Tag Archives: emotions

Expressing difficult emotions

Recently on the blog comments I was treated to a little lecture about how harmful it is to wallow in misery. It struck me that this would be a good topic to explore. It’s not an unusual thing to hear if you’re a depressed person dealing with people who apparently have decent mental health. Of course the primary function of this is often to make the depressed person shut up so that they do not make the comfortable person uncomfortable. Or perhaps it’s about not requiring the person who is in denial to think too much.

It is essential to be able to talk about how you are feeling in whatever ways makes sense to you. Anyone who denies you that space is someone to avoid – they may have their own issues, and sometimes stepping away from each other is the best choice. Working through your feelings is essential for getting on top of them, locking it away will only make it worse.

There are a lot of productive ways of expressing emotions. Pouring it into music, art or poetry can be a really good ideas, as can venting it through physical expression. I’ve found dance exceedingly helpful for processing things I couldn’t think my way out of. Difficult emotions can take time and effort to process – significant injuries, traumas, profound losses – we don’t automatically integrate these things or know what to do with them. Coming to terms with anything of this ilk takes time and most of us do better when we can engage consciously with those feelings.

Accusations of wallowing, or loving your own misery or simply making a fuss for attention is one that most depressed people are familiar with. It adds to the burden of distress. Having it thrust at you as an attempt at help, or for your own good just adds to the unpleasantness. So let me be clear that this is never about the good of a person who is suffering. Needing to spend time with difficult things you are feeling is not a moral failing or some kind of character flaw. It’s doing the necessary work that moves you, inch by inch, towards healing.

When we are accepting of each other’s emotions, we lend support to that healing process. When we listen, show care, and make space for whatever anyone else is struggling with, we help each other. I’m constantly grateful to the people in my life who share their own experiences –  l learn from all of that, and I know that in turn what I share of my own journey is at least occasionally useful to others.

I’m not sure what to do with people who respond to distress with unpleasantness. While I’m deeply invested in the idea of community resilience and mutual support, I think we’re all entitled to have and hold boundaries. There’s a very strong likelihood that the people who want to shut down others for expressing distress are speaking from places of having their own hurt, and unmet need. Perhaps they find some comfort or sense of self worth in hurting people who dare to express hurt. I don’t know and thinking about it taxes the limits of my empathy, I’m finding. 

The question of how best, as communities, to take care of the people who have little or no ability to participate well in community is something that impacts on all of us. How do we respond to people who come intent on causing hurt? Even if we’re confident they do so from a place of distress? I don’t have any decent answers to this right now, and I think I’ll need to be better resourced in myself before I can explore this in any significant way.


Processing Emotions

We handle things better when we can process them around the time when they happen. Some emotions lend themselves to that, because they invite expression – a surfeit of joy is seldom a problem. It also helps when we’re in situations where other people can easily see what’s going on for us and support us in what we need to do.

Processing emotions for things other people can’t see can be especially hard. Anything that involves the death of dreams can be difficult to explain to anyone watching. It’s harder to process your feelings when what you’re expressing doesn’t make sense to the people encountering you.

It is of course also impossible to process things when you have to focus all your energy on dealing with problems. People who appear to be coping in the short term can end up falling apart when things are ok again, simply because they have the space to do it. This is more likely for people who step up in a crisis and who shoulder responsibility and take care of others. It can be deeply disconcerting for the person experiencing it, and for anyone watching.

If you are the sort of person who spends all their time putting out fires – literal and metaphorical – then you might think of yourself as unbreakable. You might experience yourself as being incredibly tough and resilient. However, it’s when the quiet finally settles that all the unprocessed feelings come home to roost. 

One of the takeaways from this is to offer support to people regardless of whether they seem to be in trouble. The person leading and fixing things might well need some back-up. Knowing that it’s a possibility makes it easier to navigate – being ambushed by emotions only adds to the confusion. Delayed emotions don’t always show up in a way that makes any kind of sense. There’s quite a lot of information out there about delayed grief, but not so much about other unprocessed emotions surfacing. Although my guess is that anything unprocessed is probably going to come back with a significant side-order of grief anyway.

