True…but I’d prefer to feel happy.
A few years back I was going through a period of change in my life, including allowing myself for the first time in many years to truly feel my emotions. One day as I struggled with all those feelings, my dear friend and extraordinary counselor, Tricia, handed me a tissue for my tears. Then she asked, “Would you rather feel this way, or go back to not feeling at all?”
Considering that I was crying and snotting all over myself in the middle of a work day, the idea of emotional numbness had some appeal. But I couldn’t honestly wish for it back. Even on the worst of days I felt more alive as an emotionally open person than I ever had while keeping my emotions impenetrably walled-off.
That emotional wall has been on my mind frequently as I work my way through the current transitions in my life. The final few months before I accepted a new job (entailing a return to my former hometown) were not particularly happy ones. In fact, in the six weeks prior to receiving the job offer, there wasn’t a single tear-free day. Which made it all the more strange when the tears stopped.
No crying is a good thing, right? Except that big, emotionally impactful things were happening: saying goodbye to friends I love, leaving a city I love, saying hello to friends I love and have missed, moving into a beautiful, spacious new apartment, beginning a job…all “big ticket” emotional items.
One evening I was moving around my apartment putting things away, slowly making choices about where items belong now that I have multiple rooms in which to keep them. I suddenly experienced a strong sense of disorientation. How did I get here? Whose life was this, anyway?
Because, I reasoned, if this were my life, I would feel something.
That’s when I realized that I’d fallen easily into my old habit of coping with feelings by shutting them away. And actually, it can be a useful coping mechanism when you are in the midst of huge transitions calling for management of many details. After all, it is difficult to get through a lengthy to-do list if you are stopping every few minutes to blow your nose and wipe your eyes.
The problem is that I forget to get back to feeling things once the immediate frenetic work is done. I forget that, in order to manage my difficult emotions this way, I also have to shut away the ones I want to feel – like love and happiness, like contentment and inner peace. I don’t even realize that I’m wandering around in a numbed and foggy state, emotionally flat and unresponsive. I don’t contact the friends I miss, I don’t make an effort to enjoy those who are nearby. Keeping myself closed off from my emotions effectively renders the work of moving, the effort required to change my life, meaningless.
I share this for several reasons.
First, I know I am not alone in finding ways to numb myself in order to keep my emotions at bay when they threaten to overwhelm me. Whether it is with substances (alcohol, drugs, peanut M&Ms), with isolation, by binge-watching “Full House” episodes or by obsessively taking Facebook quizzes, the end result is the same – unfulfilled days leading to an empty life. I am not alone in needing reminders to cut that crap out.
Second, it is a cliché to say that awareness is the first step toward change. But it is also true. I have to realize that I’m indulging in a coping mechanism that is past its usefulness – I’m beyond the frenetic phase of my move and into the long, slow part of the transition. I have both the time and leisure to attend to my emotional life again – it will actually make the transition more successful if I open my heart and see what’s going on in there! If what I’m saying rings true for you, isn’t it time to stop protecting yourself and start risking emotion again? Me too.
Third, I need my life to be about something. Something bigger than myself. In large part, that is what this transition and new job are all about. The effort and energy required to avoid emotional engagement prevent that by keeping my attention unfocused and dis-engaged. So I ask myself, do I really care if my taste in classical music is hipster or not? Is that pistachio muffin really worth trading my ability to laugh or to cry? Tomorrow, next week or next year, will I look back at this time and be proud of what I’ve accomplished? Will being able to recite Uncle Jessie’s lines from memory be a big enough contribution to this world? Would it be, is it, enough for you?
If your answer is no, then let’s agree to help each other out. We won’t intentionally numb ourselves with whatever our “numbing agent of choice” might be – and to keep ourselves honest, we’ll tell someone we trust what that is. We’ll treat each and every fledgeling emotion as valid and nurture it, in ourselves and in others. We won’t judge emotions as good or bad – we’ll just let them speak for themselves. And finally, let’s not judge others for being emotional beings, even when they/we are sloppy-emotional. It’s immensely human of us.
Eventually, we may grow to not only feel but to appreciate every emotion for the richness it adds to our understanding and experience. And when that happens, like good parents, let’s just keep it to ourselves that happiness is our favorite!