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“Pity those who don’t feel anything at all.” ~ Sarah J. Maas, A Court of Thorns and Roses
Emotions—they are the primal goop in which we live our lives, running like a sticky undercurrent beneath all the other parts of us, the physical, the relational, the behavioral.
It is from this muck that we view ourselves and our worlds, whether we like to believe it or not.
Emotions are so unavoidable and influential in our lives that we have cultural fantasies of people who don’t have them—Spock, Tony Soprano, La Femme Nikita.
But even these stoic characters are sometimes brought to their knees by their own emotions, and the truth is, no one—not even bonafide psychopaths—gets to be human and not experience them.
This would not be such a big problem if emotions were objective, but the fact that one person can see a sunset and feel elation and another person can see the exact same sunset and feel grief can cause a few misunderstandings.
People like to think that their own emotions are the standard by which other people’s reactions should be judged—how can you feel depressed looking at this astonishingly beautiful sunset, they say. Are you insane?
It’s only when we can get into someone else’s shoes that their “insanity” will suddenly make sense. If we can stop freaking out about their reaction to a big red ball in the sky long enough to listen to them tell the story of how they watched sunsets with their mother the whole last year of her life when they knew she was dying, we will immediately change our tune. Oh, we might whisper. That’s really sad.
I’m talking, of course, about empathy. If there is one magic force that has the power to change the world, this is it. And as magical as it is, it can be equally elusive. Why? Because of our own emotions.
In a way, many of us are like little children. We may be able to perceive that someone else is hurting long enough to say “I’m sorry,” but then our own need to be heard crowds in. Our poor feelings—untended, invisible, and painful—rage forward in a relentless bid for attention and validation. What about me?
Ironically, some of us feel more comfortable dealing with other people’s emotions than we do our own. We stuff our experiences down and focus on everybody else, ultimately feeling exploited and alone, though we made the decision to show up this way all by ourselves. That’s not true empathy either.
I’ve noticed that people like to believe they can argue other people out of their own emotions. A husband will be mad at a wife because she is still hurt by his cheating, though it happened long ago. The wife will be mad at the husband because he is frustrated that she can’t trust him anymore despite an extended period of trustworthy behavior. They each want the other person’s emotions to be something other than what they are, and they focus more on fighting for that than doing the one thing that could actually change them—deeply empathizing with their partner.
Few among us realize (because we are not taught to behave this way) that having empathy for someone else while still respecting our own needs is even an option.
The good news is, as much as we generally cannot change how we feel about things without some pretty deep work, we can change how we behave in reaction to our feelings. For example, I used to get really worked up about my husband’s response to emergencies. A normally great guy with a pleasant demeanor, he tends to get a little mean. His meanness would trigger me and instead of focusing on the emergency, I’d lash out and try to make him be nicer. By yelling. Which doesn’t work.
Now, with a great deal of effort—because mean people are the thing I like least in the world—I am able to feel my feelings of hurt and fear, focus on the emergency anyway, and talk to my husband later when we’re both calm. Hey husband, I’ll say, I was disappointed that you fell back into that crappy pattern. It makes me feel scared and like I can’t trust you. Can you try to do something different next time? (Notice, I am not asking him to feel something different next time.)
And whether or not he does something different, I feel better because I didn’t get sucked into the darkness with him and I used my big girl voice. Over time, that voice gains traction, certainly with me, hopefully with him, and everybody is better off.
I guess what I’m saying is that, as much as we all have tough emotions, and as inconvenient as they often are, we are not helpless to any of it. If we focus on accepting emotional energy, and then try to adjust the behaviors associated with it, we’ll be less in our primal muck and more in our wise mind. And if that sometimes means that we need to separate ourselves from someone whose emotions have become toxic to us, or who refuses to upgrade the behaviors associated with their emotions, then so be it.
Our emotions can be scary, beautiful, confounding, motivating, and strange all at the same time, but they are not the totality of who we are.
When we can feel them, but make conscious choices about how we enact them, and do so with compassion for ourselves and for others, we can show up with presence, power, and peace.