’ve been unwilling to feel. Anger, Sadness, Guilt, Fear. I think Stress is probably the only feeling that I would say is normalized, if not promoted in American culture. Why was I unwilling to feel these specific feelings? With anger, I learned early on that anger was ugly and destructive. My dad had a bad temper and growing up I saw his anger very clearly emerge mostly via yelling. A few times it went further than that. So not only did I see anger as something I didn’t want to be, I then rejected when it did happen inside me. If anger is a feeling tied to experiencing unfairness for yourself and others, it won’t be improved by avoidance. As I became a heavy drinker in my late teens and 20’s, my anger would come tumbling out. I would say hurtful things and I would get into physical fights. There was a lot of self destructive tendencies wrapped into my anger as well, I hated myself many times. I blamed myself and felt like I wasn’t valuable in the world. I was far away from self awareness and self love. Loving others was also difficult. How do I process anger now? Many times, I see that my anger will emerge when I feel like the messages coming from the influencers in our world are missing important elements. I get angry for two reasons: 1) the unfairness that others are exposed to this faulty way of thinking and that because a billionaire says it, it rises to the top of the media circuit and news cycle AND 2) the aspect that my messages aren’t offered the same weight, the messages I offer of empowerment, authentic self expression, healing, body and emotional awareness aren’t sexy enough to make a headline. Maybe I feel impatient. But I channel that anger into writing, creating and crafting my messages. I believe the best thing I can do is master my messages, explore different channels and share. I release the outcome of what happens after that. That is my practice.

Guilt was an emotion I have been unwilling to feel because that carries responsibility, that carries the acknowledgement that I’m not perfect, that maybe I’m even wrong. When I’m clear, admitting guilt isn’t that hard. When I’m in a triggered state, guilt is the hardest thing to come to terms with. When I’m triggered, I’m fearful that I may lose loving connections or be viewed as toxic or inadequate. All of these past beliefs from years and years of my own struggle to be seen, feel like I belonged and feeling unsafe to be me. Compassion was a counterbalance to guilt. If I have compassion for myself, that I’m doing my best, that I’m learning and I’m not going to be perfect, then I can see guilt as I did something wrong, I can be forgiven and I can move forward. This also opens the door to forgiveness and compassion for others. It is cognitive dissonance if you can have compassion for yourself and not others, or compassion for others and not yourself.

I’ve asked a lot of people about their own wants and needs. It is extremely rare that someone has a really good idea about what they are. But we all have them and I believe if we can understand what they are and work to meet them, it will improve our state of being in a dramatic way. If we can meet our wants and needs, we will find that feelings of love, happiness, peace, joy and satisfaction will be present more often. This is a daily experience we all need and want. I’ve been asking myself, what if someone doesn’t know their wants and needs? Well, you can wait until they feel and show an emotion, to start to uncover what need or want is not being met. That is one way. The other way that occurred to me, is to look at 8 Primary Feelings listed in the book, The Secret Language of Feelings. If we start to look at the what these feelings are, we can start to outline that everyone likely has the need or want to, grow through a challenge (boredom), experience fairness for self and others (anger), to keep valued things and people (sadness), and so on. I believe this is a great way to begin diving deeper into your wants and needs, if you don’t know where to start.

Boredom is the emotion we feel when we aren’t challenged. We all have a need to grow, but many times as we get older, this need gets neglected. We are no longer incentivized to learn, we don’t have time for it, we get burnt out and our energy is low. This is not a recipe for seeking challenges. As a child, it is the responsibility many times for adults to find challenges for us. But not too much, otherwise, that could hurt our self confidence. When I was young, I was often shielded from failure, along with the rest of my generation (the millennials). I also fell into certain situations, like being the dumbest person of the gifted class where my confidence took a beating constantly. I didn’t have the ability to voice it and my parents didn’t want to hear me say I wasn’t good enough. I should work harder. I wasn’t interested in what was being taught, we need to have curiosity and interest to drive us into a challenge. Boredom is something I’m dealing with right now, I feel restless. I have a need for novelty. I need to have new challenges, adventures and change occurring in my life. I’ve been called unstable for this. I’ve been told I need to “settle down”, especially if I want kids. I’m grateful to have met Megan and Marty, because they have role modeled how you can do this in a mindful way that actually benefits your kids to make them more resilient and ready for the world.

