Living Removed From One’s Feelings Comes With A Cost
In 2018, how about we feel our feelings? I know it’s not such a popular suggestion. With two terror attacks in Manhattan and an egomaniacal misogynist inaugurated as president this past year, many people, both in and out of my therapy practice, would say a big no thanks.
As an NYC therapist, most of my patients don’t need help with coping. They’ve had years of practice, throwing their burdens over their shoulders and charging ahead. Some people are good at shoving feelings aside and it’s no surprise that those very people often have professional success in challenging fields where tolerating long, grinding hours is a given.
There is a cost, though, which is living removed from one’s feelings. It’s helpful in wading through a tough spot, but disastrous in the long-term. However, many of my patients don’t believe me. It’s hard to see the downside of something that has worked so successfully.
Burying Your Feelings Can Kick Your Ass
There’s an irrationality in choosing to feel and feelings are, by definition, irrational. This isn’t to deny their function. If I’ve learned to avoid all of that, someone might ask, why would I give that up?
I think about feelings sometimes as the ocean is to a surfer. At times, it can look tame while at others, it reveals its immense power. But, you can’t mess with it. If you don’t respect the ocean, it’ll kick your ass.
For people who are good at burying their feelings, this ass kicking is often pretty subtle or, at least, pops-up with some distance from the feelings themselves. For example, anxiety about a relationship that’s falling apart, when not given attention, might appear as a sudden, inexplicable fear of riding the subway. The deeper we bury our stuff, the funkier it’ll pop up.
The Choice Is Not Have Feelings, But To Decide How To Make Room
Even if I’ve won you over on feeling your feelings, it can be a tricky switch to flip. After all, avoiding feeling can be less like a choice and more like breathing–something you just do automatically. But, having feelings or not isn’t the question. It’s about deciding whether or not we want to make room for them or really, how we want to make room for them.
We talk, in the world, about feelings as good versus bad constructions. Joy, glee and hopefulness are good, while sad, angry and frustrated are bad. I’m not sure our task as humans is to feel better or worse so much as it is to find ways of being okay in whatever emotional space we’re in.
If something is sad, I want to be sad about it. In a funny way of speaking, I want to be good at being sad–making room for those feelings, sharing them with the people around me, and not worrying that I’m going to get stuck in feeling sad and just stay there. With feelings like anger, I similarly want to be fluent with anger as I would sadness, but I’m aware that anger can come with a temptation to hurt or destroy. The more intentional space I make for anger, the more choices I have for how deal with it. This doesn’t mean endless choices or the choice not to feel it (at best, I can pretend not to feel it).
Making Room For Feelings Means Developing A Tolerance For Them
Much of the work of making room for feelings is developing a tolerance for them. This is somewhat the opposite of how we tend to use the word tolerance–as a sort of grin-and-bear-it attitude. Here, though, I’m talking about tolerating the feelings in all their painful, joyous messiness.
It’s important to note that a lot of unhealthy habits have pain-avoidance as their base. Working too much, drugs and alcohol, self-harm, and procrastination are all ways to avoid pain. It’s even worth thinking about depression as a sort of numbness of feeling (as opposed to a deep intensity of feelings of the sad sort). Developing a tolerance for feelings means resisting the urge to numb, control or hurry them along.
Making Room For Feelings Is Also Social
Making room for feelings is necessarily social. I’ve always found that the idea that feelings exist “inside us” to be absurd. Feelings are social. In fact, they are quite basic social expressions. If this weren’t the case, of what value, for example, would smiling or crying be?
In healthy conditions of childhood, we can borrow a grown-up’s feelings to help us become fluent with our own–a stubbed toe or a frustrating play-date are felt alongside a caring adult. Much of the work of healthy adult relationships, and especially therapy, is the work of living in feelings with a caring other.