When I was a child, I watched my mother express emotions and my father criticize her for it. I watched my father stuff his feelings and brood, and my mother use heightened emotionality to be heard.
Making this observation over and over led me to conclude that there were two ways to deal with emotions; hysteria or stoicism. I chose the latter.
Even though I made the conscious choice to stuff my feelings because I believed it was the better option, the emotions still had to go somewhere.
I had the false belief that if I didn’t act out my feelings, I was making them go away. In reality, they were making a home inside of me.
The Effect of Not Feeling
We are emotional beings, and there is nothing wrong with that. It is natural to experience emotion, as painful as it can be, and let it pass. When we do this, we are relating to our emotions in a healthy way.
When we stuff our emotions through repression, they store themselves inside the body. Emotions are literally energy, and that energy–although intangible–is very real.
When I was about eight years old, I was running and playing on our cul-de-sac with the neighbor kids. I accidentally ran into a kite string that slit my neck straight across and made a perfect red line of blood.
Because there were lots of boys around who were prone to teasing, I turned on my heel, set my jaw, and walked straight home as if nothing was amiss. The moment I closed the door behind me, I burst into tears.
To this day, I notice myself setting my jaw in that same way whenever I’m trying to conceal my feelings; when I’m doing an intense workout and pushing through to muscle failure, when I’m hurt by something but feel safer acting angry instead of sad, or when I feel scared as a man approaches me on the street at night.
All the repression I practiced in my youth had consequences. I began getting headaches around the age of ten. They were so frequent and debilitating that my mother took me to the doctor multiple times.
Of course, they could find nothing wrong with me, as medical doctors can only work with the gross symptoms of disease, so nothing was done. My mother eventually took me to the chiropractor, and that helped for a bit until the adjustments wore off.
Energy Makes a Home
The chiropractic adjustments might have done the job had my headaches been from an injury or gross misalignment, but they weren’t. Emotion is energy, and energy needs an outlet. When I wasn’t giving the energy of my emotions an outlet, the energy found its own.
Eventually, as a preteen my PCP prescribed Tylenol with Codeine in it. I took this rarely, as I was already aware of the addictive quality of Codeine (thankfully). Either way, it wasn’t going to solve the issue, only cover it up.
According to Ayurveda, there are six stages of disease:
- Accumulation – energy builds up
- Aggravation – energy spreads from its natural home
- Dissemination – the energy begins to move throughout the body
- Localization – the energy localizes in a place other than its natural home; low grade symptoms like aches, pains, feeling off, and mild depression can emerge
- Manifestation – the first signs of disease as we know it emerge (in my case, headaches)
- Chronicity – the disease becomes long-term or even permanent, and significantly disrupts quality of life
It is telling to note that modern medicine only acknowledges, identifies, and classifies disease at stage five and six. This means that anything stage four and below goes undetected and untreated.
Symptoms and sensations from stage four and below often get responses like “rest more”, “reduce stress”, or “it’s all in your head”.
Resisting Our Emotions
By the time I was in my early teens, my headaches had transitioned into mild depression. By the time I was in my late teens, I was having full-blown anxiety attacks.
The energy I had ignored and continued to repress had made its home deeper and deeper in my nervous system, until it was practically screaming for me to acknowledge it.
Along with my lifelong general stuffing of my feelings, I was also beginning to wake up to the fact that I didn’t want to be with the boyfriend I had been dating for four years. Together since I was fifteen, I had truly believed we’d be together forever.
Coming around to the reality that I didn’t want that required a huge reorientation and redefining of my life and who I was. It was an identity crisis, the the truest sense.
In retrospect, I’ve come to understand that panic attacks I was having as a deep resistance to the changes of heart I felt welling up inside of me. Couple these major life changes with an already exhausted nervous system, and it was a perfect recipe for anxiety.
I was fascinated a few years later to see a close friend go through almost the exactly same scenario. She had made a life with her high school sweetheart, then her husband. As she was starting to realize that her identity as a more mature woman wasn’t meshing with her previous choice, she started to experience eerily similar anxiety and panic attacks.
Change is hard, especially when we don’t know how to express our feelings about it, or don’t have anyone to express them too. But feelings are very real, although they are intangible. They affect our behavior and color our perception much more than we’d like to admit.
If we are resistant to the feelings welling up in us, it can feel like the world itself is being ripped apart. We can make ourselves wrong for feeling, or we can try to deny that we’re feeling at all.
Whatever coping mechanism we use to try to avoid our feelings, it never works for long. Although it’s a bit of a cliche, what we resist persists.
Relating to the Emotional Self
I am still very much in the process of learning how to relate to my emotions in a healthy way. I understand at least conceptually that this involves not resisting my feelings, allowing myself to feel everything (even when it hurts), and then letting it all pass.
There is a saying that emotions are like the clouds passing over the sun. If we dwell on them, we continue to shut out the light. If we allow ourselves to be in the dark for awhile but ultimately let the clouds pass by, the sun’s light is always waiting for us on the other side.
There is no reason to resist something as natural and inevitable as the clouds making their way across the sky. The same is true for our emotions; they are simply the weather of life.