Learning not to identify with my feelings was one of the strangest things I eve tried. At first it seemed all wrong.
I’d grown up with the idea that my feelings were very important, that they told me the truth about what was happening in my life. If I felt angry there was a good reason for it. If I felt depressed something was wrong, and I should stew in it until I figured out what it was. If I felt lonely I should fix it by finding a new friend, or filling my time with something to do.
Feelings were giant unweildy things that I needed to pay a lot of attention to. They were immediate and close, there was little space for anything else if I was feeling.
Throughout my mid-late twenties, as I explored being an adult, and got my Master’s degree (in Environmental Education) feelings seemed more pertinent than ever. During this period I did much research on the ways that feelings are suppressed in modern North American culture. I concluded that my parents, grandparents, and great grandparents generations were horribly muted in their expression of emotions, and as a result were fundamentally unhappy.
I remembered the story my mom, Ruth, told me about when her dad died. She was fourteen at the time.
“I came home from school and I was really excited because I had the house to myself. That almost never happened. My brother Robert had just gotten the new Jefferson Airplane album, he was away for the day picking up our sister, Susan, at college. All day I’d planned to go home and listen to the new album on his record player.” I imagine my mom at fourteen getting home, running excitedly up the stairs, carefully taking the record from its colorful sheath and placing it on the turntable. At that time she had thick-rimmed blue glasses that magnified her eyes and was missing a part of one of her front teeth where she hit it on the cement side of the swimming pool. “I was dancing all over the room, jumping on the bed, holding a hair brush as a microphone, having a great time when I heard Mom (my grandma) calling from downstairs.” “Ruth! Ruth! Turn that off and come down stairs right now.” Hearing a strange tone in her mother’s voice, and thinking she was in trouble for being in her brother’s room, my mom scrambled to put the record away. Downstairs she found a foyer full of police officers and colleagues from her dad’s engineering firm. The men told young Ruth that her father had died earlier that day, a brain aneurism. Quick. Sudden. Over. My mom vividly remembers wishing the man whom was speaking to her wouldn’t stand so close. “I’m sure it wasn’t the case, but I remember feeling like his face was about an inch from mine. I could smell his breath and see his nose hairs and I just wanted him to get away from me.” When the party of men with the gruesome news left the house my mom hopes that my grandmother hugged her. “She must have,” she says, but she can’t quite remember. Then her mother, my grandmother, stood tall, perhaps wiped a tear from her face and said, “Well then, there’ll be lots of people here soon. We’d better start to tidy up.” The two of them spent the rest of the night cleaning the house. “I never saw Mom cry, not even at the funeral, there was just this one time that I heard her in the bathroom at night behind the door, she was sobbing alone. But she never let us see her tears, I guess she thought it was best to be strong, and in her mind being strong meant not showing emotions. That’s the way we grew up.”
If my grandmother’s generation suppressed almost all displays of emotion, I took feelings to the opposite end of the pendulum swing. I spent hours thinking about, analyzing, examining, and explaining feelings. I did this by journaling, talking with friends, and later in sessions with counsellors, I couldn’t imagine living any other way. I wrote hundreds of pages about my feelings, what I thought they meant, and how they fit into the wider context of my life. I made conclusions, for example:
“When I was young, especially as a teenager, I was told crying was un-ladylike and immature. Now, I am afraid of crying or feel guilt and shame when I do cry.”
While some of this exploration was helpful, at least in terms of moving through unhealthy patterns, like feeling guilt or shame for crying, most of the stories I created about why I was this or that way ended up being a hindrance, rather than a help.
If I made up all these stories about my past–I’m afraid of crying because my parents told me not to cry, but that’s just because they are from an emotionally suppressed generation–and believed them, I ended up with:
blame (placed on my parents)
judgment (of previous generations and myself for not doing it right)
and labeling (of my parents and myself as deficient in some way)
As a result, I found myself walking through life with a story of victimhood and woundedness*. And as long as I believed the stories I was telling about my life those hurts couldn’t heal.
It’s a common thing amongst my friends and peers to connect through “shared woundedness,” or through our stories about our feelings. So, when I first began exploring the practice of not attaching to my feelings it felt really strange. It hit at the core of what I considered to be my identity, not just my personal identity, but also how I connected with many of my friends. Feelings and the stories I’d created about those feelings were what I talked about over coffee, how I viewed the world, and how I related to my friends.
I first came across the idea of having feelings, but not attaching to them, in books I was reading. Later in my women’s group we explored it as a practice in our lives. It was a slow and rocky beginning to experiment with having feelings but not attaching to them. Like learning any new skill, I made mistakes.
One of the hardest things to get was the difference between ignoring feelings and not attaching to feelings. For about a year, when I first started meditating and working with this idea, I just ignored many feelings. There I was thinking I was super zenned-out and awesome because I was so detached. The result over time, however, were sudden angry outbursts expressed to people I love, mostly my husband Jeff. Not attaching to feelings was a whole different practice.
In many ways non-attachment has meant I actually feel more, though usually for less time.
Eventually, when a feeling came, I stopped making it into such a big deal.
I wake up in the morning, I go to the bathroom, make coffee, and all the while I’m feeling kind of down. The thought might come, “oh no! This feeling, I hate this feeling. I don’t want it. Remember yesterday when I felt happy, let’s get back to that.”
But instead of running around the house cleaning, or getting really busy at work, or even thinking alone for hours about the sadness and what it could mean, I sit still and feel sad. I feel thoroughly and completely sad. Maybe I cry. I don’t try to make it go away by thinking about other things. I don’t try to make it bigger than it is by looking for a million reasons for why I feel sad, I simply feel the sadness. Here I am and here is sadness coming through my body.
The most profound difference about this, especially as a writer, was to not make a story about it, to not dwell on on why I was sad, what happened, who could have influenced this, when it would change.
Rather, sadness, or happiness, or depression, or fear, or disgust, or annoyance, became no big deal. I feel them all when they come, and then they’re gone.
*This is a term I’ve used often, heard often, and can search for on the internet, though it does not appear in my dictionary 🙂