Anger is when we feel unfairness for ourselves and/or others. Fairness is an interesting concept because you have to ask yourself, what is fair? Is life supposed to be fair? I know when I was young, I didn’t understand how or why life could be unfair. A lot of my beliefs were indirectly founded in being Catholic, which seemed to indicate that life should be fair. And when you grow up in a nice suburb in America, it’s harder to see the rampant unfairness in the world. I’ve directed my anger at people, myself and at invisible enemies — none of which resolved the unfairness. I had a lot of anger growing up that also tied to my feelings of inadequacy. My constant feeling of being worthless feels connected to the social and cultural environment that was my hometown. All of the measurements of success in our town were based on wealth, status and looks. I was never made to feel like I was a high grade in any of those categories. I would imagine most other people in my town felt this way in one way or another. Anger is a reaction to our needs and wants not being met, and if we feel powerless within ourselves or in our important relationships to have them met, we begin to head towards depression territory.

Guilt is when we believe we have been unfair to others. My experience with guilt has been how it’s been used against me in codependent relationships, to say I’m selfish or a bad friend, sibling, son, etc. which for a long time triggered my own fears to give into what the other person wanted me to do. As Brene Brown points out, “guilt is I did something wrong. Shame is something is wrong with me.” A big difference. Shame is a much worse degree of the feeling of guilt and my experience is that I can feel guilty at first, but if I keep making the same mistake, if I’m stuck in some pattern I will then start to believe something is wrong with me. And the shame belief will keep the pattern in place. Guilt was an emotion I was unwilling to feel for a long time. I cannot for the life of me remember a time that my parents said they were sorry. I don’t remember them every admitting guilt, that they were wrong. It seemed to be a terrible thing, though when I would do it, I could feel the weight it carried. Guilt is a tough and heavy pill to swallow, it doesn’t sit well. With Megan, I’ve done a much better job in admitting when I’m wrong and apologizing right away. I don’t want to hold onto guilt anymore. When I’m wrong, I want to own it, I have power and control of the actions I take. It’s not about the reason why it happened, thats for me to decipher, as much as it is important to look the person in the eye that I wasn’t fair to and say “I’m sorry.”

Sadness is when we lose someone or something valuable. Thinking of sadness now is interesting because I see small points of sadness that I process easily and quickly, if I don’t resist this feeling. When I was 19, I lost the love of my life to suicide. This was devastating to me. I had envisioned a long life together, that she was “the one” for me. A deep sadness overcame me for a long period of time and it didn’t lift for many years, because I didn’t love again. The narrative I had running was that she was my soulmate, so I was out of luck. Any new relationship that didn’t work would reinforce this belief and I spiraled into a disconnection from women and loving relationships altogether. It is a core human need for us to have connection and to feel love. I suffered for a long time without it and even the love that people showed me, I felt distant from. My trust in love was broken from what happened with my love and this rippled across my entire life. Now everyone, from my mom to my boss was someone I kept an emotional distance from. No one was safe. I wasn’t safe.

Anyone experiencing sadness from a loss will go through a grieving period, this is to be expected and is very normal. Whether we lose a parent or our dog, our human process remains the same. All of the old reminders are triggers to memories, we struggle to remain in the present. We cannot hold visions for the future because it all feels broken as we go through this loop. But while we have people and connections in our life that we will never forget, we all have the ability to love again. Our beliefs around love can be harmful and create suffering for long periods. I say this from experience. If I could tell my former self one thing it would be reframing love from one to many, we place so much pressure on our partner in monogamous relationships and it is risky ground for our emotional world. So while you can be monogamous or polyamorous (full disclosure: I am polyamorous), I believe it is important to reframe our life to hold many loving relationships, so we will not only feel seen in all of the parts of who we are but it reduces this emotional risk. We can love more freely with less pressure felt and put on each other.

