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I want my feelings back

Rain ot ocean beachOver the course of the last decade or so, I have spent a great deal of time learning to recognize, understand, and practice healthy ways to express with my feelings. There are many ways to do this. I’ve done therapy, meditation, journaling, group therapy, art, dance, and more. Maybe some of these activities helped me prepare for the onslaught of overwhelming, and sometimes incredibly uncomfortable feelings brought on by the birth of my daughter, but maybe not. Nothing really can.

Perhaps I should have taken this as a clue that there is no promised land where we are totally okay with difficult feelings, but I didn’t. At some point I had absorbed the idea that if I was truly enlightened or healthy or whatever  I would be totally serene and centered when dealing with the physical and mental exhaustion that comes from all the joy and rage and terror and happiness that babies bring. I didn’t give myself a break and listen to what my trusted friends and mentors told me; parenting is hard, go easy on yourself. Instead, my inner critic kept saying things like, “If your were healthy you wouldn’t be so scared. You wouldn’t get so angry.” So I took already difficult emotions and piled judgement and censure on top.

I don’t mean to pathologize myself particularly. We all enter parenthood singularly unprepared for its demands. I don’t care how old or young you are, or what gender. Parenthood is the ultimate humbler, and I think the more together your shit, the further you have to fall. We all start off totally incompetent and inexperienced. If it was a job we were interviewing for, we would not get hired.

However, my  daughter has recently forced me to recognize that everyone tries to get away from bad feelings, including little kids who hopefully haven’t been on the planet long enough to have trauma-induced behavioral patterns. She is learning to recognize and verbalize her feelings. It’s an amazing thing to see – if she is having a totally non verbal tantrum, and I can help her verbalize her feelings, the intensity of the feelings instantly decreases. As soon as she says, “I’m sad!” the emotion starts to dwindle. When another kid knocks her down or takes a toy, she tells them what she wants and how she feels about it – she doesn’t automatically run to an adult to mete out judgement and punishment, because that’s not how her parents and her school deal with it. I’m very proud of all these things.

But what is remarkable to me is how hard it is for her to get out of her lizard brain and activate her verbal centers. I mean, here is a kid with an amazing sense of self.  She is loved and loving, spunky, and resilient. Hopefully we have done well (so far) in setting boundaries without shaming her and damaging her self image. Not that we are without daily screw ups, but I have yet to see her really internalize a bad feeling about herself. She gets angry or sad when she doesn’t get her way, but not ashamed. Shamed children tend to look hunched over, or frozen, or have a glazed look in their eyes. I’ve watched it happen to other kids and it’s not pretty.  The funny thing is I had this unconscious assumption that her strong self meant that she would exhibit my idealized zen monk-like ability to tolerate her  emotions.  As it turns out,  my fairly healthy and normal three year old really dislikes being sad or angry or scared, too. Go figure. A couple months ago when she would cry about something (usually something I wouldn’t let her have or had to take away from her – no, you can’t play with the screwdriver, or splash in the toilet bowl, or sit on the dog) she would tearfully say. “I don’t want to be sad! I want to be happy!” Because being sad is really uncomfortable. It’s not a learned thing, and it’s not a product of our weird society. It’s just hard. She has yet to understand that all feelings are transitory – every moment looms very large in her experience. Her latest cry is, “I want my feelings back!” I’m not sure how to interpret this, but I have an  idea. Feelings like sadness or anger are usually brought on by an external event – often another person. I can imagine that when something makes her suddenly sad or scared she feels like her good feelings had been taken away from her. A few months ago our dog Persephone grabbed a piece of bread out of her hand. She spent the next 30 minutes screaming, “Give me back my bread Sephy! Give it back!” I guess Persephone took her good feelings away when she stole the bread.  The harder thing is to teach her that emotional pain is temporary and usually not physically dangerous. It doesn’t make it feel better in the moment, but it helps to tolerate the feeling until it passes. Her sense of the passage of time is still very different from mine, so this is a challenge. Who am I kidding? I have a really hard time remembering the same thing, and I have almost 40 years on her.

Anyway, the thing that my daughter has taught me is that everyone dislikes feeling sad, scared, or angry most of the time. Occasionally sadness is cathartic and feels like a huge relief, but I think it’s rare. There is a part of our brain that can’t distinguish between physical danger and psychological danger, and that part can get very loud (much like a three year old) when we are upset. Everyone retreats to that non-verbal, lizard brain place when the feelings become overwhelming, and that is where it becomes difficult to remember that this feeling isn’t forever, it’s just right now. So watching my daughter struggle with what is is to be human has helped me realize that there is nothing wrong with my struggle. And anyone who tells you that you are having uncomfortable feelings because there is something wrong with you, instead of because life is just that way, is full of it.

