“How do I feel about what I’m feeling?” This seemingly silly question is one of the more powerful questions in my repertoire. When I’m knocked for a loop by a painful feeling, aswering this question helps me to regain my balance. Here are two examples.
In 1996 I was an apprentice, along with Amanda Mathis and Nyra Hill, at a week-long leadership workshop led by Jerry Weinberg and Jean McLendon. The three of us apprentices were tasked, among other things, with helping each other with our own learning goals. We spent a lot of time together on that, and got to know each other quite well. We’d made a wonderful team, and the experience of working with Nyra and Amanda was one of the high points of my career.
At the end of the week, I was eating dinner with Jerry, Jean, Amanda, and Nyra. I was feeling quite low, and was not in a mood to eat. I had gathered a plate of fruit (the easiest thing to eat when I’m not in the mood to eat) and was picking at it. Jerry noticed and asked, “What’s going on?”
I said, “I’m going to miss all of you.”
“How do you feel about that?” Jerry said.
After a moment I burst out laughing. “I feel great about that,” I said. “It means that I love all of you.” I spent the rest of the evening enjoying the company of my wonderful companions.
On February 19, 1999 I moved from Portland, Oregon to Sunnyvale, California. That evening I was carjacked in the parking lot of my temporary apartment, and driven around in my car for 30 minutes with a gun pressed to the back of my neck.
One evening a few days later I was walking across a parking lot toward some department store. I noticed someone walking toward me and started to feel quite afraid. And then I felt afraid of feeling afraid. “What if I get stuck like this? I don’t want to feel afraid every damned time I walk across a parking lot!”
Then I remembered the “feeling about the feeling” question, and asked myself, “How do I feel about feeling afraid?” I realized that I felt just fine about it. Feeling afraid, and even “hypervigilant” as my critical incident counsellor called it, was all part of the healing process. The fear encouraged me to be more aware of my surroundings. I still felt the fear, but I no longer feared being stuck forever in that fearful mood.
From these and other incidents I’ve come to appreciate the power of that question. “How do you feel about what you’re feeling?” I now call it The Acceptance Question, because it invites me to test whether I accept what I am feeling, and whether I accept myself for feeling what I am feeling. I’ve thought about why this simple question works so well so often, and I think I understand some of it.
Our feelings come not just from what’s happening, but from a combination of what’s happening, our needs, and the stories we tell ourselves based on our assumptions and expectations. Many times the stories that give rise to our feelings are about some other time and place. “I’m going to miss all of you” was about the following weeks and months when I would be somewhere else. My fear in the parking lot was largely about what had happened a few days earlier.
One thing The Acceptance Question does is to bring me back to the here and now. The question doesn’t ask me to deny anything. It asks me to attend to information that I was neglecting, information about what is true here and now. And in the here and now, I’m usually doing just fine. The people I may miss in the future are here with me now, and I’m okay. The carjackers are not here with me now, and I’m okay. In the here and now I’m alive, I’m healthy, and I’m okay.
Another thing The Acceptance Question does is to allow me to tell a different story, one that is just as true as the story that gives rise to the painful feeling. “I’m here now with people I love” is just as true as “I’m going to miss all of you.” And given that it’s a story about here and now, it’s probably more true. Changing the story changes the feelings.
The Acceptance Question encourages me be more present with what is happening here and now, both inside me and outside me. This helps me to regain my balance, and to respond more effectively to my surroundings and to my needs.