This question was epitomized by TV therapist Dr. Phil. Unfortunately it has been broadly, and scoffingly, ascribed to all counselors as their “go to” question. There is so much more to therapy than getting a person to share their feelings. Yet, like all stereotypes, there are grains of truth embedded. Why do counselors spend time at all with clients unraveling the tangle of their emotions? Our culture defines male masculinity as strong, stoic, and emotionless. Assertive females who show little emotion are viewed as sexy and mysterious, aloof and powerful. Openly expressing and sharing emotions is culturally seen as embarrassing, immature, and weak. But if a friend came to you in grief because they lost a loved one, a job, or even a cat, would you treat them disdainfully? My hope is that would not happen; but my guess is there might be some mild discomfort. Most people are uncomfortable with deep expressions of emotions (like grief, despair, depression, etc.) because they are not comfortable with their own pain.
As human beings, made in the image of God, we have feelings- and LOTS of them! They are neither good nor bad. It is what we do with them that can be good or bad. They are signals that things are going well, or flags that they are not. Our culture teaches us to quiet the sirens, numb the feelings, avoid the pain. In other cultures there are dances and songs to wail out when one is experiencing pain. Our culture has no such practices. When we stuff down and ignore we grow more and more disconnected to our authentic selves and our relationships. Not living out of an authentic self, journeying toward greater emotional disconnectedness, many things are affected.
- Relational intimacy is sacrificed. That goes for platonic and romantic relationships. It affects how close you are willing to get to others. If you avoid hard emotions within yourself, then you are most assuredly avoiding those same emotions in others. Relational connectedness suffers.
- Physical and/or behavioral concerns grow. When emotions are stuffed oftentimes anxiety develops, depression can flourish, anger/rage increases, to name a few. Body aches can increase, especially things like migraines, shoulder pain, neck pain, and digestive issues.
- Your life is lived in the grey rather than the brilliant colors offered. When we avoid the negative, it doesn’t mean the positive reigns. It means they both are dulled. Author and pastor Henri Nouwen says suffering and joy are two sides of the same coin. To numb one consequently numbs the other.
Avoided, unnamed, and buried emotions can leave us stuck and imprisoned. It can be difficult to name the emotion if you’ve lived this way for a long time. Happy or sad are the two descriptors most cited. To begin living more fully, I would suggest a few things:
- Give yourself space and quiet. We live in such a busy time, and that makes it easier to avoid and numb out feelings. Find some space to reflect and assess where you’re at.
- Think through events that have occurred throughout your day or week. Do you feel anything in your body? If so, where? What are the thoughts that accompany those experiences? What does it feel like? Looking through a list of adjectives can be very helpful. Or using a search engine to find a “Feelings Wheel” to help narrow things down. Sometimes we need someone else to use the language for us before we can use it ourselves.
- Find a trusted person to discuss some of your discovered feelings, and own it. They’re yours. They aren’t good or bad. It will help you understand them better.
- Choose to enter into the difficult, the painful, the confusing. Choose again. And again. They will become less scary, and you will find greater freedom and authenticity in your life.
Perhaps it’s not such a bad idea to start asking ourselves: “How does that make you feel?”