Most everyone in our society is doing feelings wrong. The result is a pervasive sense of isolation, alienation, and general dysfunction. We are a bunch of emotionally dysfunctional people bumping into each other, having bad emotional experiences largely created by our subconscious minds, and then suffering the consequences and limitations thereof.
A lot of people have a basic misunderstanding of what emotions are. That has definitely been true for me most of my life.
There is a life cycle to every emotion. Emotions are generated in the brain, and manifest as bodily experiences. Different people have different ways of experiencing emotion, although there are some common broad patterns. Fear might make your chest tighten up, or your throat hurt. If you’re angry, your face might flush and your head pound. I get a peculiar and very specific unpleasant tingle at the base of my spine when I encounter something horrifying.
Once we have a bodily experience of an emotion, our brain recognizes it, names it, expresses it, and, possibly, does something about it. For example, if someone steps on my toe, I experience anger in my body. My brain identifies anger. I acknowledge that I’m angry. Then I say, “Hey, you stepped on my toe! Be more careful next time!” And then it’s done. Gone. Properly felt and expressed emotions dissipate. Forever. If the circuit is complete, I have no residual anger or ongoing resentment of the toe stepper. It’s over.
Fear, sadness, happiness, all of them work this way. The emotion is not released until the circuit is complete. The entire life cycle of an authentic, in-the-present emotion is measured in minutes or seconds. I had a therapist tell me that anger lasts an average of 17 seconds. This assumes we are able to functionally experience and express it.
In our world, emotional expression is generally not acceptable, for various reasons. Some of it is cultural. Values of stoicism, for example, stigmatize people who are having emotional experiences. As well, repression becomes a self-perpetuating phenomenon when people experience loss or trauma, and are not allowed to express it. Their repressed emotions are fragile, frightening, and potentially explosive, so they now have a vested interest in repressing other people’s feelings.
It can be a deeply alienating experience when your own personal container ruptures, feelings start emerging whether you want them to or not, and the people around you avoid or attack you because your newly released feelings are reminding them of their own contained-but-radioactive feelings.
And the thing about this is that it all happens outside your awareness. As a person with large, delicately contained emotions of my own, I have always been triggered by “needy” or highly emotional people. And I have most likely been a bit unkind by avoiding or stigmatizing those people. It all happened below the radar. I was not aware I was avoiding. I felt vaguely sorry for the person and also annoyed or even angry with them because they were not “handling” their feelings. The truth was that if I were able to “handle” my own, I would not be able to be triggered by theirs. When someone else’s deep feelings trigger a strong reaction in us, it is really not about *that person.* It’s about whatever *that person* reminded us of in our own experience.
Now that I am aware…it still happens. Needy, emotional people push my buttons like whoa. And I now know exactly why and how. I am able to identify my triggered reaction, say, “Ok, I see you, but this has nothing to do with the present situation,” and save it for later. Sometimes, I still need space from the person having their emotional experience, because my need for self care becomes primary over their need for comfort. But I’m able to do that without, I hope, reinforcing society’s stigma against their feelings.
There are a lot of ways that people cut off the cycle of emotional expression, mostly based on how they were treated by their caregivers in childhood. Abandoned and neglected children abandon and neglect themselves (and others). Abused children abuse themselves (and others). Etc. Etc.
Some people are feelings stompers. When you express a feeling, they will immediately start telling you why you shouldn’t be having the feeling, sometimes subtly, sometimes very aggressively. There are emotions that are unpleasant to have, but there are no “bad” or “wrong” emotions. If someone tells you you shouldn’t be having a feeling, it doesn’t mean you can’t have it or it isn’t real. It usually just means that a) you are reminding them of something in their own Schroedinger’s box of contained feelings or b) your feelings look out-of-sync to the situation as they understand it, which doesn’t mean your feelings are invalid, just they they are not on the same page. If you identify someone as a feelings stomper, stop sharing your feelings with them. They don’t get it. Also don’t be surprised when they erupt in rage or tears and expect you to validate them. That goes with being a feelings stomper.
Some people are cut off from feelings almost entirely. They learn to interrupt the cycle and do not experience or recognize feelings at all. They “live in their heads” and whatever bodily sensations are created by emotions are not acknowledged. They simply don’t notice it. They are numb. Numb people don’t understand their own emotions, and therefore are not able to understand other people’s emotions, except in a vague, intellectual way. They confuse thoughts with feelings. Numb people lack empathy, but ironically can sound very self aware and sensitive because of the lack of affect in their voices and expressions. They project an image of someone who has mastered and processed feelings, when in reality, they aren’t even having feelings. Numbness can cause feelings to get “stuck” in the body. Sometimes, people who are cut off from their bodily emotional experience can end up having a lot of aches and pains and vague illness (or even specific illness). Numbing usually requires some kind of addiction to keep the brain from paying attention to feelings. It can be obvious, like alcoholism, or less obvious, like workaholism or relationship addiction. Most people engage in some numbing behavior, although a small percentage of people are completely numb. The cost of numbing is that pleasant, positive feelings like joy are also numbed.
People who are significantly numb can, sometimes, be untrustworthy. They tend to outsource their feelings functions to others, and you can end up pouring a lot of energy into them. If you encounter someone like that, it’s best to keep a safe distance and understand they can’t be “helped” or “saved” or “loved” into having a better connection with themselves. They can only change if they become aware and choose to do the work.
Some people get overwhelmed by unprocessed past feelings, and are so constantly triggered and exploding with those past emotions that they can’t feel anything in the present. Their authentic, in-the-moment emotions are stifled and submerged under the weight of immense trauma that never goes away no matter how often it comes up. The old feelings can’t dissipate, because they are not recognized for what they are. Instead, they’re projected outward, onto other people. The old emotion becomes “road rage,” or is assigned to a “difficult” or “toxic” person, and the old anger/fear/grief whatever never has an outlet, can never be recognized and authentically felt and released because it is being perceived as an external battle.
If you have someone like this in your life, it can be very challenging. You need to have very healthy boundaries, and although they do need a lot of love, care, and compassion, you need to be clear on what you’re able to give and not go beyond that or you could end up very hurt.
Whatever strategy people use to avoid their feelings, the result is generally anxiety, depression, and low self worth. Repressed and contained feelings don’t sit peacefully in the psyche, or in the body. They also have a way of coming out sideways. If you’ve ever known someone who you know to be kind hearted, but somehow they come off as aggressive and mean in their tone or in “accidental” statements, that is feelings coming out sideways. Passive aggression is another common outlet for repressed feelings.
People with repressed feelings (most of us) tend to have a lot of negative beliefs about themselves and the world, and those beliefs end up limiting them, damaging relationships, hindering career success, creating patterns of “why does this stuff always happen to me?”
Basically, whatever you stuff down into your subconscious is going to totally run your life. There’s a high price to pay for not letting your feelings out. The very sad irony of it is that we can spend years or a lifetime running away from feelings that could be expressed and dissipated over a much shorter period of time. Sometimes minutes. The fear of feelings is much worse to endure than the actual feelings. And yet so many of us live our lives in that fear.
It’s not exactly easy to open up that container. Often you can’t. Your mind won’t let you. You have to start gently, and open it up one teeny crack at a time, then slam it shut again. Sometimes, you want to get in there and just can’t. Other times, you get triggered out of the blue and the container is wide open. It’s hard. This is what our culture has done to us. Most people are fighting this battle. If we recognize this, we can be kinder.