Sometimes we get stuck.
It may make no sense. Parts of life might be going really well. The feeling seems to come from nowhere. All at once we feel trapped in something that we’ve faced before. This anger, deep and fierce, that scares others. A sadness, a hopelessness that feels like it has no bottom. A joyousness that seems incapable of feeling pain.
We have a cultural ambivalence to emotions and feelings. Some parts of our culture emphasize “letting go” and “forgiving” and focus on cultivating “positive” qualities and emotions. Taken superficially, this can leave those of us struggling to feel even worse about ourselves for being unable to transcend our suffering, particularly those emotions that seem to come from nowhere. Other parts of culture may treat feelings as the truth about who we are, and emphasize sharing them, expressing them, holding others responsible for our feelings. Taken superficially, this keeps us stuck in a different way, keeping us dependent upon our environment for emotional peace. If I cannot be happy because you did something, then I have relinquished the keys to joy.
These extremes signify qualities of which we need both. Regarding forgiveness, Wilfred McCay writes:
Forgiveness makes sense only in the presence of a robust sense of justice; without that, it is in real danger of being reduced to something passive and automatic and empty, a sanctimonious way of simply moving on.
He speaks to a truth about our condition, in which mercy and justice define each other. I want to address how this paradox speaks to our emotional reality: we cannot let go of our pain and stuckness until we have embraced them. We cannot honor our pain and stuckness until we acknowledge that it can help us move in a direction that serves our whole self.
Feelings are not things done to us by others. They are messages from our body and soul trying to communicate something important about our experience. Our feelings provide the energy, esteem, and authority by which we engage in our lives.
This shift in perspective is not to say that what others do doesn’t or shouldn’t matter, that we “should” be able to control our feelings and not feel hurt or vulnerable to what others do. The underlying message of our cultural norms is that somehow our feelings are not valid if we cannot make a strong case for blaming others. “You made me mad, you hurt me, you need to change” seems like a strong, forceful position. Speaking from this position, however, limits the scope of our attention to one of wariness, and undermines our ability to listen when others want to make amends, explain, or offer a different perspective. Saying “I feel angry and hurt about what just happened” communicates accurately and precisely my emotional experience without enfolding it into a larger story. I don’t need to prove that what you did was wrong or hurtful, I only need to honor that it was my experience, and then I can listen to your experience.
I think of emotions as being like small children or pets: living creatures that have needs and wants but lack language with which to communicate. They do the best they can to communicate their needs, but adults accustomed to verbal exchanges can struggle to understand and attune to what is happening. And if needs go unmet, then the communications intensify or begin to distort. When we find ourselves breaking down in tears because the grocery store is out of our favorite cereal, we are hearing from a part of us that has deep unmet needs and pain. Not about the cereal. The cereal has become symbolic of the larger problem. The cereal symbolizes how “all my life part of me has felt deprived and starved,” for example.
This is why I think “letting go” is not always a helpful suggestion. That anger is trying to say something to you, and wants your attention, wants you to listen and hear its need. We cannot simply forgive away our deep pain of being wounded, tortured, or abused. Sometimes we need to make time to be still and listen to what the emotion is saying, and it can be a process. We can approach this curiosity and a willingness to set aside our usual beliefs about what things mean. What’s happening in my body? What thoughts are coming up? What memories seem to be activated? What was happening when the emotion began?
As we learn to better “hear” what emotions are trying to say, the intensity often seems to diminish. We stop fighting the feelings and allow them to rise and fall as they naturally will. Simply turning to face the feeling can be enough. Other times, we may need to make changes in our lives.
Doing this work can open up places in ourselves that feel scary, and it can throw us off for a period of time. We benefit from the support of trusted friends, clergy, therapists, or others to help us hold ourselves. Some of us are not in life circumstances that are safe or stable enough for us to do this work. Some of us will spend our lives avoiding this work, with steep costs. This process can be challenging, unpleasant, and it can transform our lives.