The Next Happy
By Tracey Cleantis
If life were fair, during your grieving you would be visited by angels, fairies, and unicorns to aid you in your agony, and they would come bearing a big vat of calorie-free yet taste-rich fettuccine Alfredo, a Greek chorus to sing you songs about how life is unfair, and a team of people to massage away the pain of that hard truth. What makes grief such a bitch is that what shows up instead are the Ugly Stepsiblings of Emotion: envy, fear, shame, sadness, and anger. We don’t want the Ugly Stepsiblings of Emotion anywhere near us. When they are with us, we feel like we have to hide, withdraw, and not let people see us. These emotions are your companions in grief. They are totally normal and necessary reactions, and they’re here to stay—at least until you have worked through them. Trust me, things will only get worse if you try to repress these feelings and kick them out of your psyche. The more you repress them—through avoidance, numbing, overworking, overeating, overdrinking, and overshopping—the more the Ugly Stepsiblings push back, getting meaner and louder until you can’t do anything because they have taken your energy, your life force, and your dream for life. The result of this sad state of affairs is that you are now facing full-blown depression. My point? These bitches will take you down unless you make space for them.
The Difference between Feelings and Emotions
Before we understand why we have to feel these emotions and feelings, we need to understand the difference between them. Feelings, emotions, thoughts, and beliefs tend to get all smooshed up together so that we aren’t even sure which is which. Very often, when I ask a client how they feel, they will answer with what they are thinking. They describe, in a seemingly emotionally disconnected way, something really painful, saying things like, “My mother walked out right in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner,” or “My boss had his secretary call to tell me I didn’t get the promotion.” I can tell that these explanations are disconnected from the feelings the incidents caused.
First, let’s start ferreting out what emotions are. They are an emergency warning system that tells us we are facing a perceived threat. The emotion alarm often goes off before we have had time to think about the threat. This loud, intense, short-term high-alert warning system gives us a chance to respond, to act. It’s physical—fight or flight. Once the emotion alarm goes off, we start to make sense of and react to the emotion. We start to feel. It is possible, due to trauma responses or repeated ignoring of emotions, to be unable to feel in response to an emotion, which is decidedly not a good thing. Can you ever imagine removing the noxious buzzer from your smoke detector? And can you further imagine hearing the alarm and not responding to it (i.e. not feeling)? The results could be catastrophic, just as they can if we don’t know our emotions and ignore our feelings. According to Karla McLaren, an author who writes extensively on feelings and emotions, an emotion is a physiological experience (or state of awareness) that gives you information about the world, and a feeling is your conscious awareness of the emotion itself.
More differences between the two: Emotions tend to be experienced in universal ways (which makes sense since they’re intense and short-acting alarms) while feelings are experienced in a highly personal, subjective, and idiosyncratic way since we can interpret and act out our emotions in different ways. Fear, the emotion, is a racing heart, tense muscles, dilated pupils; the feeling may be terror if we’re reacting to threat, as in, Run! Here comes Godzilla. This feeling may then produce thoughts, such as I’m installing triple reinforced doors, buying a security system, and getting a pit bull. Feelings, unlike emotions, can be much more long-lasting, which is swell with love, happiness, and contentment, and a little less delightful
when they are worry, depression, and bitterness.
What’s the Point of These Emotions and Feelings?
The point is that your body is programmed to respond to a loss in this particular way and that you are normal to have the reactions that you are having. We came fully equipped with a brain and a nervous system that allow us to have emotions and feelings, and it is simply part of being human. Emotions and feelings, both the “good” and “bad,” are information. According to evolutionary theory, we need emotions like fear to tell us to feel afraid when we see something dangerous so we know to run from it, and we need emotions like pleasure to give us good feelings like love and happiness to motivate us to procreate and survive and do things that give us a better shot at longevity. Emotions are there to tell us we are facing a threat or a source of enjoyment. Feelings are there to give us a way to respond to that threat or source of enjoyment; these are not things we want to shut off.
And, I can hear you: I don’t have the same need early man had for always being alert to a hungry lion. No, of course you don’t. The loss of a dream isn’t a predator, but it is a loss that our body and brain are both reacting to for a reason. Can you imagine the consequences of not being able to detect heat, pain, and other stimuli that could cause your body physical harm? Bad, right? The danger of not being able to access your emotions or feel your feelings is similarly grim—a life without love, passion, bliss, contentment, or gratitude, a life without being able to be angry over injustices, a life without “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” Can you, or would you want to, imagine being indifferent to the loss of a loved one? Of course not. You have emotions and feelings, and they are there for a reason. They are always trying to tell you something.
