Before Xanax

Never let your emotions rule, but always let them testify. ~Robert Brault

I believe I’ve written about emotions in the past yet the idea of describing how necessary it is to allow one’s self the opportunity to express emotions keeps playing over in my mind. Often, the reality is that I need to hear the message and so in that – writing is helpful, healing. It’s probably no surprise to any writer that in reflection, one can identify content specifically situated to deliver a deeply personal note. Perhaps that is always the Universe’s intent.

In any regard, I am in the business of teaching people the importance of emoting. One of the first things I teach is that we are born knowing how to laugh and cry – expressing emotions are innate to the human experience. Our bodies are designed to experience emotions and yet after birth, many of us are taught NOT to express them instead of how to express them effectively.

I cringe at all of the times as a parent that I told one of my children to “hush up”, “stop crying”, “suck it up”, or the worst… “I’ll give you something to cry about”. Children are just doing what comes naturally but we teach them NOT to do it! Instead, we need to be teaching them HOW to do it but we can’t because many of us simply don’t know how to effectively and efficiently express emotions – in particular, the negative ones.

Obviously, I don’t want to have a meltdown in the middle of a shopping mall or grocery store. I don’t necessarily want to stop at an intersection or utilize the drive through to engage an emotional moment. But, if I am feeling something… it needs to be expressed – to get out – to be processed instead of repressed, stuffed, ignored, or shelved.

Repressing emotions is detrimental to your health. Research from Stanford University and The National Cancer Institute has demonstrated that if we disrupt the natural flow of our hormones and stress chemicals, it affects our immune system which, in turn disables the body’s ability to address irregularities when they naturally, occur. Your very life may be dependent on your ability to constructively process all of your feelings.

When I was completing my undergraduate degree, my life was in turmoil and almost daily I was feeling intense emotion… and doing a lot of crying. I had a professor who picked up on it rather quickly (gotta love us Psychology folks) and introduced me to Re-evaluation Counseling – it’s a co-counseling community based on the concept of peer counseling. The emphasis that I took away from my very brief experience in that environment was the implicit need to productively and respectfully acknowledge and assert the sentiments we experience. Some of it completely contradicting everything we’ve ever been taught.

My three daughters are only 5 years apart in all and during those years when my marriage was disintegrating they were beginning puberty. Between their raging hormones and my peri-menopausal self, it’s probably not a significant stretch to imagine the amount of emotional chaos in our home. Someone was always in tears for one reason or another. As long as the crier was appropriately in their own space and not being disrespectful, it went unchallenged. Of course, as with everything I talk about – I wasn’t perfect at remembering the advice and my conditioning coupled with my impatience occasionally took over, convincing me that it was the proper ‘mom’ thing to try and fix all of their problems or console the inconsolable, which only led to my frustration.

It takes patience to experience emotion; on a lot of levels! First, let’s be clear that expressing ‘happy’ emotions isn’t the part we need help with… those feel good. It’s the negative ones we are lousy at facing… they often hurt or feel bad, which are things we instinctively run away from. We generally want to ‘rip the bandaid off’ – get it over with quickly whether we are the ones feeling it or the ones observing it. A lot of us are uncomfortable with negative emotions, preferring to avoid them altogether or we urgently attempt to ‘fix’ them.  It’s one of the reasons we are so apt to wrap our arms around someone we love and say softly “ahh… don’t cry.”  We don’t want to see them in pain and we don’t know what to do with their hurt so we try and make it go away.

Instead… go ahead and hug them snuggly but use the phrase “that’s ok, let it out”. Sometimes, one of the most powerful things I can do is let a client sit quietly and cry it out.

It’s also important to remember that emotions are not right or wrong – they just are. Now, having said that – it’s doubly important to know that they aren’t always true. If I wake up tomorrow and feel frustrated that I put on five pounds over the holidays and begin feeling anxious that Harlan will be able to tell and therefore won’t find me attractive… I may have an emotional reaction. It would be an irrational reaction – but a ‘real’ one as far as I am concerned (I’m just using this as an example… I know how H feels about me). You see, emotions are not always rational and this little fact makes it more difficult to cope when people are reacting to something very differently than you or I may. It’s more difficult to express empathy and demonstrate understanding if we can’t relate to the feelings that are conveyed. In those moments – compassion is the only relevant response.

What happens if my emotions trigger your emotions? This is the place that spawns disagreement and additional – perhaps compounding – negative emotions. This is where the line lies for me between my ability to listen professionally and my capacity to listen personally. Ninety-nine times out of one hundred, a client can talk about any emotion they choose and I am unaffected – personally unattached to their feelings. But at home… different story. At home or with people I love, my feelings can get hurt or I can be fearful or disappointed.

An amazing assortment of variables trigger emotions; some of which we don’t even know exist in our psyche. Others, we know are there but we don’t pay enough attention to them to realize that they are provoking emotional energy. It’s also interesting when contrasting feelings exist simultaneously – seriously throwing of our ability to identify the core issue and make any sense of it.

I’ve spoken at length about the overarching emotional theme of abandonment in my life… people I love – leave. A few years ago, my oldest daughter had an opportunity to spend a year in Europe as an au pair. She was going to be living in Amsterdam with a family who had two little girls – it was an amazing opportunity. The family was supportive of her desire to experience as much of a European adventure as possible and we talked for months in advance about how exciting the opportunity was. I was anxious to live a bit vicariously through her as she traveled and developed international sophistication. I had a chance to live in Europe as a kid and knew that she would remember it forever. I was so proud of and excited for her.

We had a long drive to the airport and chatted excitedly about her plans. I was delighted to escort her and we sat in the airport until the last possible minute before she had to go through the security line. She – being anxious to start her adventure – was antsy to start the process and I didn’t want our goodbye embrace to end. As happy as I was for her – there was a sliver of anxiety, of fear, that she was leaving ‘me’. It didn’t matter how long or how much my rational mind belittled my emotional self for the irrationality of these thoughts… it didn’t matter that the mom in me was super confident of her love for me… the abandonment trigger had been tripped and as I reached the car – the waterfall of tears was unstoppable.

When we get emotional like this I find the challenge is not to be harsh or judgmental. I try and remember that emotions are not necessarily truth. That’s a little bit contrary to traditional ways of thinking but it’s helpful to remember when irrationality is peaking. I find that many of us are not self-compassionate when we are emotional… sad that we can be more comforting to a stranger than we can be to our own heart.

Lastly, I’ll reference resistance. As I’ve mentioned, no one ‘likes’ to feel unpleasant things. I realized a few years ago, that I have a tendency to ‘resist’ – to hold back – to prevent myself from feeling things that are negative. I sometimes think it is because I try to always be a positive person and negativity doesn’t sit well with my soul. And yet… sometimes I experience unfavorable emotions. During a particularly challenging period, a colleague asked me why I was resisting so much… how long would I try and hold back the emotions that were trying to surface… when would I be willing to let go?

I realized that I believe people expect me to hold it together, to stay positive, to process correctly, to practice what I preach – ALL the time – and so I wasn’t allowing myself to emote productively. Today, I am better at perceiving myself as a conduit… a funnel where my emotions can enter and exit without much effort. If I need to cry – I do. If I need to write – I have. If I need to walk, or work out, or have lunch with a friend, or meditate… I do. But – I am still imperfect at this and sometimes find myself all wrenched up in a tither. Sometimes, life throws so much at you that the funnel clogs.

And then… there’s Xanax.

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