Getting Feely - Embracing Emotions
Have you ever been told that you’re too emotional? Or felt the need to hide your heart in order to be accepted and productive? Community builder and writer Nōn Wels can relate.
As a sensitive kid growing up in an environment that didn’t always feel safe, Nōn learned to guard his heart so that nobody could find their way in. This led to a lot of pain and struggle: substance abuse, an eating disorder, self-harm, suicidal ideation, and depression.
Along the way, Nōn realized that empathetic communities play a crucial role in finding wholeness, love, and nourishment. As a result, he started creating projects and groups designed to empower each of us to grow our capacity for empathy, vulnerability, and emotional curiosity.
Today, we talk with Nōn about the journey that prompted him to create the Feely Human Collective and why we should even care about empathy and community in the first place.
I believe that we are reflections of the universe. And the universe in this pale blue dot we live on, it's vast, and it's awe-inspiring, and it's all of the things. And we are like that too.
Spend any time with Non Wels, and you will soon recognize that conversations with him are like the vibrant tranquility of a much loved garden. He invites us to a surprising and colorful sense of peace, cultivated across many seasons of life.
One of the more insightful things that we can do as humans is to try to see it all. Take a step back and be curious, and use our critical thinking brains, and open your heart enough to be transformed.
In our world of linear thinking, of goal setting, of achievement, of dominance, Non advocates for getting in touch with our hearts in a special way he calls getting feely. On our episode, we talk about this approach, the journey that prompted him to create The Feely Human Collective, and why we should even care about empathy and community in the first place. You are listening to Mental Note Podcast. I'm Ellie Pike.
I am so grateful to have you on the show. We'll be talking a lot about what that means to be a feely human, and what it means to create connection and community. But before jumping into that, I think it's really important for us to understand your story. So can you start off by just telling us a little bit about your childhood and how your mental health issues manifested?
Yeah, absolutely. So I grew up in an environment that didn't always feel very safe. I had a father who was fairly abusive physically, certainly emotionally, and had anger issues, felt like bubbling rage most of the time. And as a sensitive feely guy, like I was and am, I learned very early on to shut down as survival, to hide, to go inward, to make myself small as a way to just move through it. And as much as that was hard, it was also the thing that saved my life. So things can be many, many things at once. We contain multitudes, many truths.
So I did that for a while, and that dipped me into an eating disorder and all of this stuff. But for the longest time in being that repressive little bean that I was, I hid the fact that I had depression and I didn't know it. And I hid the fact that I started abusing alcohol at the age of 13, chugging two bottles of wine at a time after junior high class, as a way to numb, to feel something, to hide as well, to diminish, to bring pain, all these sorts of things. And there was a lot of that for a good while, a decade or so, until that led into the eating disorder, which led into a great deal of pain and suffering for a long time.
But I reflect on my childhood now, and I think I have a lot more compassion for my parents. In some ways, they were trying their best. I think their best is not great. That recognition, I think, for any human and how we interact with each other is important, is recognizing their capacity, and even giving them space to grow and transform too.
As much as it was hard, I also understand that their capacity was pretty limited. I think I felt a lot of anger for a long time, and so holding onto that anger has been only detrimental to my own mental health. And so it's not about necessarily forgiveness, it's just about recognizing what is staring you in the face.
Well, and it sounds like you're able to look at it more objectively in order to assess your own emotions, your emotions of anger. So I'm curious when you look back on your childhood and you yourself as a child, what do you feel towards you, and what do you wish you could relay to your child self?
I think about this a lot. I even made a little journal about it called Dear Childhood Me. And in my community, in my Feely Human community, just this week we did a little journaling session, and community member Z came up with this little prompt that was essentially like, "Hypothetically, you were told that you were too much. What would you say to yourself when you heard that?" And my first response was like... What's the cursing language protocol on this podcast?
I think it's okay as long as you're authentic.
Okay, well, so my first response was like, "Go eat shit." And the second one is too much, it's not a thing that really exists, especially for kids. Kids need to be overflowing, abundant, messy, allowing for just spilling over fully in emotion, and silliness, and joy, and exploration, and curiosity.
And so I would tell myself that I deserve those things. I wasn't getting any of that. And that requires the parents, the people around you to see you and to allow you to be more of you. And so when you don't have that, it's damaging. I would say be you, be in it, overflow in the ways that you know you can. Follow your heart. Those types of things.