But I Don’t Want to Feel
I remember a cheesy Morris Albert song from my youth, “Feelings,” in which he sang “Feelings, wo-o-o feelings.” I’ve often thought he could be saying, “Woe, woe, woe, feelings,” wishing that he didn’t still have feelings of love for the woman who had left him and that he could escape his sadness. I get it. I have heard the following words out of myriad people’s mouths: “I just don’t want to feel. Feelings suck. I would rather think; thinking doesn’t hurt. I want a feelingectomy. Why should I feel? There is no point to feelings.” When they are good, emotions and feelings can be very good, but when they are bad, they can be scary, isolating, and overwhelming. And of course, as a therapist, I know that an excess and distortion of emotions can lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, and irrational fears that manifest as phobias, so I take seriously these people’s thoughts on feelings. I empathize with the desire not to feel. I don’t tell them how miserable they would be without feelings—and they would be. As crappy as feelings like hurt, disappointment, sadness, rage, anger, and envy can be, it is much worse to feel nothing. Feeling nothing feels . . . like nothing. Without feelings, we are Pinocchio or Data from Star Trek. We are machines, or puppets, and all Pinocchio and Data want is to have real human emotions and the resulting feelings. Yes, I know, they aren’t grieving, and so it is easy for them to say. But try to remember that without feelings, we’d have no happiness, contentment, or love, and see if that changes how you feel about feelings.
When a patient apologizes for their emotions and resulting feelings, I will stop and ask them, “What were your family’s rules about this emotion?” Every family has rules. Some families are totally okay with anger, and others not so much. My family’s rules were that my parents were allowed anger, but I wasn’t. Sadness was definitely not allowed. And in some families, you might be surprised to learn, happiness isn’t allowed or encouraged either. It wasn’t really welcomed in my household. “Wipe that smile off your face” was one way that happiness was discouraged. Another way was the subtle message of, “How nice for you that this good thing happened”—a message that teaches you that it is better to keep your happiness to yourself. If you were too happy, that might create envy in someone else. The emotional range of what is allowed in families can be pretty limited. Is it any surprise that so many of us ignore our emotions and couldn’t identify an emotion (and tell someone what we’re feeling) if it hit us on the head?
If, like me, you didn’t have healthy models for dealing with emotions, or ways to learn how to identify your feelings, or healthy ways of regulating feelings, it makes dealing with grief even more difficult. You are more likely to believe that you can’t cope with your grief and that you have to play hot potato with the emotions you have in response to the loss. You may get rid of them, deny them, numb them, or displace them onto someone else. Or you might be so flooded by them that you can’t function socially or can’t delay expressing the accompanying feelings in healthy and appropriate ways. When therapists talk about one’s ability to deal or not deal (sounds like a game show starring Howie Mandel) with our emotions, we talk about our capacity for affect regulation. Affect regulation is how we deal with emotions in a way that allows us to feel what we feel in an authentic and spontaneous reaction, and also delay the expressing of feelings in a way that is socially appropriate. If you didn’t have models for dealing with emotions when they came, this is something you may need to learn (and this is something that therapy can most definitely help you with).
If I Feel It, Something Bad Will Happen
Some people are afraid of their emotions because of the same reason we are told not to make faces as kids: “Don’t cross your eyes, or they’ll stick like that.” We are told, in so many words, that if we allow ourselves to feel emotions like sadness, anger, fear, or envy, they will stick and we will remain in that state forever—or at least have that emotion define us negatively as people. So we become afraid to feel, and we repress and push down our emotions, and they build up and build up, and we ignore them and keep on repressing them until they build up like Mount Vesuvius. One day, it all blows up and makes a mess and can be seriously destructive. Repression of any emotion is more destructive than healthy expression of the same emotion.
And, yes, of course, emotions can become habitual. We can learn to respond to every stressor with one emotion only—anger or fear, for example. That leads to an emotional imbalance. In this case, it can be very helpful to go into therapy to see why you only get access to this single reaction. But just experiencing anger today, just having normal outrage at feeling a sense of injustice or the unfairness of life, is not going to get you stuck in the stage. Repressing that same anger is likely to be more destructive than feeling it. (And note that I am not talking about acting on the anger. I am talking about feeling it.) Keeping those feelings buried is toxic and causes all manner of negative and destructive things like depression, self-loathing (for feeling there’s something the matter with you for feeling what you do), guilt and shame (I shouldn’t feel that), projection (I can’t feel that, so I am going to project it onto another person, as in “You’re the one who’s angry, not me!”), and alcohol or other drug misuse (I do feel it and I shouldn’t, so I have to numb out this feeling with this substance or behavior).
We do all kinds of stuff to avoid feelings. The basic formula for no feeling goes like this: I experience X emotion. If I feel X, it is intolerable. So I can’t feel X. I need to do something to not feel X. I will introduce Y to not feel X. Only X keeps coming back, and I need to do more and more of Y to avoid X. Y can be many things. Y can be avoid, deny, repress, numb, use drugs, displace, work, drink, eat, have sex, self-mutilate, sleep. None of these behaviors make the pain go away for good.
