On feelings that have been ‘programmed out’ of me

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

3 thoughts on “On feelings that have been ‘programmed out’ of me”

  1. This is really heart-wrenching to read. And very interesting for me, as I always felt on the opposite end of the feeling spectrum: I felt so over-sensitive to everything that to me, I can only describe it as feeling like I was born without some invisible layer of skin missing that everyone else seems to have. I’m sure I’ve been told the same things, in fact I remember as a teenager becoming hardened to the phrase ‘get over it’, as though it was a simple thing to opt in or out of an emotional response. I had a reputation for crying at the drop of a hat. But in the same way that we can respond to being told ‘ you’re alright’ with silencing our emotions, I think we can also take away the idea that our emotions are something to be feared and dreaded and enter into a state of panic when we experience a particularly strong one.

    I remember reading a response in a self help book of the author speaking to her depressed son, saying, ‘they’re only your feelings, you can handle your own feelings’ and being outraged at the simplicity of the statement. Surely ‘only’ our feelings have led people to despair, suicide, murder and much lesser degrees of action in a direct manifestation of our emotions. Surely difficult or painful feelings are never to be taken lightly, even if they seem trivial when externalised? Maybe I misunderstood her response. Maybe what you and I have in common is a fear that our emotions will be the end of us. In any case, it’s certainly nice to talk to someone about something I might be going through, and feel like they aren’t dismissive of my pain. I swear it takes the sting out of an emotion.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to write such a heart felt response Ariel. And I love what you say about compassion and people not being ‘dismissive of your pain,’ I love how you say it ‘takes the sting out.’ And you’re so right- we totally need our wounds and suffering witnessed before we can metabolise it ourselves. We need someone who is willing to walk into the wilderness with us and not just leave us on our own to ‘handle our own feelings.’ You’re right, those places are super frightening to be left alone, at night, with no one else there. Especially ‘particularly strong’ feelings as you say and feelings we aren’t familiar with. We often need someone to hold our hand when we walk through those landscapes. And such a good point about different siblings having radically different experiences despite the same parents- someone can shut down while another one goes into hyper-vigilance.

      Liked by 1 person

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