Suffering and Compassion

Due to some interesting tricky circumstances in my life of late, I’ve given a lot of thought to who I really am, and what I really have to contribute. Being a business owner takes tremendous energy, and selling my services and expertise takes not only energy, but conviction. Without conviction, it sucks your will to live. Seriously.

For me, conviction comes from being as authentic as humanly possible in how I present myself, what I have to offer, and what I value I believe it brings. Maybe there are people can sell anything to anyone, but I can’t.

Getting to this point is the result of many years of soul-searching, study, and most importantly, making lots and lots of mistakes. Often, those mistakes cause me to suffer. Sometimes things I totally can’t control cause me to suffer. And sometimes my own way of dealing with the world causes me to suffer.

I worry a lot. I worry mostly about how other people feel, and how what I do or say affects them. I worry about the things I can’t control like sickness and death, and the things I can, like money and relationships. Worry is really just another word for fear. I experience fear pretty regularly. Being me, and not anyone else, I have not idea of the amount of fear I feel is “normal” or not. I suspect that feeling it is, but admitting it is not.

I’ve found that some people react badly when I’m transparent about the fact that I experience fear or anxiety. I find this strange. The leaders I most admire are the ones that are open about their frailty, their weaknesses, and their fears. I feel I can trust someone who admits they are human, admits that they make mistakes. I don’t trust the people who say they have the answers to questions that only I can answer for myself, and people who claim to know more about me than I know about myself.

I guess what I’m trying to say is I believe that fear, which is a form of suffering has value. We live in a society where emotions like fear, shame, sadness, and despair are considered undesirable at best. But these emotions are part of the palate of our experience. Imagine if food was only salty or sweet. Would we enjoy a lemon bar if it wasn’t a little sour? Or a grapefruit if it wasn’t a little bitter? If music was only consonant and harmonious, we’d be listening to the Grateful Dead for all eternity, and Stravinsky never would have composed The Rite of Spring (that actually sounds like the third ring of Hell to me).

And so I believe it is with suffering, and yet we brand those who can’t hide or escape their suffering as depressive, codependent, reclusive, or anti-social, as if we ourselves do not all experience those feelings too. How much harder is it then for those who seek help coping with suffering to find the courage to ask? And how narrow is our definition of what is healthy? I sometimes think that while diagnosis of mental disorders is immensely helpful for alleviating suffering, it also has been misused as a way for us to externalize emotions that are inescapable and innate to the human experience.

I’ve run across a number of people in my life who essentially told me that I suffer/think/fear too much, and to get over it (often with dire pronouncements about my fate if I fail to take their advice). And then they told me exactly how to do this (usually by emulating them). I have always found these exchanges disconcerting and kind of scary. I try so hard to be empathetic and open that sometimes I let people in way further than is healthy for me, and when I get scared sometimes I can temporarily lose my ability to draw healthy boundaries.

This has happened a couple times in recent years, and in spite of the fact that I have much better boundaries and self-esteem than I used to, it’s still thrown me for a loop. It’s gotten me thinking about my emotional world and its value to myself and to others. There is no doubt, I tend to worry, and when things upset me I often hang on to them for a while. If I’m feeling anticipatory of some unpleasant event, I’ll imagine possible scenarios even though I can’t predict what is actually going to happen. When something bad happens, I’ll often replay it mentally, imagining how I could have prevented or changed it. When my feelings are hurt, they hurt a lot, and it sometimes takes a while for the physical symptoms to leave my body. Basically, I feel things very strongly.

But here’s the thing: I don’t think that feeling things strongly and struggling with fear is bad or wrong. Is it pleasant? No, not really. But does it have value? Absolutely.

The fact that I struggle with these feelings and behaviors means that I experience them fully. I don’t just taste fear, I chew on it, go for a swim in it, and take it out to the movies. I know the dimensions and colors and smell of my fears, and that means that when I see someone else suffering from fear, I know how hard it is for them, and I also have faith that they can get past it. Because I do, every day. Every time I fully face my fear, or guilt, or shame, or sadness, I get a little nugget of compassion for myself. And those nuggets become the ground upon which I continually realize how little separates me from other people. We all suffer. The First Noble Truth of the Buddha is suffering. And without suffering, there would be no compassion, and no joy, and no love.

So the next time someone tells me I’m neurotic, and difficult, and that I should just “get over it” or “let it go”, I’m going to remember all my feelings have value. I’m going to remind myself to have faith in my internal process. That fully experiencing uncomfortable emotions is courageous, not weak. That compassion, one of my core values, means connecting to others through our shared humanity, which includes suffering. And that my ability feel compassion for that suffering is a gift, not a disease.