That sounds really impactful, considering that some of the words you used to describe when you were really dealing with depression, and coping through alcohol, and your eating disorder was you would make yourself small. And that to me just feels like a message of containment.
And instead, I love that your message to yourself is actually overflow, be yourself, and it's not too much. And it's really beautiful that you can have that mentality over time. I know that that's not something that any of us can just switch our brains, and do, and create this new mindset, and it takes a lot of work over time.
And I imagine that some of that work had to do with acknowledging the eating disorder, or acknowledging depression, or acknowledging the function of substance use. And what it makes me think of is I remember writing this blog, I don't know, maybe seven, eight years ago, and it was titled The Purpose of the Eating Disorder.
And it was about my experience counseling somebody with an eating disorder and helping her understand what the eating disorder was communicating. So it was communicating something that she wasn't able to verbalize to her family. And I remember a lot of the pushback on this blog was, "There's no purpose in this eating disorder. That is just the worst way to describe it."
So for you, I'm just curious if you can relate with that language. Was there a purpose there? And is there anything that you can acknowledge and say, "Hey, thanks eating disorder, you helped me in some ways," not long-term. But was there any helpfulness to it for a moment?
Well, I think purpose, you think of that word. And I think it has a positive connotation. "I have purpose in life. Live with purpose," all those sorts of things. I think that's true. And it's also not all of it. What I think you're speaking to is the nuance of living, and being, and understanding that things can be more than one thing all at once.
And so like I said at the beginning, shutting down was terrible and it also kept me alive. So honoring that part of it is huge. And so my eating disorder, while it brought about so much pain, physical pain, emotional pain, tons of suffering and isolation, it also was a thing that provided some purpose, provided some means of moving throughout the day without killing myself.
And also, I was killing myself slowly in an eating disorder. That's kind of what it is. And so it's a strange... This is a thing I talk endlessly about, is I feel like one of the more beautiful, and nourishing, and insightful things that we can do as humans is to try to see it all, and to take a step back, and be curious, and reflect, and use our critical thinking brains. And be open to be transformed, open your heart enough to be transformed, through recognizing our bias, and the assumptions we make about each other, and all of that. That framework takes time, as you said, and it also allows for the many truths to exist. And those truths also to not be oppositional to one another.
We want to say you're recovered. Checkbox, it's done, it's a finish line, etc. That doesn't exist. And I feel like the sooner we can recognize that there are no check boxes, that there is no finish line to this messy, overflowing, awe-inspiring, sometimes terrible mess of being human, I think the better we can face it all honestly and with compassion, and with some awareness of self and others in the world, all of it.
I appreciate that you talk about recovery in a sense of it's a journey. And life is messy, life is long, hopefully for many of us. And that the checkbox oversimplifies the process. And it seems like you're very process oriented, and it takes time, it takes exploration. And the eating disorder, or depression, or however any of us cope, it takes a lot of understanding, awareness, and vulnerability to get to a new place and that's ever evolving.
So on your end of things, for a lot of folks, there's a pivotal shift where the eating disorder or depression stops serving us. We are at a breaking point. We need to ask for help, or we're shown something different. Is there any point in your journey that you think of as a tipping point for you?
Yes, absolutely. And I think it came in the form of another feely human, my partner, Jessica. We've been together for over 15 years now, and for the longest time at home and elsewhere, I felt unseen a lot. I felt misunderstood. I felt like I didn't fit in, all of those things.
And so when I met Jessica, it was very clear, very quickly that I could be me, whatever that looked like. I didn't know what that looked like at the time, but she created the space, and the nourishing, and the love, and the non-judgment for me to figure out who that was.
And I think that's really the power of us as humans. That's what we can do. We're mirrors for each other. And she gave me that. She gave me the opportunity to be messy and to figure it out. And it took a while. It continues to take a while.
And so that was huge. That was pivotal. I always say that I think she saved my life, because if I hadn't met her, I would've continued to just drink myself silly and continue the self-destructive path that I was on. And I think it's a good reminder for me, it's a good reminder for all of us that truly, truly, we hear it endlessly in mental health spaces. But truly, truly, truly, we can't do it alone. We're in this together. We can't do it alone. This idea, this concept of the individual strength and us being beacons of strength as individuals is false, and it's wrong, and I don't ascribe to it.