If you find yourself with a whole array of emotions that make no sense, it can feel like you’re going mad. You aren’t, these will just be things you didn’t get to deal with at the time, and the odds are they are surfacing because you do have time to deal with them. Make space for them, and see if you can channel them into something – move with them, let them emerge as sounds, or songs, or other actions. Write them as journals or as poetry – whatever works to help get them out of your body and make some kind of sense of them.

Be kind to yourself if this sort of thing happens to you. Be patient. Give yourself room to feel, and breathe and it will all eventually resolve into some kind of coherence.


Negativity and inspiration

Inspiration isn’t always a lovely, fluffy thing. Sometimes inspiration is born of rage, frustration, annoyance and other ostensibly ‘negative’ emotions. I’ve written some really good blog posts off the back of being bloody annoyed with people. It’s important to acknowledge how these emotions can drive creativity and that they are just as important as feeling all magical and wanting to do something beautiful as a consequence.

When it comes to social justice, rage can be a really important source of inspiration. The trick is not to let the rage run unchallenged. Being cross doesn’t of itself get much done. Getting cross and thrashing about in an unconsidered rage somewhere on the internet can do far more harm than good. It’s important to take the time for the rage. Sit with it. Hold it close. Work out what needs changing. Take the energy of the rage and turn it into a push for change. Fighting against things is seldom that effective. Fighting for things is much more productive. Let your rage show you what it is that you need to fight for.

Boredom, frustration and apathy tend to get a bad press. If all you do is wallow about in those feelings, they can trap you in inaction and a sense of powerlessness. However, you can also use them as a spur. Breaking out of limitations is often difficult, but the need to escape from those stuck feelings can be a superb motivator for taking the plunge and doing something new.

If you’ve written poetry, you’ve probably at some point done the kind of agonised bleeding on the page that comes from depression and heartbreak. Misery and setbacks are awful to go through, but working out how to meaningfully share your pain can be a good and restorative process. You may be able to comfort others by showing them they are not alone in their struggles. You will undoubtedly become more able to feel compassion and empathy, which in turn points the way towards the kinds of actions you might take.

Oysters make pearls as a way of protecting themselves from the discomfort of grit that gets in their shells. Some people, and experiences can impact in much the same way. Creating can be a way of coping. It can be a way of processing shit into gold. It can also make it possible to deal more gently and kindly with people who were annoying you.

Suffering is not essential for creativity. But at the same time, our creations are richer, more thoughtful and better informed when we’re able to draw more widely on experience and aren’t focused exclusively on nice things and whatever makes us comfortable. 


Do we choose how we react?

It’s one of those toxic positivity ideas – that we can always choose how we react. It blatantly isn’t true – torture and brainwashing alike exist because we know perfectly well that in the right conditions people are robbed of their ability to choose how they react. We know that trauma often leaves people unable to control their reactions to certain situations. If we’ve been taught to respond in a particular way, it can take a lot of work to change our reactions.

Making it all about how a person chooses to react provides effective cover for bullies. It’s not them bullying you, it’s you choosing to feel this way about the situation! I’ve seen this in action and it is unpleasant indeed. It can protect people from looking at their own behaviour and actions, making the person who has been hurt wholly responsible for the situation. 

If your reactions are actually pretty reasonable and the situation itself isn’t, then a focus on how you react isn’t going to help. It can be a distraction from holding boundaries, seeking help or demanding better. If, for example, you are depressed because you are exhausted, choosing to react differently means getting to still be exhausted while gaslighting yourself over the depression. This only makes things worse. Sometimes the key to improving a situation is not changing your attitude to it, but getting the shit sorted out, which may involve getting others to take more responsibility.

