Emotions are often a daunting endeavor for me. I struggle to identify how I am feeling, then struggle to emote the feeling outwardly in a way others interpret correctly. (Or more often, I painstakingly mask it.) I especially struggle to let myself feel and sit with my feelings—particularly grief and anger.
When I think about it, there are actually many reasons why I shy away from both grief and anger.
Intense bodily and sensory experience
These feelings are often accompanied by uncomfortable things like: nausea, dizziness, buzzing electric limbs, stuffy nose and wet face from crying, elevated heart rate, clenched jaw, tensed muscles, etc.
They feel incredibly all-consuming
Both set off a fight/flight/freeze/fawn response in the amygdala, and that sends my brain into a hyper-focus on the “problem” of my emotion, like it’s some sort of math equation I can logic myself out of if I crunch the number just right. (Yikes?!) And it feels like I will never not feel the all-consuming emotions again— like no other emotions exist or will ever exist.
They make me feel out of control
I don’t mean “out of control” like smashing dishes or slamming doors; I mean “not feeling safely in control of my feelings.” I’ve spent so long repressing and locking away “negative” emotions like anger and grief that feeling and expressing them feels so utterly unnatural to me.
But that leads to a vicious, self-damaging cycle. I automatically repress my anger and grief for a whole host of reasons:
- Masking by default
- To avoid bringing attention to myself
- To avoid further conflict or uncertainty
- To have some amount of control in something (imagined or not)
- To give myself more time to process at my own pace (or… not process, apparently…)
- Feeling like an inconvenience or burden for showing them
- To spare other people’s feelings
- To not appear selfish when others are also upset (pain comparison)
- To be a caretaker or support, always to others and rarely for myself
- Not wanting to have or feel them (avoidant behavior)
- Thinking I am a terrible person for feeling them
- Not realizing that I can feel more than one thing at once (and that they can —and often are— contradictory!)
- Because I often don’t think I deserve the time and space to feel them
- Thinking that it’s somehow “childish” to feel
“But Alex, what happens to those feelings then?” you may ask. (Let’s pretend you asked. I’m feeling a bit lonely today. How are you?) Well thanks for asking totally and completely unprompted, dear reader.
Until recently, my answer would have been “I just don’t feel them” with a nonchalant shrug and a misguided feeling of pride and strength. But the issue with stuffing all of the anger and grief into boxes and locking them away is that eventually… the box can’t hold it all anymore.
No matter how many locks I add; how many chains, ropes, and weights… anger and grief are not content to remain contained indefinitely. When I don’t allow myself the time and space to feel, these boxes are ultimately stored in my body. In my tensed jaw, tension headaches, scattered thoughts, tight muscles, fluttering stomach and heart. Anxiety, depression, panic, obsessive compulsive tendencies.
Only when I am pushed to the absolute breaking point do those boxes shatter and I feel everything. All of the build up from weeks, months… sometimes years. All at once. Such an irony that some of my only experiences really feeling both grief and anger (and the overwhelming nature of both) are massively amplified by the sheer volume of emotion built up and not yet processed.
Slowly, I am learning.
The lessons I am learning are slow to come. They are inherently unnatural to me, and my neural pathways fight with all they have against veering off course. It feels terrifying to my brain to stray from what “keeps me safe” (faulty defense mechanism). But faint pathways are beginning to glow ever-so-slightly alongside the glowing stubborn hardwired paths.
- I cannot control my emotions. I may shove them into a box and tuck it away out of sight, but those feelings only fester and poison me from the inside out. “Out of sight”, it turns out, is actually not “out of mind.” The only thing accomplished is delaying and amplifying those feelings for a later date when the box explodes, often in the least opportune time.
- Not feeling is not necessarily “strength.” Sure, it can be a protective tool and defense mechanism. It can get you through some horrific experiences and allow you to continue onward. Society tries to shame us into being silent and “strong.” But true strength—and true courage— is learning to take that box of scary “negative” emotions down and open it.
- It’s ok to put feelings into a box short-term. I don’t need to feel all things all the time. I don’t have to be overwhelmed constantly. The difference is that the box needs to be taken back down routinely to look inside until it is familiar and routine.
- Feelings are not rational. They are not flaws. They are not selfish. They are not negative. They cannot be logic-ed away, calculated out, or erased completely.
- Anger is there to show us when boundaries have been crossed; when we value ourselves and our needs; when we need an alarm to alert us that we are feeling a mixture of many big, underlying emotions.
- Grief is there because we care. We love. We lose. We mourn. We hurt. We love again. We hope. But we are not our feelings, and both grief and anger are completely acceptable to feel.
- Sharing feelings with supports is not a burden. Checking in with friends and family about intense feelings is acceptable. Asking if someone has the space and spoons to help you hold that feeling is invaluable, and so many people want to be there to help you do so.
- It’s okay to feel big things. Allowing myself to really feel these emotions is going to take time, and I can’t lie… I am still utterly terrified by it. It sets off all alarm bells. It sucks. But it’s also a massive relief. I have steps in place to start cracking those boxes open—just a smidge at a time— to vent the barest wisp of emotion out. I am holding space for myself to fully feel the weight of that box before placing it back on the shelf for another day.
And with practice, maybe I won’t need a box with so many chains.