This day 3 years ago I wrote the following on my facebook feed:
“All the best characters in the best books cause us (or help us) to feel things we’d otherwise be too afraid to feel, the things left unexpressed without the intervention of literary provocation, without the safe space between words on pages. Reading is experiencing the vibrancy of life amplified. Learning openness with the characters in books already written teaches openness with the characters in our own lived tomes. Reading isn’t only coming to know, not just meeting words for information; it’s coming to feel and coming to being. It’s coming alive.
This is what makes it all worth it. Language that breathes life into shattered or shattering souls.”
When I wrote that I was in the midst of a phase in my life where the only real feelings I allowed myself to feel and express were in response to reading books and watching television shows. They were the only safe feelings. I was too scared to express myself with the people in my “lived tome.” Things, I think, got worse from there. I stuffed feelings down even further. I shut people out in order to keep myself and them safe. And, it worked. Except it also meant feeling super lonely sometimes. That is ultimately what led me back to therapy (that and not being able to escape the nagging feeling of being unsafe). I realized, while watching a Brene Brown video with my class that I wasn’t just blunting the painful feelings, I was also dulling joy and excitement and happiness.
Therapy, while it was still productive, eventually led to me starting to feel again. C, regardless of the mistakes made at the end, helped me feel safe for long enough to let the feelings flow. I am still open and raw now but I am so uncomfortable with expressing my emotions. I have this fear that the emotions, when they are mine, are “bad.” What happened with C sort of reinforced that feeling. So, when the topic of expressing emotions during therapy came up, I shut down. Surprise. Dr. W is pretty perceptive though. She got to the core of things this week. It is interesting how life lessons are sort of cyclical, she intuitively brought us around to what was at the core of that post I made years ago. Expressing emotions despite fear.
My therapy homework this week is to journal on the prompt: why is it okay to express emotions? Because, apparently, I beat myself up for expressing them. I apologized for “being a brat last session” when I found out we would have to skip a week (we didn’t schedule soon enough, so her schedule filled up). I don’t even know why I was disappointed. I don’t feel like I need that space each week. But I did feel… let down, I guess. I’ve been struggling so much these last few weeks and it just felt like being left alone with it all, even though I know I’m not alone with everything now. I know I am not the child who had to figure everything out all by herself. But I definitely responded like the child. I reacted like there was no hope, like there was no point in me even coming to therapy each week, like there is just something inherently wrong with me that no one can help me fix.
In response to all of this Dr. W was reassuring. She says it is okay for me to express my feelings in there with her as long as I am not throwing things or abusing her. She also said that she wants me to feel okay expressing my needs and whenever she can meet them, she will. After everything that happened with C, I stayed pretty quiet during all of that. I am now even more apprehensive than I was before. I had this faith in therapy that sort of shattered with C. And then again with R (though I realize R didn’t do anything wrong, it was just my perception of what happened that led to that hurt). So, it is strange to be exploring these things with Dr. W, while being too afraid to actually express my apprehension.
Anyway, I am sure we will get to that apprehension but for now Dr. W called me out on my use of the term brat. She asked me what it even means to be a brat. I said, “someone who whines about their needs.” And then she asked, “what does it mean to whine?” I said, “I don’t know, I guess just to express.” And, so, here we are… me, thinking about why it is actually good/okay to express emotions.
Parsing out faulty core beliefs, take 1.
The problem with answering this question isn’t that I don’t know why expressing emotions is healthy. I do get that. The problem is that there is this other part of me that is filled with a bunch of “yeah buts.” So, this is how I will answer: in two parts. The first, why it is healthy. The second, the opposition. Then, I suppose, I will try to parse it all out and make some sense of it all because that’s what I do.
Part 1: Why Expressing Emotions is Healthy
1) It allows me to be real to myself and others; expressing emotions leads to authenticity
2) It allows others to come closer; expressing emotions leads to the ability to construct genuine relationships
3) It allows me to feel less stress because I am not bottling things up; expressing emotions leads to less stress and therefore, more productivity and happiness.
4) It allows me to understand (or at least begin to understand) whatever message the emotions want me to know; expressing emotions leads to better understanding of the self.
5) It allows me to be less reactive; expressing emotions would lead to less need for self-destructive modes of “expression.”
6) It allows people to know how they can be there for you, if you need someone to be there; expressing emotions doesn’t just give information to the person doing the expressing but also to the people around them.
7) It allows me to start working toward an understanding of some long buried emotions and their origins; expressing emotions allows important knowledge to surface (I know this one goes along with #4).
8) It allows me to stop experiencing negative emotions in my body; expressing emotions allows them to be released from the body instead of stored there.
9) It allows me to assert boundaries; expressing emotions allows people to know where you stand with them and that allows for the appropriate setting of boundaries.
Part 2: Why, Despite all that Good, I am Scared to Express Emotions
1) People can’t handle negative emotions; I learned early on that anger, sadness, etc. were not emotions that others could handle. And by others, here, I really mean my parents. It was perfectly okay for them to express these emotions but when I did it, I was a nuisance. Somehow this belief has bled over into my interactions with everyone else. I fear that no one else will be able to handle those emotions either, despite experiences which have suggested otherwise.
2) People don’t want to be around people who aren’t happy all the time; again, I learned pretty early on that I was not a “happy” person like my sister and that meant that when I asked to be played with or asked to hang out with the siblings or asked my parents to pay attention to something I found cool or interesting, the answer was always “no.”
3) People will leave; honestly, I have no idea where this one comes from but it runs deep. I have this feeling that if people can’t handle the emotions (#1) and if they don’t want to be around someone who isn’t happy all the time (#2) then that will lead them to leave the relationship. It makes sense. But, at the same time, people don’t actually work that way. I know that I have people now who love me despite my dark and twisty times. I can look back on my earlier life and see that there were people who were there for me then, too. But, in those moments, I couldn’t see that. I just saw people walking away because I was too much trouble. My emotions were too much trouble.
4) Emotions make me “too much”; again, not sure where this one comes from. I just know that when I am abandoned for what seems like an inappropriate emotional response that must mean that I was “too much” for that person. Whether or not there is truth to this, I don’t actually know.
Part 3: What Does it All Mean?
Honestly, I can see how there are more reasons for expressing emotions than there are for not expressing emotions. There isn’t much parsing out to be done here. Not as much as I thought there would be. I thought because I have spent so much time avoiding my emotions there must be a good reason. I mean, I must have been doing this for a reason, to protect myself. But, now, as an adult. I can’t really see the logic. I just have these gut feelings about why I shouldn’t express myself. And, I know that sometimes gut feelings really are just implicit memory. They’re my body and mind protecting me from a past pain.
Dr. W also suggested that I draw something to represent this idea of freely expressing emotions and the significance but I can’t envision it… what do you all think? What would this look like as a picture?