Loneliness is when we lack meaningful relationships. Loneliness is when our emotional needs to be loved, to have attention and care are not being met. This can bump up into our fears of abandonment. Loneliness can also occur for us when we aren’t giving other the type of love, attention and care that we want to be giving. As we learned long ago, we will get what we give. When we feel lonely, it may be hard to ask ourselves, but I think we should pose, “What type of friend or partner or lover do I want to be?”

Inadequacy is when we don’t feel worthy within ourselves. This has been a big one that I’ve been facing in the past year. It came up for me connected to feelings of jealousy when Megan met a younger, stronger, taller guy. I was confronted with my lack of self worth in comparison to him, the metrics of worth that I had grown up and learned from my social and cultural environments that this was what “won the girl”. Whether it be movies, magazines or in my own life experience, it was an experience and pain that was deep inside of me. But, did I really believe this to be what is most valuable? Did I believe that Megan valued him more than me based on looks? I was confronted with this cognitive dissonance knowing that Megan, particularly needs and desires an emotional and intellectual connection. We had that. When my nervous system calmed down, I was able to install the belief that I was safe with Megan. That she is a safe place to love and I am adequate in meeting her needs. Feelings of inadequacy are extremely common in the world we live in today. As men, I find that the gender role is deeply tied to money as a sense of status and therefore, value. Providing for your family is one thing, but having your self worth tied to the amount of money you make is a newer phenomena that has been perverted by an American culture that worships excessive wealth and celebrity. Neither of which lead to happiness, by any definition I know, because we will never feel adequate in a game where there is always someone richer and more famous. It is a game of competition which creates isolation and a constant distrust of others as you look over your shoulder, unable to experience your life.

Stress is when we are feel unsuccessful in managing our life. “Stress is just another form of fear — in this case, it’s the fear you won’t get everything done well enough.” In just reading this, I can see how stress is wrapped into our sense of self worth and anxiety around safety and belonging. So much of the American and western culture has our self worth wrapped into our job and income level, and stress is the unspoken measurement of how hard you are working. If we are stressed, like everyone else, then we might be working hard enough. This is my experience in working in all different industries like finance, technology and philanthropy. It is disempowering and unhealthy to live this way. It feels hopeless because there doesn’t seem to be another way. We would surely choose a more balanced way if we knew about one. My orientation for feeling less stressed was to make so much money, I would eventually not need to worry. But when I made more, I felt that I deserved more, so I spent more. This kept pushing the future of a stress reduced life farther and farther away. I lost hope. I began to numb myself with alcohol to get through it, to tough it out and grind away. What I was grinding away was my humanity and my health. I’ve only begun to challenge this paradigm that my life has to be stressful. That having kids has to be stressful. That having a marriage or life partner has to be stressful. These are norms around stress and they are so deep we can’t always see them. The word “unsuccessful” strikes me as interesting as well in defining stress as feeling unsuccessful in managing our life. My definition of success, for a long time, was essentially what is never enough. I’m will be successful never, it’s a constant state of chasing some goal and once I reach it, running toward the next one I see. Success would be fleeting, with no room for feeling satisfaction or joy. It was running from the present moment, always towards the next thing. My life had become about the destination and not the journey. Ido Portal, one of my favorite movement artists said, “Success is not the right orientation.” Essentially, fuck success. I would rather have an orientation around joy and satisfaction, which happen from identifying and meeting a need, want or desire I have. This is a beautiful way to structure your day and to live life. Any other way, in my opinion, is to make things painful and difficult. I’ve come to realize that pain and stress doesn’t make me feel valuable. Being in a healthy and positive state, legitimately, by way of feeling satisfaction and joy, that to me is what other healthy humans value in me.

