If dreams are like movies then memories are films about ghosts
You can never escape, you can only move south down the coast
What did feelings do to us to get such a bad rap? Do they sit around, plotting their evil overthrow of our once peaceful, glorious empire of robust and harmonious egos? At what point did the phrase, “Get in touch with your feminine side” (by this meaning to be more open to experiencing/expressing our emotions) not only get so derogatory but also become associated exclusively with femininity? It’s no mystery, to anyone with any semblance of a heart and mind connection, that emotions can at one point lift us to the highest points of ecstasy one can reach in this diminished life. Yet the next moment they can drive us violently into the lowest pits of despair and hopelessness that we may not even wish on our worst enemy. So we often end up with this love/hate relationship with our emotions that mimics an oscillating pendulum either desperate for rest (a life overly influenced by emotion) or either a pendulum at rest longing for some fluctuation in such a desolate, mundane life (a life devoid of emotion).
Herein lies the rub, doesn’t it? One certainly doesn’t want (especially if you’re a male in most cultures) to live a life tossed up one moment and down the next by the constant stream of emotion that we all experience every day of our conscious lives. If we made all our choices out of pure emotion we’d be as impetuous as a child. This is not to too far removed, I might add, from some of the presidential candidates we see. Yet if I close my heart off to the vulnerability of feeling, there it will sit, as C.S. Lewis (1971) says, “in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.” Those may seem like harsh words, but to put it another way, I have to agree with Connor O’berst when he says, “Never trust a heart that’s so bent it can’t break”. In addition, does numbing our emotions really make them disappear? That’s akin to saying the gapping wound on my arm doesn’t exist or won’t become infected because I shot it up with Novocain. Come on now. Therapists like to refer to a mutually influential triangle involving our thoughts, feelings, and actions at each point, all informing one another. Is this not true? Do our feelings not impact our thoughts and actions? If we think sublimating or compartmentalizing the more intense negative emotions we experience to a box in the attic of our mind really negates their influences, we’re kidding ourselves. These more intense feelings, not the everyday micro-abrasions we all experience (we have to let these go and move on daily), linger inside of us, demanding catharsis in one way or another. This is how resentment, cynicism, even the fertile ground for addiction are all cultivated. As a former professor of mine so eloquently put it, “Anything left unprocessed will come out sideways.” Plus, is it really more courageous or strong to pretend we have no emotion or to vulnerably access/process them?
And what about the physical connection our emotions have to our bodies? I could site a plethora of research, but if you can’t tell already, I’d rather appeal to your anecdotal experience and logic/reason. When we feel lonely, disconnected, confused, discouraged, disrespected, misunderstood, disregarded, devalued, betrayed, alone, etc…, you fill in the blank, where/what do you feel in your body? If you allow yourself to have bodily awareness during these times of emotional intensity, is the somatic sensation not a cascade of hormones released inside you that one would have to reach to describe as pleasant? Why do we use words to describe these feelings like: “My stomach is in knots, my heart is broken, my stomach/chest is burning it’s like there is a lump in my throat/chest/stomach, my heart feels like it’s going to beat out of my chest, there is an elephant on my chest, my head is pounding, etc…”? There is also a significant amount of evidence that shows most feelings have a somewhat universal somatic sensation/center in our bodies that crosses cultural & generational boundaries (Rothschild, 2000). These are adrenaline, cortisol, & other chemical messengers being released into our body that prepare us for fight, flight, or freeze. Multiply these experiences repeating over days, months, even years and the cumulative effect can wreck havoc on our bodies. If this is all true and we do ignore our stressors, is it any wonder we have an epidemic of heart disease, digestive issues, and fatigue (in addition to our poor diet and sedentary lifestyles)?!
As said before we find in ourselves two warring sentiments: one that longs to integrate those pesky feelings into our everyday so as to make room for them to have their moment and move one with the rest of the show; the other is to fully dismiss emotion, acting as if they weren’t even there, or if they are they are inconsequential, at best, to the greater story of our lives. My response to dismissing them is simply this: good luck. You will be sacrificing a more fulfilling life and I plead with you to reconsider. You are simply too precious, too valuable to not live your life to the fullest potential possible. Besides, can you really numb yourself from all painful sentiments and not end up diminishing your capacity to experience the joyful & exquisite life has to offer? We can’t have our cake and eat it too. One whose heart is too heavy to be moved by pain and tragedy will also be unimpressed by beauty, comedy, joy, and sacrifice. Perhaps this is why we so often aren’t engaged unless the profane and shocking aren’t mixed into our entertainment.
So how can we integrate these guys without being ruled by them? This takes work and would take entirely too long to dive into than you may want to stay with me if you’ve read this far. This is especially tricky if you have significant trauma in your past and may require professional help. My hope is this: to stimulate you into reconsidering giving yourself time to actually “lean into”, as I like to phrase, your pain. This is more than a good start towards emotional integration and congruency on the inside and outside. On the other end of the spectrum, there is a plethora of research involved in us choosing gratitude over pessimism. Sometimes what we really need in order to mitigate our pain is to simply give as much effort into taking stock of what we feel lucky to have as we do the time/energy we pour into worrying about what we don’t have. In addition, we can’t always stop to engage our feelings. Of course sometimes we have a job at hand or not around those we trust enough to be vulnerable.
But when is the last time you allowed life to break you to the point of tears, whether joyful or painful? When is the last time you felt a passion inside you that demanding action apart from blowing your horn or giving the one finger salute to someone in traffic? How about belly laughing to the point where it hurts? I truly believe this is an essential component to becoming childlike like Jesus so brilliantly challenged us to do. Earlier I said the impetuousness of children is undesirable, but what about the authenticity? Isn’t there something endearing about never having to wonder where you stand with a child? Something enviable in the way they pour themselves wholeheartedly into their play, without reservation of how they may come across? In addition, for those who do believe we are made in the image of the God of the Bible, did he not feel? Do God’s feelings not span the spectrum of all that we experience emotionally? Wasn’t God very honest and vulnerable about how and why he felt what he felt? Take a quick scan of the prophets or look at Jesus’ life if you don’t believe me. How then, could we condemn feelings as inconsequential at best if this is the image we are meant to reflect? I would postulate that the reality of the Imago Dei in us demands we reconsider.
So next time you feel pain or any intense feeling, and have the opportunity, ask yourself a few questions: What thoughts does this feeling provoke? What specific name would I give this feeling (avoid general terms like good, bad, happy sad, identify the nuance of the feeling in this moment)? What does it make me feel in my body? How does it make me want to cope? Do these coping choices & thoughts align with my core values & idea of a higher power? Is this something that needs to be processed with someone I trust? With all the love in my heart I plead with you that when this is done well, with safe, mature people, you will not regret it. You will live a more fulfilling life as a result–one that is fraught with lower lows from time to time, perhaps, but also one that is less frequently brought down to the depths, has more stability, and most certainly a life that experiences greater joy than you ever would otherwise.
Lewis, C.S. (1988) The Four Loves. New York, NY. Harcourt Inc.
Rothschild, B. (2000). The body remembers: The psychophysiology of trauma and
trauma treatment. New York: Norton.