How Do Your Feelings Stack Up?

You’ll be happier if you look at your
feelings vertically instead of horizontally.

"Projection" is when we believe our feelings originate outside ourselves.

I was with Holotropic Breathwork teacher, Jack Blackwell, last week, when he spoke of “horizontal” vs. “vertical” ways of working with our most challenging feelings. “Horizontal” is when you look across, horizontally, at something or someone, and believe that what you see over there is what is causing you to feel whatever you feel. That might be your spouse, your kid, your boss, the Republicans, the Democrats, the Arabs, etc., etc.

If we process our feelings horizontally, we assume those things and people outside ourselves, horizontally, over there, are responsible for our discomfort, or our love, or our anger. So naturally, if we don’t like what we feel, we think they need to change so that we don’t have to feel uncomfortable. And if we do like what we feel, we try our best to make that person or thing stick around and keep doing what they’re doing. Often we try to influence, or even make them change or stick around. Processing horizontally is an old habit. It’s what most of us learned to do as children. It’s also called “projection” because it’s like seeing something on a “screen”…over there. We think it is real, though actually the feelings we have about it originate inside us and are “projected” from ourselves.

Horizontal processing of our feelings has the advantage of making us feel a little better about the situation because we seem to not be the problem. “I’m only upset because she made me upset with what she said.” It appears that the problem is “over there” with that person or that thing. We think, “if they would just change, there’d be no problem”. Sound familiar?  We’ve all done it!

But it has the rather big disadvantage of keeping us stuck and unable to grow.

The vertical way of processing feelings is to look up and down inside ourselves, inside our bodies, inside our psyches. It takes real courage to do this, and patience. It means keeping our attention inside our own bodies, and not focusing on the thing or person we thought made us feel something. It isn’t an analytical or logical process, but a way of being present with our own experience. It can also be called “tracking sensations” because it is kind of like tracking an animal in the woods which also takes time, concentration, curiosity, and patience, and usually leads us to something interesting and surprising.

If it’s a good feeling, like love or happiness, even if it seems to be “caused” by someone in our lives, we might notice that it is our own capacity to love or be happy.  If it’s an unpleasant feeling, even if it was triggered by somebody or some circumstance, we notice that it is in our own bodies and our own nervous systems that this feeling occurs.  Truly, it is our feeling, and we do our best to accept that responsibility completely, and to learn from it.

When we have uncomfortable feelings, if we slow down to do vertical processing, we will notice subtleties in our experience and bodies that we were unconscious of before. And we will probably also notice that the feelings which were so uncomfortable minutes before have changed as we watched!  Vertical processing opens neural pathways, allowing trauma-bound energy to safely discharge.  One former client, a frequent patient of her chiropractor due to neck pain, became so skilled at this that when her neck started hurting, she could give it attention in this way and her body would spontaneously adjust, eliminating the pain and the need to see the chiropractor!

If you want to try vertical processing, you don’t need to wait till the next time you’re upset with someone.  That’d be like visiting the gym for your first time and trying to bench press 400 lbs.  Instead practice on something lighter weight…an everyday kind of body sensation.  Think to yourself, “I notice this sensation. I’m going to watch it with a gentle curiosity and see what happens.”  Imagine you are tracking sensations in your body like you might follow the tracks of an animal.  Give it at least several minutes. Don’t try to make the sensation change.  If you were tracking an animal in the woods, you wouldn’t rub out the tracks and make them go a different direction.  You would observe and follow them as you found them.

We can’t control other people and their actions around us.  To attempt that wreaks all sorts of havoc and suffering in our world.  But we can learn to have a choice about our reactions to what we experience.  Vertical processing of our feelings can lead us to greater understanding about why we feel the way we do.  As we take responsibility for our own reactions and feelings, we become more clear and more empowered to make decisions that improve the quality of our lives.

Happy experimenting with “vertical processing” and feel free to report below.

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Paul Chubbuck is a practicing psychotherapist in Fort Collins, CO, using Somatic Experiencing® to help people release unresolved trauma. He may be reached at 970-493-2958 or through his website at www.releasingthepast.com.

Your comments, questions, and stories are welcome below. I will respond.

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    • Dianananda

      Nice blog, Paul.

      I had a very strong experience of what you are calling vertical processing, back in the 70s while traveling in Asia. After doing a ten-day Vipassana meditation retreat, I had several weeks or maybe months, I dont remember, of feeling the same kind of high feeling that I had previously only experienced when I was newly in romantic love or infatuation with someone. Since there was noone in my life at that time that I was in love with, it made it VERY clear that these feelings came from inside me and were not caused by the object of my adoration when I was “in love”.

      Interestingly, I then did get briefly romantically involved with a man, in Thailand, and poof, the feeling of being “in love” with the world, everyone, everything, vanished now that I was fixated on him instead. Hmmm.

      • Anonymous

        That a very interesting noticing, Dianananda, abut the infatuation actually bringing you down from your spiritual high. I haven’t experienced that before, but I sure have noticed the tricks that biology plays on our consciousness to get us to make babies. Very powerful stuff that often takes us away from our better knowledge and wisdom. Thanks for commenting.

    • Funny,
      I have been working on this very diligently lately. I have come to it through practicing the Peacemaker Principle of the Good Message and only coming from a place of Peace. It’s great to have this process articulated so well. Thanks Paul.

      RichieB

      • Anonymous

        Thanks for commenting, Richie. I know a bit of what you speak from the common teaching lineage we share. Does that teaching also suggest the inner awareness similar to the way I do?

        Thank goodness that the primordial wisdom is irrepressible and keeps arising again and again in new forms which more people can hear.