Recently a patient (who I’ll call Ann, not her real name) lost her brother, who she had been close with since childhood (she’s in her mid-forties and he was in his early fifties). He had struggled with cancer for some time and his death was expected. What surprised her was the deep sense of betrayal she felt towards the universe. “He was such a force of nature and his desire to live never wavered…it’s not right that he’s been taken away!” Ann went on to talk about the funeral and the weekend that she spent with her family who lived in the Midwest. “I was such a cry baby…I went back and forth between raging at God and crying. I cried more than my sister-in-law or my nieces and nephews. It got to be embarrassing, and people kept asking me what was wrong with me.”
I was curious about why her family thought that something was wrong when crying was a natural expression of grief and loss. Ann said that she had always been the odd person in her family, and that her parents had consistently been annoyed by her ‘drama’. I commented that it must have been difficult to grow up feeling that her sensitive nature was somehow wrong. In fact much of what Ann struggled with in her life was related to a repudiation of the intense emotions she often felt.
Ann is not alone in her struggle to understand the nature of her emotions and accept them without judging them as good or bad. Our feelings are not rational, and we often confuse what we feel inside with how we choose to behave and conduct ourselves. We are accountable to ourselves for how we act, but our emotions are private and deserve the space to find expression within ourselves. This is the true essence of connecting to the most authentic part of who we are.
When we see a child throwing a tantrum or crying, often our first instinct is to approach the child with a rational problem-solving stance. We ask, what’s wrong? Think about the message that gets sent to the child – you’re showing an emotion therefore something is wrong. Many of us grew up that way. But if we first help a child (or our own child that lives within) name the emotion, allow for the feeling without judging it, and then soothe the child, we’re teaching this child two critical life skills; (1) to see one’s emotions as normal and tolerable. (2) How to regulate strong emotions when there’s upset – a skill that can only be learned by experience. There’s plenty of time for rational problem solving and decisions about what to do after the feelings have had their say.
Accepting our own feelings is critical to living a full life. I saw a woman in therapy years ago who could not visit her father when he was dying, because of how afraid she was of her feelings. Most of us prefer to feel joy and happiness, but becoming skilled at dealing with the full range of our emotions will ultimately lead to an ease with ourselves and life.