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Don’t Worry, Your Emotions Aren’t Unpacking Their Bags

In times of deep pain, have you ever thought to yourself, “I’m always going to feel this way”? Or maybe you’ve thought, “I can’t let X feeling in, because if I do, I will lose my mind and never come back”? You have? Whew, me too. Why are we so afraid of our emotions? Well, […]

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In times of deep pain, have you ever thought to yourself, “I’m always going to feel this way”? Or maybe you’ve thought, “I can’t let X feeling in, because if I do, I will lose my mind and never come back”? You have? Whew, me too.

Why are we so afraid of our emotions? Well, let’s be real. We’re not afraid of all of our emotions, just some of them. Well most of them, actually. And so now, if you’re at all like me, you’re wondering, why is that? Why is our emotional palet so limited? Why are some of them so distasteful to us? You know the ones I’m talking about.

Do you want the short answer or the long one? Duh! The short one of course. I mean, if you’re from the U.S. then you are part of our quick, fast-food, Uber Eats, good enough kind of country.

So, that’s my short answer. Culture. Through the explicit and implicit messages. From the belief that feelings belong in private (except for the happy ones of course) to the “self-made man” ethos, we’ve learned that the right and good way to be is happy. All the time. Everything else is just a failure of our character. Oh so much more to say, so for my fellow sociology/anthropology nerds, my long answer will come in another essay someday soon.

We’re taught we can choose our emotions a la carte.

Okay. So hopefully we can agree that most of us were taught to be frightened of, or at the very least, avoidant of those unpleasant emotions. You know the category of feelings I’m talking about, right? They’re like the plate of liver and onions your grandma tried to serve you as a child. For me, it might have been the canned sardines my dad wanted me to try. Just the thought of those slimy little fish. Bleck.

Where was I? Oh yeah, talking about those yucky feelings. The ones Brene Brown calls “hard feelings”. We think we can just slyly drop them under the kitchen table for the dog to take care of, but if we learned anything in our childhood, it never works because he always throws it up. Busted! Brene gets this too. She reminds us we have to eat our vegetables, though she can totally relate to our junk food cravings.

You can’t numb those hard feelings without numbing the other effects, our emotions. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness. And then we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulnerable, so then we have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle.

Brene Brown, The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings of Authenticity, Connections, and Courage

I just love that Brene invoked our use of food to avoid those pesky visitors. I’m picturing her now downing some Shiner Bock and a pile of homemade muffins.

In an interview I gave last year, I off-handedly referred to this habit of ours as trying to eat a la carte from the full menu of our emotions. Sure, you can just order a side of fries and a milkshake every time. I mean, it is an absolutely tasty option. I’ll pause while you try to work out how you’re going to satisfy the salty/sweet craving you now have.

Honestly, I do think it is a useful way to think about how we have been encouraged in our consumer-focused, fast food, specialized menu world that we get to have only what we want – happiness, joy, delight, excitement. In order to live a full and healthy life, and to actually savor the deliciousness of those fries and shake, we need to eat from the entire menu.

This is an especially important reminder as we navigate our grief and loss journeys. Some of the menu items like despair, sorrow, pain are so NOT appetizing. The truth is, the more we learn to consume the less pleasant “healthy” items on the emotional menu, the more we get to savor and appreciate all the desserts.

When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

Khalil Gibran, The Prophet

Elizabeth Alexander, the extraordinary poet, essayist, playwright (and widow, just like me) is also imploring you to not walk with your gaze taking in only part of the emotional landscape before us.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final. Don’t let yourself lose me. Nearby is the country they call life. You will know it by its seriousness. Give me your hand.

Elizabeth Alexander, The Light of the World

Switching metaphors y’all. Hang on!

Just like we’ve ignored the food pyramid guidelines for most of our lives, consuming significantly more sugar and fat than called for (no judgment, it’s so dang good), we haven’t developed a healthy diet that includes appreciating sadness, despair, anger, etc.

Why are we so certain that if we let the “hard ones” in, they will never leave. Like that extended family member who was just passing through town for a few days and is now permanently ensconced in your guest room. After trauma in my teens, training and a career as a social worker and narrative therapist, and the loss of my husband, and then a close friend, I’ve spent most of my life exploring our relationship with emotions. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming to be “good” at it. Just letting you know, this is my go-to topic when my mind has a moment.

For the coffee lovers out there, this metaphor is for you!

More recently, I’ve been curious why we get so stuck either avoiding or sitting in our hard emotions, and I think it’s in part because of the expectations we have about their presence in our lives. The assumptions that the difficult ones will and must unpack their bags and that if we just do the right things and try really hard, the pleasant ones will want to move in.

What if, I thought out loud to myself (not hyperbole, I do that sometimes), we changed our relationship with them? What would it take to do that? What is the risk and what is the reward? I began to form the concept that we need to treat them as visitors over for a cup of coffee. Now, this was long before physical distancing due to COVID19, but bear with me.

There is this truth we know deep down but have been too afraid to say it out loud. I’ll say it so you don’t have to. Every single one of our emotions is temporary. Yes, all of them. The “good ones” and the “bad ones”. If we don’t attend to the wisdom they are there to teach us, they will loiter outside our door, becoming a looming presence keeping us locked inside.

When we don’t let them in, they scare away the emotions we really hope will visit more often too. So let’s shift our assumptions that our “hard” emotions are coming to unpack their bags. Instead, let’s remember they are just visitors over for a cup of coffee.

I was so struck by the resonance of this way of seeing emotions I wrote a poem about it.

Stopped by for a Cup of Coffee

While you were busy your emotions stopped by for a cup of coffee.
Just visitors seeking a warm and inviting respite, these travelers arrived with tales and insights at your door.
Journeyers wishing to pass along the wisdom they discovered, about the path already taken and the terrain that lies ahead.  

While you were busy your emotions stopped by for a cup of coffee.
Fear knocked nervously, first tapping then banging.
Sadness meandered slowly up your front walk.
Anger arrived unannounced and rang the doorbell repeatedly.
Confusion zigged and zagged until it stumbled onto your porch.  

While you were busy your emotions stopped by for a cup of coffee.
Joy’s radiant light was dimmed by your drawn curtains.
Amazement’s gifts of wonder were left unopened on your front porch. Delight’s bright smile went unseen through your closed door.
Gratitude’s comfort faded to unease waiting to be let in.

While you were busy your emotions stopped by for a cup of coffee.
Those intrepid visitors are still waiting on your doorstep, simply wanting to feel the warmth of being seen and held by you.
These wanderers are desperate to share the wisdom from their travels, and they won’t be on their way until you invite them in for a cup of coffee
.
Performing my poem, Stopped by For a Cup of Coffee

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