What are Carried Feelings? Understanding and Challenging Our Inherited Stories
Samantha Waldman, MHC
Themes of guilt and shame come up in therapy a lot, and clients are often mystified over why they are holding certain judgments towards themselves or their behavior. With some intentional therapeutic work and emotional digging, we often find that the source of these feelings stem from what some therapists refer as carried feelings. Carried feelings are defined as emotions we experience or stories we tell ourselves that are not our own, and are passed down to us by others (parents, family members, society, etc.). Understanding the source of our carried feelings, how they impact us, and asking if these stories serve our authentic selves, can be instrumental in recognizing our true feelings around an experience and challenging and shifting some of our self-judgment and blame.
Carried feelings often have their origins in the family. The earliest messages we receive about life, relationships, and how to be in the world are often experienced through the family. The brain in early childhood is incredibly plastic and certain stories we hear and behaviors we experience during this time can feel hardwired into our thoughts. For example, in the past I struggled with feeling the need to always be productive or actively doing something, and would feel guilty if I took time to rest. This would lead me to experience periods of time where I was completely exhausted and worn out.
Through my own work in therapy I was able to identify that I had received this message my entire life through my own mother, who, when she wasn’t working, was always kept busy around the house with cooking, cleaning, or a million other things. I later learned after talking to my mother that this was her experience of her own mother as well, and largely the behavior of all of my maternal aunts. By identifying the familial origin of my own harsh judgment of myself when my body wanted rest, I was able to question if these feelings really stemmed from me, or if it was simply a message passed down through the women of my family, and was able to actively choose what felt right for me.
Carried feelings can also stem from societal or cultural messages. Human beings don’t exist in a vacuum and it is important to recognize that carried feelings can have their origins in cultural messages or society at large. Communities carry and relay all kinds of messages about what kind of aspects of human life, whether it be appearance, behavior, or thought, is preferable or acceptable. When we hold characteristics or engage in behavior that certain communities dislike or discourage, carried feelings of guilt, shame, anger, sadness, or fear often emerge.
Visualize “returning the carried feeling.” After identifying the story behind or source of the carried feeling, it can be helpful to visualize yourself holding that feeling in your hands and giving it back to the original source. By actively recognizing that the feeling is not truly yours to carry, you can tap into your own deeper, intuitive sense of what your feelings are towards an experience. Recognize that you may need to go through this process more than once to truly begin to let the carried feelings go.