People don’t tend to wave this sort of content about in response to joy. The odds are the only time you will have a conversation about how you choose your responses, is when you’re expressing ‘negative’ emotions. This can be a shut-down. All emotions are valid. Grief, sorrow, anger, resentment, bitterness and regret are all valid human emotions and you may need to work them through in order to either get somewhere better or figure out how to carry them. There’s nothing wrong with this – it’s actually the healthier choice.

Supportive people will help you work through whatever you are feeling. They will validate you, comfort you and help you find ways through. They may help you explore different possible responses to situations or suggest other ways of thinking about things, but they won’t invalidate your feelings. Toxic people will tell you that you get to choose how you feel – implying that you should have chosen a different response, and may even act like this information is a fabulous and benevolent gift.


Dealing with disbelief

I made the mistake of starting to suffer from chronic fatigue at a point where it wasn’t reliably being diagnosed. My doctor at the time did not believe it existed, and treated me accordingly – with scorn, suggestions that it was all in my head and the assumption that I just wanted to get out of PE. And yes, I did want to get out of PE because PE was hell, for a whole bunch of other reasons no one knew were issues. Whatever else was going on, my distress never seemed plausible to him.

I had no idea, as a small child, that most people weren’t in pain. Other kids did the things I couldn’t do, and seemed to be ok. I’m not sure why I concluded that they were all just making less of a fuss about it, but that’s child brains for you. I certainly had plenty of encouragement to think I was just making a fuss and not trying hard enough.

Now we know how hypermobility impacts on people, what was happening for me is no great mystery. Everything takes me more effort than is typical. Many things cause me pain. I hurt and damage easily. Taking my weight on my hands really hurts me. Also I have a lot of issues with being upside down, I still hate it, I still find it stressful but as an adult I don’t have to deal with people forcing me into those positions.

At this point I’m fairly confident that I don’t express pain – be that physical or emotional – in a way that makes much sense to a lot of people. My default is to explain, but I tend to be calm. This is to do with my coping mechanisms, and being used to pain. It meant I had a lot of trouble persuading anyone I was in labour, and went a long time with no pain relief as a consequence. It may have coloured all of my interactions with the medical profession. There are a number of people in my history I am fairly sure had a problem with it.

I’ve been told I come across as cold, unfeeling, uncaring. I’ve been told I seem manipulative. I guess if you expect people to present pain in more dramatic ways it might be hard to believe a person who is saying calmly that they’re in more pain than they can bear. Panic can make it impossible for me to present this way, but I’m not always panicked. 

Somewhere along the way I missed all the memos about appropriate expression of feelings. What seems normal to other people doesn’t always make much sense to me. I’ve spent a lot of years trying to figure out what it is that gets some people’s distress taken very seriously, and other people ignored. From what I read, I’m fairly sure privilege is a big part of it. The more advantages you have, the more likely you are to be taken seriously about problems you encounter. White men are more likely to get their abdominal pain taken seriously. Black women die in labour in disproportionate numbers. 

How we expect people to behave is clearly informed by all sorts of things. But it isn’t a fair measure. Ignoring distress because it isn’t being presented the way we expect, or assuming a person will overstate because of who they are, is really problematic, and there’s a lot of it out there. Much of it is far worse than anything I’ve had to deal with, but these are the illustrations I have to work with and I hope they are useful.


Not seeking calm

There are times when being calm is good – most especially when trying to go to sleep! Otherwise, I find it a state of questionable value. It has some value around meditation, but it’s not a very meaningful state to be in.

I find I am generally at my most calm when I’m depressed. It’s a state of disinterest, and unfeeling response to the living world around me. It’s not a state of wanting to move towards anything, nor one of wanting to let anything in. I see a lot of content online preaching about the desirability of calm, and I find I disagree.

