A few weeks ago I fell into step with another parent – a stranger- on a sunny Saturday. We were both out with our three year olds, walking along the river near my home, our kids scooting in front of us. Suddenly his daughter tumbled off her scooter and landed on the ground, ‘you’re ok, you’re ok, up you get,’ he said to her as he pulled her to her feet, and then gave me a knowing grin and said, ‘I’m just trying to programme out the automated crying response.’
I wept again in a therapy session recently. About ending with my therapist. And this is always a relief when I manage to find the sore spot, when I have had a little rummage through my feelings and hold up the thing that’s troubling me. But this takes ages, sometimes months. I envy my friends for whom tears come easily, the friends who seem so instantly, instinctively in touch with their troubles. The ones who don’t yank themselves to their feet after falling and tell themselves they’re ok before having a chance to examine their wounds. They have their whole soul to spread out into.
Years ago I dreamed of a fetus falling out of me when I couldn’t hang on to a bit of sadness. I felt anxious after the dream. The sense of having lost something haunted my waking life, even though I couldn’t quite put my finger on what I felt I was missing. It took my therapist pointing out the link between my dream and some external, sad events before I understood I was grieving the loss of a feeling. A desperately sad fate had befallen a student I was very fond of and had worked quite closely with, and I had recovered too quickly from the shock. I’d expelled the feeling and I felt bereft. ‘Maybe sometimes you find it hard to hold on to difficult feelings,’ suggested my therapist. That was pretty early on in therapy, about two years in, and it became clear that one of my lifelong tasks would be to cultivate the capacity to cling to feelings I would otherwise dismiss.
Susan David, an author, speaks in a TED talk entitled ‘Emotional Courage,’ about her own journey toward feeling difficult emotions. She points out we live in a culture that values relentless positivity. We aspire to being happy and zen and chill all the time rather than seeking to integrate all of our feeling states.
And for me, that kind of drive towards relentless positivity is a loss. When I yank myself to my feet too quickly after a fall, when I can’t find my way into frustration or grief or hurt, I experience a deep, existential unease. If I were to translate the feeling into imagery, it would be like a scene from a b-grade horror film. Like all my teeth have fallen out. Or half my face is missing. Or I’m wandering through an icy maze in a deserted ski resort, unable to find my way, danger looming. I feel incomplete and bewildered- this kind of psychic disorientation and anxiety is much more disturbing than the original feeling itself. And it is my default. To yank myself to my feet and tell myself I’m ok before finding out what the damage was. And it is a long, expensive road back to the ‘automated crying response,’ that has been culturally and familially ‘programmed out’ of me. This is not to blame that parent I fell into step with along the river path – its a pretty standard cultural trope, he is well within the bounds of normality, banishing his daughter’s negative feelings. I know from verbal history that my own mother wanted me to (in her slightly Nietzschean! phrasing) ‘gain mastery’ over my crying when she talks about how she extinguished my capacity to feel and express negative affect. When we don’t value negative feelings culturally, we produce lots of frightened parents who don’t know what to do when their kid is in the throes of feeling the feels, who yank their kids to their feet and stop them from knowing themselves.
And I think sadly, I will always find it a struggle to feel my troubles: it takes time and hard -core, disciplined, intentional practice to regain that response, to welcome a prodigal feeling back home, to make space for it to take up residence. But when I do manage to embrace it, I feel whole again. Counter-intuitively, the capacity to feel bad and cry and grieve makes me feel alive.
Copyright Diana Smith 2018
Susan David’s meaty, insightful TED talk can be found here