When you describe people being mirrors to each other, what does that mean?
Well, it means that we have shared humanity. It means that we have a lot more in common than we know. And it also means that being open-hearted enough can allow for us to connect and relate to our stories.
And stories are empathy, stories are opportunities for learning, and reflecting. And that's vulnerability. That's how we grow, that's how we connect, that's how we transform, is seeing ourselves in the stories of one another, and creating those pockets of community and space to be those mirrors.
Ad again, like anything worth doing, it takes a lot of practice and time and patience to be able to be a mirror. Because it requires some self-awareness and certainly some self-acceptance, recognizing that we are deserving of being transformed, recognizing that we are deserving of being seen, and heard, and loved. So before we can even be the mirror, we do have to, I guess build the mirror of sorts.
I really like the visual of being mirrors for each other. And as you were talking, I was trying to picture you finding pieces of yourself, as you are looking at others or vice versa. And in doing that, I think it's incredibly brave. Because you're not just looking at beauty and you're not just looking at terror. You're not just looking at a neutral space either. It's a mix of everything, and you have to be willing to see it and be vulnerable in that space with other people.
So in your process of doing that and probably peeling back some layers of what you were willing to see, do you have any insights that you'd want to share with us about finding beauty in yourself, and also acknowledging some of these pieces of you that weren't serving you well anymore?
Yeah. I think that's something that is really hard to do, right? Culturally, we want to obfuscate or bypass the hard shit. The stuff within us, the stuff externally. We don't want to see people suffering, because it brings up discomfort, because it challenges our ideas about the world and ourselves. And I think discomfort is a great teacher.
And so being able to sit with our infallibility or the infallibility of the world opens up the possibility for growth, and improvement, and all these sorts of things. But if we don't recognize it and honor it for what it is, there's no moving forward. There's no moving through.
So we have to be able to see it for what it is and not just bypass it all away. The hard emotions, the anger, all these sorts of things. We need to see it. I need to see that I have a tendency to still shut down, I have a tendency to still lose myself completely in helping others, or a tendency to hide my joy from other people, even the people I love most.
If that's happening, and I'm not bringing awareness to it, and understanding that, yeah, that came from some trauma, and I don't like that about myself. I'm not going to be able to change it if I'm not looking at it, right?
You have me thinking, I don't know if you like the poet Rilke, but there's one poem and I was trying to think about what it actually said, but it said something along the lines of how complicated life is. And with it, there's both beauty and terror. And then later in the poem it says, "And no feeling is final." Meaning that in that discomfort, it is, it can feel really scary. And yet, that feeling is not forever, and that feeling is not final. And it does take a lot of courage to experience that discomfort, but that's the only way we can create change, is if we have the awareness first. So I really appreciate the way you put some of these things into words. I know that your experience and your mind shift has taken time.
So I'm curious, when you were in your eating disorder, and you felt like you needed to be small, and it was a way of coping with life circumstances at the time, and you felt like you were too much or that you deserved pain, what would you say has shifted in your mindset now? Or when those thoughts do come up, what do you do for yourself?
I think the biggest difference is that I've allowed others in. Where before, I was playing a one person sport. Now I'm on a team, if you will. Now I have community, to hold me accountable, to allow them be aware of my history and of my patterns.
I think accountability is a big part of recovery and growth, because it's that mirror thing again. The mirror is for the healing, but it's also for illuminating spots that we're not seeing, like illuminating dark spots that we have blinders to, or illuminating blind spots that are damp, and dusty, and full of spiders or whatever.
So when you do have those thoughts, assuming you have these thoughts that, "I'm too much," or, "I deserve pain," or, "I deserve that," what do you do now when you do recognize those thoughts?
I definitely still have those thoughts. Certainly the I deserve pain one. And typically, it's when I'm experiencing severe depression, which I still experience pretty frequently.
I sometimes have this sort of sense that in the wellness space. And I don't know if the recovery space, but in the wellness space, there is a certain fetishization of pain or suffering that maybe leads to us being stuck in that mindset or stuck in that pain.