There are states of being that I want to cultivate in myself. These are ways of being in the world that enrich my life and that open me to good things. Existing in a state of gentle curiosity is good. That opens me to experiences, to the alternative perspectives of other people and to investing care and attention in whatever is around me. 

I find it helps to cultivate a state of openness-to-joy. That’s not a toxic positivity that denies a whole array of feelings and experiences. It’s about being open to the small joys and beauties that can be overlooked if I’m not careful. Actively seeking that kind of joy definitely helps.

I’m also trying to cultivate compassion and tenderness. This will make me open to pain and distress whenever I encounter suffering. I do not want to ignore the distress and suffering of other beings, and I want to meet that with the best I can bring. A tender state means I will experience pain, but I can respond to it in useful ways.

I think part of the problem here is that we’re being offered a binary – stress or calm. The idea that being calm is the right response to everything only makes sense when that state is set up in opposition to stress. Calm isn’t the only state you can start from. A gentle, open, engaged response to the world can be full of feeling, it can bubble with the potential for excitement, and delight, and at the same time be open to facing the difficult things.


How not to be lonely

Loneliness is very much a modern plague and has terrible, health-undermining impacts on people. Some of it can simply be attributed to the amount of time we spend working and the consequences of being exhausted from that. People are often quick to blame TV, streaming, computer games, the internet and anything else involving a screen. I’m doubtful about that – I’ve formed some powerful, life-changing relationships through the internet. Turning to screens for comfort and distraction strikes me as being a symptom more than a cause.

Relationships aren’t things that happen by magic. They depend a great deal on what we’re willing to give of ourselves, and I think that’s where a lot of people get into trouble. Relationships require you to be emotionally available and honest, to be willing to be vulnerable and to make the time for someone.

Along the way I’ve run into so many people who were clearly averse to doing some or all of those things. People for whom investing time and care in other people seemed too much like work. People who wanted the freedom of being unaccountable. If you feel uncomfortable about people caring about you, then you aren’t going to have much of a relationship with them. If you want to be able to disappear off for days, or weeks on end without checking in, you can hardly expect people to invest in you emotionally and just put up with not knowing what’s going on. A person cannot keep everyone else safely at arm’s length and realistically expect to have substantial relationships.

Of course there are many ways in which we can have fleeting, superficial contact with other humans. We say hi to the person at the checkout, we nod to people we see each day when commuting and so forth. In face of desperate loneliness, these small points of contact can offer some relief. But not much. Being around people doesn’t ease loneliness in the way that being involved with other people does.

I think there’s an emotional immaturity around wanting the unconditional care of a parent from people who are not your parents. The desire to have care and affection bestowed by someone to whom you feel no obligation in return is something I’ve seen repeatedly. Casting other people in the role of your mother (more often than making people into fathers, in my experience) and then feeling free to also punish them for being too mothering/smothering is a pattern I’ve seen play out a few times now. I have no desire to be cast as mother in the life of someone who wants to be a perpetual teenager cliche, acting out, demanding freedom and expecting unconditional love.

Unless we are willing to face each other as equals, with equal responsibility for the relationship and comparable investment on both sides, loneliness is inevitable. We should not be looking to other adults in our lives to replicate the relationships we had with our parents, or step into the role if that’s been lacking for us. People who cannot or will not give of themselves are bound to be lonely. If you’re waiting for someone to come along and offer you unconditional love, that’s the essence of your problem right there.

It is of course possible to be alone without feeling lonely. Not everyone wants or needs a great deal of contact with other humans. What’s on my mind in writing this is the people who talk about being lonely but also don’t seem to recognise that their unwillingness to give of themselves is a key contributor to all of that.


He made me do it

CW domestic abuse.

One of the areas of language use I’m currently scrutinising is how I use the idea of made/make. It’s interesting to ask where the balance of power really lies, where I might be abdicating or ignoring my own power, and how unhelpful habits of conventional phrasing are in this regard. He made me do it.

