When the checkout clerk asks you how you are doing, how do you answer? Do you dutifully respond with “I’m well, thanks” even when you are really feeling lousy? What if, instead, you paused to tune in to what emotion was present? What if, before replying, you closed your eyes, took a deep breath, put your hands on your heart and belly, and then after a short silence, answered with something like this?: “I feel fearful right now. I feel a gripping in my gut and I feel afraid, but I am not sure why… and I feel shameful sharing this, because I feel like fear is a sign of weakness.”
I’d love to be a fly on the wall for that! I imagine the cashier coming back with something like, “Ummm, are you high?” Most of us aren’t going to pour our hearts out at the grocery store. But how do you answer this question when your spouse asks? Your parent? Your best friend? HOW ARE YOU DOING?
The human experience is inherently uncomfortable: we fall ill, we lose loved ones, experience heartbreak, we don’t get what we want, and we get what we don’t want. These life events create within us a wide range of emotions at varying levels of intensity. However, in our culture, there is an unspoken notion that if we aren’t waking up happy everyday, that something is dreadfully wrong that needs immediate fixing. There isn’t much room for expressing our difficulties. This immense social pressure to be “all happy all the time” comes at a great cost.
The cost is a loss of intimacy. Here’s how: If we cannot reveal to another the places within ourselves that hurt, we can never be truly seen at our depth. Although we may be surrounded by family, friends and community, they only see the surface, leaving us, at our core, alone. Nobody sees what is happening on the inside. Perhaps more importantly, by not sharing what is happening within, those hurt places have no opportunity to heal.
Strangely, I have found that many of us don’t even know how we are feeling much of the time. Because feeling anything other than happiness is unacceptable, on a subconscious level we may avoid acknowledging our less than chipper sentiments, as awareness of them will just create more pain in the form of shame. So we don’t become acquainted with the subtleties of our own feelings, let alone share them with somebody else. Instead, we dissociate from our emotions in myriad ways, from numbing ourselves with social media, shopping, caretaking others, drugs and alcohol, or a wide range of other addictive behaviors.
Emotions do not operate within the realm of logic.
This is something a friend said to me many years ago when I was trying to explain away some difficult feelings I had. Although an obvious truth, it has had a big impact on me. Emotions are generated in a different part of the brain than where logic and reasoning take place. Given this, it becomes clear that that trying to mollify another’s emotional pain with a logical deconstruction is unlikely to be terribly helpful, and can in fact serve as a way of invalidating that person’s experience. The logic can be helpful eventually, but not while in the throes of painful emotions.
So, how do we deal with emotions? Emotions are healed by being held, not by being explained away or fixed. In other words, simply witnessing emotions from a place of nonresistance has a miraculous way of helping create peace. Nothing need be done.
However, oftentimes when we do find the courage sit with our feelings and then share them with others, we are admonished with judgments like: “You are angry because of something in yourself you are projecting onto someone else,” “You are complaining because you mistakenly believe yourself to be the victim,” or “Others have it much worse than you do.” While all these responses may be well intentioned and are true on some level, being on the receiving end can drive us deeper into isolation and shame. Ironically, if our emotions are first witnessed without judgment, we can then shift into a more rational mindset in which we become receptive to understanding the misguided thinking that exacerbates the emotional pain. When we our pain is accepted and welcomed, we are then more open to seeing how our anger is coming from projection, we spontaneously move out of our victim stories, and we feel gratitude for what we have.
Because suppressing unpleasant feelings is the norm in our culture, we often mistakenly assume that everyone else is doing fine and it is just ourselves with issues (a.k.a. comparing our insides to others outsides.) This makes us feel even more isolated and unwilling to share. Compounding our reluctance to recount our woes is the fear that sharing unpleasant emotions with another will place a burden upon them (often referred to as “dumping.”) While repeatedly reciting the same sob story may do more harm than good to both oneself and the listener, an authentic and vulnerable account of our feelings can offer great comfort to the listener if s/he relates to our experience. This can create a sense of connection, a recognition that we are not alone… not so much in the sense that misery loves company, but more along the lines of compassion (the word compassion is derived from the latin roots “suffer with.”)
The first step in healing disconnection from our emotional state is willingness to stop and be still… to look and feel into what is happening. Then, once we see and feel what is present, we share what we find with someone we trust. Being vulnerable takes tremendous courage. However, the payoff is intimacy, connection and a sense of having a place in the world. If you are connecting with what you have read so far, be sure to read my next article, where I will share some tools that I have found to be of tremendous value in connecting with my emotions, finding peace amidst them, sharing them with others, and in bearing witness to others’ emotions.
I invite you to share how you are doing. I’d love to know.