And I think that's understandable. I empathize with that. And also, the awareness piece allows us to see it for what it is and allows us to see that yes, while it has been part of us for so long, it's also damaging to us, and it's damaging to those around us, and it's not fair to those around us. And how can we change this? And so when it pops up, I'm kinder to myself, I recognize the history of it. And I take notes for ways that I can do better next time.
And that might look like bringing awareness to, what is the thing that triggered me? What was that about? Being curious about it. Why did it pop up? Next time when I interact with this specific experience or this type of person, how can it look different?
I don't want to feel that way. I don't deserve to feel that way. No one does. And so the only way to change it, again, is to look at it honestly. As much as it might bring discomfort, you said before, feelings move through us. They're not going to kill us. They're never going to kill us. And they're often not even facts, they're just feelings. And so we're not going to be able to do anything if we're not being honest about that.
Well, I appreciate the way you talk about it as such a conscious decision when you are experiencing depression, for example. And one thing that comes to mind for me is how we treat mental illness differently than physical illnesses.
So if we have the flu, it's a good idea to isolate. It's a really good idea to go take a nap and sleep longer than normal, and maybe just don't think too much about it, but you need rest, and you need to separate yourself. But if we have depression, that is going to just cycle us into our depression deeper if we isolate and take a long nap.
And so as you're talking, I'm just thinking about those very conscious steps that... I'm not going to use the word small step, because it can feel really hard in those moments. But you take those steps for reflection, or taking notes, or reaching out to create a connection. So you've found those antidotes to depression, and I imagine that is really hard to do when you're in the depth of it and it takes a lot of practice.
But clearly, it has a huge reward for you. And I'm curious about the impact of that. So what does it feel like when you're able to shift yourself just with one step at a time, and feel connected, or feel more gentle towards yourself and your thoughts?
Well, I've learned that life is steps. It's as much in the steps as it is in the pauses between the steps. So a little bit of healing is resisting this capitalist machine of valuing or doing, and moving forward, and climbing ladders, and all this stuff. All this language we hear and see, and is I think, embedded within us. So a lot of healing is resisting that yes, we do need to take steps. And also, as much of a part of healing as just pausing, and having the space to just sit and be with it.
But yeah, I mean, I struggle with major depressive disorder. And that comes with suicidal ideation quite frequently. And I can on a dime just wake up, and feel okay, and then just an hour later, nothing matters.
And a little bit of that is bringing levity to it. I mentioned the silliness. I think silliness is an act of resistance, and I get a lot of benefit from being silly. Whether it's just doing weird dances with my dogs in the kitchen while Joni Mitchell plays or just running around like a lunatic with them. It's always with dogs.
I feel like I've always been silly, but really being comfortable enough to be silly didn't happen until my thirties. I kind of hid my silly for a while, well, because my dad hated it. He was a very serious person.
And so when I have those moments, it does feel good because I'm just like, "F you depression," not F you, but just like, "Yeah, you're part of me." And also, I can be a silly bean, and it's not going to feel so hard right now in this moment. It may in 10 minutes, but right now I can put on a record and sing Whitney Houston till my lungs bleed or whatever.
And so I didn't use to have that perspective. It was always like when I was in it, I was in it, and truly nothing mattered until it was done. Now I'm able to almost step outside myself a little bit. I'm like, "Oh yeah, you're in the shit, and let's see if there's anything we can do about it." Sometimes the doing isn't helpful, but a lot of times it is.
And again, I think I have to always go back to the people around me. So Jessica, often sometimes even just recognizing that I'm in it before I'm even recognizing that I'm in it. And that's the mirror. That's why we need people around us. And if she can bring that to my attention before I can, that is super helpful too.
And what is the best way for her to do that?
Really just to gently tell me, "Hey, I'm noticing this in you. Do you want to talk about it?" Or, "I'm noticing this has led to you doing this thing, that may not be good for the community," AKA our house and animals. "Do you want to talk about it? Can we shift this?" That type of thing.
It sounds like other folks, especially Jessica, have held that space of safety where you can talk about things, be vulnerable, and also be that mirror for you. And in your experience of supporting others, I'd love to hear how you feel like because of your experience, you can show up uniquely for your friends, or your community, or for Jessica.
