I flopped into my therapist’s leather couch last week and asked, “So…what should I cry about this week?” It’s become our little joke that these sessions follow a template that always ends in tears.
Like a fencing champion who deftly maneuvers and makes contact with their opponent’s chest, each week she skillfully reveals some tender point in my heart that needs processing. With her guidance to locate and stay with whatever I’m feeling, I crumble, have a cathartic cry, re-apply my lip gloss and head on home. I know it doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, but since my father’s death several weeks ago, it’s been incredibly efficient.
Last week though, when she asked how I was doing, I scanned my body for an answer and couldn’t recognize what I was feeling. Was it numbness? Wistful sadness? Exhaustion? No, none of the usual suspects. Finally, after a few moments, I pondered aloud that I thought I might be feeling…happy?
For so many years there was a lot to be angry, afraid, confused and sad about in my life. Whether I was missing the tool required to handle these overwhelming emotions or because I simply believed I was missing it, my mind (or heart?) kept me safe by pushing this pain away with the occasional help of food, mindless screen time and general busy-ness. My body soldiered on, putting one foot in front of the other, keeping calm and carrying on.
Suppressing emotions, however, has one major drawback as a defense mechanism: you don’t get to choose which emotions you push away. Special thanks to my friend Debra Woog who helped me realize this by sharing a quote from PhD-level licensed social worker Brene Brown, who so aptly puts it this way:
The problem is — and I learned this from the research — that you cannot selectively numb emotion. You can’t say, here’s the
bad stuff. Here’s vulnerability, here’s grief, here’s shame, here’s fear, here’s disappointment — I don’t want to feel these.
Eventually, you start shutting off the desirable feelings too, the joy, delight and happiness.
Despite my father’s illness and passing, this past month has brought some amazing progress: the switch to a more appropriate school for my son and the hiring of a much-needed PCA, among many other positive resolutions to some painful obstacles. But after so many years of inadvertently numbing all of my feelings, the well deserved sense of relief and happiness which had eluded me for so long still escaped me. Even when some joy did manage to work its way to the surface, a small demon discounted the experience by pulling forth some new obstacle and asking, “How can you be smiling when you’ve got THIS to contend with?”
Ironically, I ended last week’s session with tears too. But these were happy tears, because I was completely overcome by the realization that the happiness which I had been seeking for so long was there, but it just needed to be seen and felt.
It’s been a full seven days since I left my doctor’s office with the marching orders to simply let myself feel happy when I feel happy. It’s been a week of transcendent moments, lots of dancing while I unload the dishwasher and some long, hard runs. Even some creativity and playfulness is seeping out, which is unexpected. Gratitude has shown up too, which is also welcome.
So to all you fellow stiff-upper-lippers out there, I encourage you: Question your tendency to push away the negative emotions. Find a safe way to let the feelings come out, one at a time and with support. I know it’s scary, but you can do it. With time, the good feelings start coming out, too.