Fear is to feel unsafe. This is a core psychological human need. If we don’t feel same, we won’t be able to have our needs met. We won’t be able to take action ourselves, and if someone else tries to meet our needs, we are unlikely to accept it. When we are unsafe, our senses are heightened for danger. Emotionally we are closed off. We are in survival mode. My relationship to fear has changed a lot. I went from being dominated by fear, led by it. To know striking it down when I see it, running into it head on. Pushing the limits of fear to face it, diminish it and return to a peaceful state. This approach is not without problems. I’ve taken my facing fears to dangerous limits — my fear of heights has pushed me from climbing indoor walls 30–40 ft with a rope and harness to climbing a 300–400 ft mountain in the rain, at night, with no harness and no moonlight. My story and experience is my own, an important note to include is that I had PTSD in the past. Being in that state for me, was essentially having an overactive fear and danger response. Everything felt like danger. It could be hearing about someone dieing on the news. It could be a large noise. It could be the tapping of a pencils by students around me in class (true story). It seemed to have a connection to the experience of the day of the accident, where my body imbedded an experience that my brain tried to forget. For me, fear was a good place to start.

Frustration is felt when you can’t meet your needs through your own efforts. This is a secondary feeling connected to one of the above 8 primary feelings. The key thing to know is that frustration is often confused with anger. But while anger is a feeling related to unfairness, frustration is a feeling that comes from your needs, wants and desires not being met. Frustration occurs as the wants or need is not being met, and the intensity increases over time as it is not met. If we stop trying to meet our need or want, we will no longer deal with frustration — we will just feel say, lonely. It is more painful to feel lonely and frustrated, then just lonely. Frustration is painful, but it is an important signpost that whatever we are doing, isn’t satisfying our unmet need or want. If we keep trying the same thing or we keep avoiding this feeling, we will continue to be in this loop. I’ve noticed that frustration is a feeling that comes up a lot, anytime I have an expectation or I become attached to a certain outcome in the future. I don’t have control of the unknown that is the future and there is no way to satisfy that need for control, so I practice the awareness of it, the communication of my future desire and the release of my attachment to it as I re-focus on the present and my current state.

Depression is when we feel ineffective and hopeless to have our needs, wants and desires met. This is the third level feeling connected to first — one of the above 8 primary feelings being unmet which is followed by feelings of frustration after unsuccessful attempts or avoidance. Depression is the nervous system taking a break because what is being tried isn’t working. It is a literal signal to stop what you are doing, though many feel hopeless in this state. It’s important to know for someone who may know someone that deals with depression, that it isn’t an incurable disease. It can be traced to one of these primary feelings and the associated needs, wants or desires not being met. For me, this is so important and empowering. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt depressed. Struggling to get out of bed and sleeping for 12–14 hours a day my sophomore year of college for much of the year was likely a symptom of depression. This was also following a really rough period of my life, losing two friends and feeling like probably all of my needs, wants and desires were far being met. I’ve had smaller episodes where its this sinking and lonely feeling I would get when going to bed and I felt like I had no one or nothing exciting in my life. I’m grateful to be far from this and I know more about my needs and wants now, I can begin to look inward when one of the above feelings surfaces. Depression is a symptom, not the problem of our wants and needs not being met. We have to unravel from this state and inquire about these things before we take actions to satisfy.

