I used to believe that emotional stoicism was the best way to manage relationships and life. We, the emotional stoics, are the “just fine” people. You know us. When you ask us how we are, we are always “Just fine, thank you!”
We are the ones people count on because we’re pleasant, solid workaholics. We are easy to get along with because we’re safe for others to be around. We always seem fine.
I now know that emotional stoicism—the repression or denial of feelings—is the slowest form of suicide. To deny what we feel in order to play a role within society is to destroy self and society. If you want to implode your life, always tell everyone that you’re just fine.
Emotions are a gift that help us maintain a balanced system of mental/physical integrity. There is no doubt that emotions, like TNT, are sometimes mismanaged by us all.
We’ve all “gone-off” on people, and vice versa, and people got injured in the emotional shrapnel. For this reason, emotional people get a bad rap.
But emotions are really a form of self-forgiveness that is as important as air to our systems.
We must emote. We must also learn how to safely emote in our relationships.
Ironically, the ideas and events of our lives that we do not consciously talk about, understand and release actually run our lives. They own us and destroy us.
Denying our feelings negatively influences our mental and physical health, our choices, and our life’s work, because it ensures that we will not make authentic choices for ourselves.
We learn to avoid or medicate anything that might stir us up inside. But our problems have not left us—they are simply buried. One wrong move and they might have to be dealt with.
Pretending we are always fine means we will eventually exist as walking-talking zombies, portending the collapse of our lives.
Okay, okay I agree that our society wants us to be emotionally repressed zombies. I’ve experienced it too. Go ahead, cry at the grocery store and see what happens. You’ll be shopping at a new grocery store next week—that’s what happens. Or cry at your job—that one is fun. Yes, it probably went on your Human Resources record. “Not a team player.” “Sensitive.”
Yep. Good times.
And if you ever cried in school—well, that’s when the emotional taboo started, right? Remember the word “crybaby?” That was what your friends called you for crying at school.
The teachers always tried to help, but the message was still, “This is not normal after kindergarten,” and your “disruptive” behavior got you sent to a counselor if your school was lucky enough to have one.
Your parents were called, and there were “talks” at home. Why? Because they were terrified! Parents don’t like sad kids.
And then going back to school was never quite the same, was it? There was no hero’s welcome, that’s for sure.
Everyone treated you a little differently, and you probably didn’t sit at the good lunch table anymore.
It’s no wonder we have become a society of “I’m fine”-ers. Virtually every experience of emotion has taught us to repress and deny it. Until we can’t, and then it’s bad.
I hear it at least ten times a day from everyone. “How are you? Fine? Good, glad to hear it.”
But these people are not fine. Their faces have no light anymore. Their kindness and compassion have soured into a polite disdain for society. Their resting lips’ default positions have become frowns.
They are fragile, and use extra food, drinks, and cigarettes as a medicinal glue to keep themselves from totally collapsing into their despair. They pretend. Just like me.
I teach this stuff and it’s still challenging to have emotional integrity after learning to repress my feelings for many years. It is a practice that makes me feel like I’m climbing Mount Everest.
I often cannot seem to find one tear or any feeling at all in a world that is full of tragedy.I recently got back from seeing my father, who has a chronic degenerative disease. The vibrant professor he once was, is no more. He lives about 2,000 miles from me, so visits are infrequent, and now speaking on the phone is challenging for him as well.
As usual, seeing his condition in person after months away did not exactly surprise me, but it was powerfully emotional just the same. I arrived back home to my local family and got back to “normal.” Once again, I was “just fine.”
But it felt like I had no energy. The trip had worn me out, I told myself. Stupid airports, stupid TSA. All that waiting and poor quality food was my problem, I decided. I needed iron. Should get my blood checked.
Several days later I was still “just fine” but tired. I knew that when I get like this, it’s because something I don’t want to deal with is right below the surface. But I simply could not see it.
I have developed a great technique to help myself in these times. I practice what I call conscious conversations, in which I mentally note everything I say to people so that I can see what is sneaking into my conversations.
This may be true for you, too. It is likely you are telling everyone all your problems and don’t realize it.
By noon that day, I knew what was really going on. In fact, I knew the moment I was telling my dry cleaning lady—someone I see every two weeks and with whom I normally speak of only weather and buttons—that my dad was not well.
She hadn’t asked. Nor had the grocery store lady to whom I told the same story.
Over the next 24 hours, I noticed myself almost blurting out my dad’s condition to anyone in my path as if I had no control over my mouth. It needed to come out. I realized I was not owning my sadness and grief, just moving forward. Bury, bury, bury.
I went home and let it all out to my real support system. The sadness was exquisite, sweet relief from the pretending and burying. I am truly grateful for such an elegant universal design. We cry or talk about things that really hurt and the process transforms us from the inside.
If you’ve forgotten, watch the magic happen in any toddler nearby. When they perceive an injustice or sadness in their world, they clear out a place and have a tantrum on the spot. Crying, emoting, angry and a few minutes later, joy has returned.
As they age, the goal of course is for tears to be replaced with words and actions to resolve emotional needs and fears. Alas, for many of us, we are learning it now as adults.
I’ve learned over the years that my ego cannot bear to witness change. So for me, to grieve is to let go of a piece of my ego-made coping system that denies growth and movement.
When we are courageous enough to release these kinds of blockages, the flow and beauty of life strengthens in us again, our innate wisdom returns. It’s truly beautiful.
Holding onto an “I’m fine” attitude instead of allowing our emotions to naturally resolve is the source of disease: dis-ease.
We have no choice but to participate in life’s dance of movement. Our bodies are designed to breathe in new molecules and release old ones about 12-16 times a minute. We change, renew and transform ourselves with life’s lessons in every breath.
To choose to hold onto old stuff is a choice much like holding one’s breath. It is temporary at best, because we are not designed to handle a sedentary, stagnant meaningless life—zombie life.
Yet we are given the ability to repress as a gift that allows us to heal in our own time when our environment does not seem to support us.
The practice today is to use the language that approximates your state. I would not necessarily encourage doing this with anyone and everyone who appears in your path, nor at school or work; this is how we got here in the first place.
Emote to your group of true supporters who understand and appreciate the importance of the work. If you do not have this group yet, that’s okay. But start to develop one today. Begin. I’m here. There’s a bunch of us now. You are not alone in this!!
One final important note. Emotional venting can be uncomfortable and scary at first—for everyone involved. Make sure you have some ground rules in play that honor the people helping you. No name calling, taking breaks if necessary.
Lastly, the most important rule: getting professional help if your feelings remain unresolved after talking to your supporters. Sometimes well meaning friends and loved ones are not as much help as we need. We all need doctors at times and this is no different. If you find yourself in pain, it’s time to get a doctor, psychologist, priest or professional supporter.
You can do this!!