I mean, I think all of that started, as these things often do, over time in small increments. And so for me, my mental health advocacy journey, if you will, started with writing, and just reflecting, and sharing those things publicly, and hearing from people saying to me, "I relate to this. I recognize this. Thank you for sharing this." That sort of thing.
And I think a lot of advocacy work, it's never about encouraging sympathy. It's simply about connecting and creating opportunities for empathy, and reflecting and learning.
So for me, I feel like because empathy, because vulnerability was a crucial part of my own healing, I feel like I'm pretty good at it. I'm good at just sitting in silence, and allowing, and listening actively, and just really taking the sting out of it, taking the seriousness out of it, and just allowing ourselves and a community or group of people to just breathe, and to be, and to hopefully feel safe enough to step into more of who they are, and to be witness to their own wholeness and each other's wholeness.
I think a lot of that skill, if you will, I honed in doing a podcast. I had talked... Great language Non. I had spoken about early on in doing You, Me, Empathy, as a sort of anxiety response, I took copious amounts of notes before I had someone on. And I quickly learned that this is not how I want to do this, and it kept me disengaged. It took me out of the present. It took me away from active listening.
And so I quickly scrapped that. And similar to your approach, I had a couple of basic bullet points in front of me. But I kind of only relied on those if I absolutely needed to. And mostly, it was about, can I be as present as possible? Can I listen? Can I truly, truly listen actively, not figure out an argument in my head, or figure out the next thing I'm saying in my head while they're talking? That's not really listening and being present. So that was a big piece of it for me is learning that skill, and just creating that for others, because I know that that was what I needed. I truly believe that that type of space is what we all need.
And it's not just about our mental health. It's like those spaces create opportunity for seeing the inequity in the world and recognizing that we truly do all have bias. And what does that look like, and how does that inform how we show up, and how we impact one another? What assumptions are we making about each other, and what does that say about us? And how is that damaging or inhibiting our ability to be more compassionate, or be more empathetic, or learn, actually learn and shed what we know today to maybe grow in a new direction tomorrow?
I can appreciate that the community that you're building is beyond just self-reflection and reflection within a small community, and much more about creating ripple effects and assessing our own bias, and how do we create empathy in our world around us?
Because what if we could show up to work and have that empathy reflected back to us and vice versa? And what if our politics, and our governments, and the way we treat nature, what if there was just so much more empathy and active listening in all that we did?
So what you're doing and just creating this, it is not a simple conversation. But just creating space, I think that's the right word. Creating space to explore this is really impactful.
I believe that we are reflections of the universe. We as in humans, or feely humans. And the universe, in this pale blue dot we live on, it's vast, and it's awe-inspiring, and it's beauty and terror, like you said before. It's all of the things, and we are like that too.
And so creating space to be witness to all of it is everything, right? It's recognizing that we are never just one thing. Right? There's no this and that. There's no right and wrong. There's no man or woman. It's like it's all of it.
And again, that framework, again, creates more space for folks who have been marginalized, folks who have been on the margins, folks who have been diminished by our systems, by our world to be uplifted and championed.
As Non said, we contain so many realities. The act of recognizing those realities in ourselves and in others is powerful and foundational to thriving in these short years we have on earth.
So if you like me, have been listening to Non and thinking, "I'd like to be involved with something like The Feely Human Collective he's describing," good news, you can. Simply go to feelyhuman.co and join the membership community. There are both free and paid levels, with events like movies that make us feel, workshops, weekly check-ins, author Q&As and more. If joining isn't the right thing for you, I encourage you to recognize places in your life where empathy either thrives or needs some help.
Thank you for listening to Mental Note Podcast. Our show is brought to you by Eating Recovery Center and Pathlight Mood & Anxiety Centers. If you'd like to talk to a trained therapist to see if in-person or virtual treatment is right for you, please call them at (877) 850-7199. If you need a free support group, check out eatingrecovery.com/support-groups, and pathlightbh.com/support-groups.
Also, check out the Unlearning Fat Stigma workshop, Eating Recovery Center's putting on in early 2024. Signups are on the website, eatingrecovery.com/events. If you like our show, sign up for our e-newsletter and learn more about people we interview at mentalnotepodcast.com. We'd also love it if you left us a review on iTunes. It helps others find our podcast.
Mental Note is produced and hosted by me, Ellie Pike, and directed and edited by Sam Pike. Till next time.