Sympathy can cause us to feel bad when someone else is hurting. Sympathy looks really innocent and common, until you understand that sympathy is a direct pathway to co-dependency. “Codependency is characterized by a person belonging to a dysfunctional, one-sided relationship where one person relies on the other for meeting nearly all of their emotional and self-esteem needs. It also describes a relationship that enables another person to maintain their irresponsible, addictive, or underachieving behavior.” For example, as a parent, if you were picked on as a child or had a bad experience regarding school, you may take actions (consciously or unconsciously) to protect your child from them having this same experience. My parents dealt with financial insecurity there entire childhood growing up — not knowing where money would come — many times having stress around paying the bills and having food on the table. My parents never wanted this to be a stress for me, but because I never worried about money, I never understood many important lessons so I could be empowered and self sufficient around money. And many times, lessons come from making mistakes, which I did in my 20’s (getting into credit card debt) that were nearly disastrous, rather than making them on a smaller scale in my teenage years. While our intention with sympathy is love and the desire to protect others, we often overstep our responsibilities and disempower the ones we love. I’ve noticed that this is extremely common for parents and I’ve noticed my own codependencies developed with my mom, due to many reasons like my dad being emotionally shut down and as an emotional boy I leaned on her even more. This pattern carried into my romantic relationships with women- where I was either a savior and essential (feeling safe and needed) to a woman that was emotionally wounded OR I was in need of a woman to carry my emotional burden and I would lean on her too much, not processing my emotions and feelings on my own and needing her love to validate my own sense of worth.

If there is one thing I would want to leave you with is that there is a deep and important connection between our feelings and needs. The second thing, I would leave you with is once you can identify the feeling and the associated need that isn’t being met, it becomes an empowering place to take an action that attempts to satisfy that need. What we don’t realize is that the many ways we distract ourselves (alcohol, work, being busy, even working out) are ways we attempt that won’t satisfy the need in the long run. I suspect you may take issue with the working out part and there is some nuance here. If we work out in ways that aren’t mindful, for example, I used to go to boxing when I was angry. I would release some energy which felt like releasing anger, but the need that is associated with anger which is unfairness for myself or others was still unaddressed and unmet.

What are examples of satisfying a need or want that is correlated to a feeling?

If we can recognize that feelings are valid, we won’t run from them. Feelings are an essential point of awareness for how we are interacting and interpreting the world through the filters of our belief systems.

When we feel anger, it is an internal push to act to create fairness for ourselves and others. When we feel sadness, it is a recognition that we lost something important to us and that this is a hole that needs to be filled at some point. When we feel fear, there is something pushing us to find safety. Fear is probably the most common and frequent feeling we have as humans, it is connected to our survival and isn’t to be avoided. But fear can become all consuming and detrimental to taking action and taking risks that are a part of growth. Creating safety within ourselves is so important, I will write about this in another post. For me, I have worked hard to create safety within myself because I recognized that I don’t have as many external threats to worry about. I am a white male and very privileged to feel this. This may not be everyones experience. Feeling unsafe can be physical, but I also experience it as emotional. A threat to our survival as humans connects back to our need for belonging. For early humans, survival depended on belonging to a family, tribe or community. So when we express ourselves in ways that are outside the norm, we come into contact with the possibility of rejection and disconnection. This is intense and we often have to choose our authentic self or being the version that fits in to the group. This is why I talk so much about safe spaces. In my own life, I experienced feeling unsafe to be me for most my childhood. The fear of rejection and disconnection. Finding a safe space where we can be loved as whoever we are is an essential building block for a stable emotional state. As I write this, I acknowledge how hard this is to find. I am now 35 years old and just recently found this place and my emotional state has become so much healthier.

I am constantly at practice now with using my awareness for when I’m feeling a feeling and now I begin to work on identifying the cause or need/want not being met. The real challenge is finding a satisfying response. I’m currently exploring ways to better satisfy “anger” and not suppress this emotion. I am also working on my feelings of “inadequacy” that have flared up as deeply formed insecurities comparing myself to other men and how I can feel my worth in the world. Our needs and wants are important to be aware of and to stand for. If we all had our wants and needs met, I believe this world would look a lot different than it does today. The next time you are having a conversation with someone you love, I encourage you to ask them…. “what are feelings for?”

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