I grew up hearing “Quit crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.” Any act of anger was doubled-up on and became a battle a child could never win. Privileges were revoked—it felt like I was grounded whenever perfection wasn’t reached. Although I’ve already forgiven everyone involved—sometimes multiple times because the memory and hurt comes back—for better or mostly worse, these experiences helped write my internal users-guide on how to handle emotions: mask and suppress.
A storm swirls inside that I constantly push down. Like trying to bottle crashing waves, I shove the cork in tighter and say “it will pass.” I don’t want to act out or express what I feel. I don’t want the consequences that follow.
Words can never be unspoken. Actions can never be un-acted. On the extreme, feeling anger, sadness, or even joy can hurt someone else so it would be better to feel nothing at all.
It’s simple to say, but without medical intervention (lobotomy), impossible to do.
The best question to ask if you want me to freeze is “How do you feel?” I panic. And when I panic, I tense up, my mind goes into a “line of sight” thought process where all I know is that car is red, that house is blue. How do I feel? How does anyone feel?
Living with emotional paralysis means my mind is like a theater stage. In my head there’s a little guy—the Director—who ushers emotions—the Actors—to their right place at the right time. A bright spotlight shines onto center stage, and Happiness smiles to the crowd. When Anger, Sadness, Disgust, or sometimes even Love walk towards the curtain to take their part, the Director grabs them and locks them back in the dressing room. They are only allowed out if they look like Happiness.
That’d be a terrible, horrible, dreadfully boring play.
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It used to take me 3 days to put a name to what I felt, now I can do it in 2.8… I struggle to take off their mask and understand what I’m feeling, “Oh, I’m feeling anger,” but even more challenging is diving into never-ending story of why am I feeling it. It usually goes something like this:
“I’m angry that you said ‘Everything’s not all about you’ as a quick remark tacked onto the end of a sentence because being selfish is something I’ve tried to get rid of since elementary school when I realized that being a bully wasn’t what I wanted to be and again in 7th grade when I was called rude and in my relationships I’m selfish about not doing anything that’s inconvenient and all the way to now when you said not everything is about me because I don’t want to think like that and I don’t want my actions to express that I think that.”
It’s easier to just not go there.
When I woke up today there were 7 notifications on my phone yet I felt lonely. I didn’t realize I was lonely until 2 hours later and I’m currently in the process of figuring out why that feeling stepped into the spotlight when it did.
In my quest to self-diagnose, I found a bunch of articles about affirming your feelings and writing about them *ahem*, but this article was the most practical at how to work through feeling stuff without becoming a spastic volcano. Growth is a painful, awkward process, but it’s better than being emotionally handicapped for the rest of my life.
Going from stuffing all my Actors into a dressing room to directing a 5-act play is a huge jump. I’ve started to take Kasey for a walk anytime I feel too much, or if I’m lying in bed trying to sleep but something keeps knocking I ask these questions.
1. What happened?
Almost like a journalist, I note exactly what happened and mark up any tipping points or triggers in the scene.
2. What am I feeling?
Taking the marked up copy, I try to separate what I felt then versus how I feel now (if there is a difference). My initial reaction is usually fear, but when I dig deeper later I find other things hiding around. Apparently there are 54 emotions, but they can be simplified as 5 main reactions:
After spending my life silencing them, I have to deliberately ask and wait and wait and wait for that emotion to reveal itself. Sometimes it’s 4 emotions all trying to take the same seat. So 1 at a time I sift through and figure out who’s the leader. The goal is to find the main domino that is trying to knock all the others down. Then I take that piece, give it a big hug, and sit down for a chat.
3. When was the first time I felt this way?
Big sigh. This step is painful but shouldn’t be skipped. A lot of time and prayer goes into this step because one survival skill I picked up over the years is forgetfulness. Instead of remembering (and healing from) what happened, my Director wanders all over the stage except in the dark corners where the painful memories are tucked away. As a Christian, I can pray and ask the Spirit to shine light on things I hid. But the problem is, I hid them away for a reason.
My memories often jump to a rough patch of my childhood, but finding the root cause of my insecurities helps me see if I’m overreacting now, or reacting the right amount. It also highlights whether I’m penalizing someone for the actions of someone else from my past.
Remembering hurts. Without the Spirit’s constant nudge towards forgiveness, patience, and understanding, I could dive into my past and come out bitter instead of better.
4. What message does this teach?
In my example WAY above, I learned that the person thought I was crossing boundaries and instead of saying, “I’m not comfortable with that” or “I don’t want to do that,” they said “Everything’s not all about you.” I pushed them and they pushed me. Then I fell right into my “I don’t want to be selfish” trigger and responded with hurt.
Of course I didn’t realize this at the time and said “Uhm what?” and took Kasey for a walk.
5. How can I communicate this?
Almost every interaction I have has a carefully selected script behind it. Safe responses (responses people find acceptable). Universally funny stories (stories where I’m the “butt” of the joke). And to-the-point hard truths that I blurt out before really thinking it through and then have to carefully walk the conversation back to the safe zone.
But when a feeling other than Happiness bubbles up, papers go flying and my director loses his mind. “I don’t have a script for this! This is improv. We can’t do improv!”
Instead of being afraid of the “no related searches” result, I can tap into my years of experience and start to talk without a script after I figure out the answers above. My Director can flip those nerves and turn them into excitement! I can start the conversation and sail into completely un-scripted territory.
It’s said that we tamed the final frontier. There are no more corners of the world to explore. But maybe the last frontier is inside ourselves.
^^^ Read that again.
You are your biggest adventure. You’ve spent years hiding away monsters and treasures, and as the days go on you’ll add more. It’s time to grab your gear and expand who you are and what you feel.
I don’t follow this list perfectly every time or even 1/10th of the time. In fact, just writing this I was like, “Yeah! I need to remember that.” Yet I hope this will be a great starting point for anyone struggling to feel what they are feeling, starting with me.