The Costs of Numbness
I can’t stand it. I’ll die. It will kill me. I have heard it all and, dear one, I have seen it all, and I am here to tell you that emotions can’t kill you. It’s the decisions we make about them that can kill us. Your mother may have told you to turn that frown upside down, and your dad may have told you to go back into your room until you could come out with a smile on your face, but let me assure you that the emotions they were asking you to cover up are solely threat detective systems. It isn’t the alarm that’s bad, it is what you do in response to the alarm that can get you into trouble. Anger as an alarm can’t do anything; it’s how you express anger that has the potential to get you into trouble. Even love can be expressed inappropriately. It’s not your emotion or how you feel it that is the problem, it’s the way you express that feeling that can cause trouble. No, of course it isn’t okay to vent your anger at everyone and throw a hissy fit and break all of your plates (well, it might be okay as long as you aren’t hurting yourself and others, and they aren’t your great-great-grandmother’s antique Limoges dinner plates), but it’s also not okay to express your love of humanity by kissing perfect strangers. Judging your feelings is not helpful. “This one is good, this one is bad, this one is stupid” is going to gum up the works and force you to deny and repress feelings that have the “bad” label attached—which will likely lead to numbing. When you numb one emotion, you numb all of them, and you don’t want to impact your ability to feel the good stuff, do you?
The Unwelcomed Three: Envy, Guilt, Shame
As much as we don’t like sadness, anger, and fear, I am about to introduce you to the most despised and unwelcome feelings that come when you are grieving a dream. I like to think of them as the triumvirate of terror. They are the triple threat of toxicity that we often face when we are grieving the loss of our dream: envy, guilt, and shame. These are emotions that make us feel like crap and ones that we really aren’t comfortable sharing with others. We would prefer to share our bank balances, talk about our sex life, and tell people how much we weigh before we talk about our envy, guilt, and shame. These three make us feel like we are, as George Thorogood sings, “Bad to the bone.” Yet they are a normal part of the grief we feel when we are letting go of a dream and having to function in a world where other people may have exactly the thing that we want. No, you might not want to tell your mother that every time you see your sister gloating over what you have most wanted that you want to kick her in shins. But these are totally normal feelings, and looking at the reality of what others have (and not idealizing it) will help you move through your envy, guilt, and shame.
Let’s meet envy first. Envy is green-eyed and green-faced. She shows up when we are around someone who has what we dreamed of. We might even feel some anger or outrage and sadness when we see that they have it. This is an emotion that we are super-duper not okay with. And if it wasn’t bad enough to have envy, it often brings up other unwelcomed emotions: guilt and shame. Guilt arrives on the scene because we feel wrong for feeling envy. Guilt is an icky-sticky feeling that, once in place, can be hard to shake off. Guilt tells us we have done something that we shouldn’t have, that it is wrong to feel envy, anger, rage, and outrage and have less-than lovely thoughts about others who have what we most wanted. Enter shame, stage right. According to author and researcher Brené Brown, shame “is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” When we feel shame, we want to hide and withdraw. Guilt is the feeling that comes from believing that we did something bad. Shame is the feeling that tells us we are bad.
One Final Word on Feeling Feelings . . . Okay, Maybe a Whole Paragraph
As a therapist, there are some stories I tell more than others, and if you were a client of mine, I promise you I would bring out the “feelings are like weather” story a lot. If you don’t remember anything else that I am saying, I want you to take this message from this book and hold on to it. “I feel” may mean to you some kind of truth, so that “I feel fear” means “I will always feel fear.” It simply isn’t true. Feelings pass like the weather. Today may be storming, but spring is coming, sunshine is coming. Rain and sleet and hail? They all will come, and they will eventually pass, too. Your feelings will also pass. You will not always feel as you do today. Feeling what you feel is what counts, because by feeling it you can move on.
About the Author
Tracey Cleantis, LMFT, is a speaker, writer and a practicing psychotherapist. She is the “Dr. Kevorkian of Dreams” and is a personal and professional authority on how to let go of what isn’t working and to grieve, move on, and get to the to the other side where happiness is waiting for you.
Her blog was named one of the top ten blogs for Francophiles by Blogs.com and is rated one of the top 10 psychology and memoir blogs. In addition, Tracey has written “Freudian Sip,” a column at Psychology Today, and contributes to the Huffington Post. She has been featured on Fox News and in Redbook, Yahoo News and Salon.com. Her writing on finding happiness after infertility was featured in Jamie Cat Callan’s Bonjour, Happiness! (Citadel Press, 2011).
Tracey is a passionate writer who combines wit, wisdom, humor, theory made accessible, and a whole lot of heart. She speaks on grief, infertility, letting go of dreams, finding unexpected happiness after loss.
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