The first time I felt real raw emotional pain was when my father died—I was five.
My mother and I sat on her bed and cried for what seemed like forever. I remember asking her if we would ever stop crying. I don’t remember how she responded.
What I do remember was my fear. Fear that her sobs were a sign of weakness. An indication that she was too weak to take care of us. I didn’t want to be weak. I didn’t want to feel powerless anymore.
So I turned it off like a faucet.
I got off the bed.
I stopped being sad.
And I didn’t let myself be sad (about anything) for decades.
Taking charge of my emotions felt powerful. Courageous even. When I got scared, a voice in my head said, stop being a baby. If something managed to creep in, I employed a myriad of unhealthy distractions. I rationalized the crap out of every emotion until it was distilled into nothing more than a footnote.
I went through the motions of living without actually living.
I did a lot of things, but experienced none of them.
I may have appeared strong by not letting anything get to me. But I can’t think of anything more chicken shit than what I was doing.
As a social worker, I validated the feelings of others all of the time. I told clients things like, “it’s healthy to cry” and I meant it sincerely. I knew, intellectually, that when you bury pain it just sprouts into something else—anger, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, for example.
But it took me a long time to work up the courage to feel what I knew. It was the scariest thing I’d ever done. I finally told myself to stop being a baby and cry your eyes out.
I learned and continue to learn that feelings are not always a warning or a call to action. We can be scared as hell without chickening out. We can feel guilty without hating or punishing ourselves. We can dislike someone without being a jerk. We can love someone and let them go. We can be sad—cry our friggin’ eyes out even—without falling apart.
We can feel like we’re drowning without actually drowning. Eventually, when we’re ready, we will take a breath again.
Sure, sometimes a gut instinct or a feeling alerts us to a needed change. Whether it’s changing direction in a parking lot or in our career, the trick is to let the feeling reveal itself instead of kicking dirt all over it.
Sometimes it’s an alert that something’s wrong. Sometimes it’s just an alert that something is right—that you are alive and experiencing everything that life is—including, sometimes, pain.
Accepting and experiencing every feeling—that’s courage.
Discerning when it is and is not a call to action—that’s wisdom.
Learning that pain sucks but it won’t break you—that’s power.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Apprentice Editor: Jess Sheppard/Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Arnab Chakraborty/Pixoto