It’s a phrase that comes up a lot around domestic abuse. The idea that the victim made the abuser act as they did is something many victims are subjected to. You made me angry. You made me hit you. As though the abuser is powerless and has no choice in face of the victim’s actions. That sense of being to blame for what happens is part of what keeps victims trapped in abusive relationships as they try to fix things, atone and do better.

The idea that someone else’s behaviour made you react in a certain way is popular with small children. I think much depends on how the adults around you then handle things. Which brings me to the flip-side of this issue – that it is equally problematic when people deny all cause and effect and insist that we are all responsible for how we react to things and not responsible for what we provoke in others. Upsetting someone isn’t an excuse for following through with violence, but at the same time, emotional harm needs taking seriously. If someone says you are making them miserable, the answer is not to tell them that they are wholly responsible for how they choose to feel. 

We can and do make each other feel things. The person doing the feeling has some control over that process, but it isn’t total control. People can make you feel things you do not want to feel. Our words, actions, inactions all impact on other people emotionally. It may not always go as we intended, but if you want any power over the outcomes you have to be willing to also take responsibility. Can we make each other take action? I think how we act on our feelings is normally an issue of personal responsibility, but there are times when it isn’t.

People can be trained to act in certain ways. My understanding is that this is an important principle in military training. We often train creatures on these terms, with fear and threat of punishment so that they do exactly what is wanted of them without hesitation. We may choose to use rewards in the same way. If the threats and rewards on offer are significant enough, saying no isn’t really an option. If you’re given an electric shock every time you do the ‘wrong’ thing it won’t take you long to learn and stick with the ‘right’ behaviour.

I suspect most of us prefer to believe that we couldn’t be trained in this way. Sustained programs designed to train us will have that effect over time. Most of us cannot effectively resist such things. It’s not a comfortable thing to consider. 

When it comes to writing, I’m comfortable discussing things in terms of how I am made to feel. I watch out for inadvertently saying ‘made to do’. At the moment, no one is running power over me in a way that makes me do anything – although that has been an issue historically. I’m watching out for the times when I give too much power away, ascribing too much significance to whatever prompts a feeling and not recognising how much is intrinsic to me. I take it seriously if someone habitually makes me feel uncomfortable. I step away from people who want to make me responsible for their actions. I’m not going to make anyone do anything, if I can help it.


When not to be positive

It is true that a positive attitude and a willingness to make the best of things can help a person in many situations. However, it isn’t always the right choice. Too much forced positivity distorts experience and cuts us off from our authentic emotions. We need to feel those ‘negative’ things as well, and they serve us in many ways.

Anger is protective. Good anger helps us hold boundaries and recognise when things are not as they should be. Anger is not necessarily violent or aggressive. Making room for it enables a person to take better care of themselves and everything and everyone they care for.

Grief and pain are the inevitable consequences of love. There is no love without loss, and there is no grief without care. You can’t have one side of this equation and not the other. Un-dealt-with grief just builds up in a person and will rob you of energy, or burst out in some sudden and uncontrolled way.

Resentment, envy, jealousy and bitterness don’t go away just because you focus your attention on something more positive. In my experience, the worst people for passive aggression and backstabbing are those who profess to be invested in love and light. If you don’t let yourself look at your less appealing characteristics, you won’t notice when you’re expressing them. If you don’t process these feelings and find ways to deal with them, the result is usually vicious.

There’s no such thing as a ‘wrong’ emotion. All feelings are valid. What we choose to do in response to them bears thought and scrutiny. The first emotional response we have is not necessarily the most authentic – it could be what we’ve been taught, or it could come from out of date coping mechanisms, for example. It’s better to make room for those feelings and find out what they are and where they come from.

It’s easier to be a more positive person if you don’t expend a lot of energy tying yourself in knots to try and deny the bits of you that aren’t upbeat and relentlessly cheerful. It’s easier to be positive if you have made space to deal with your baggage. It is easier to be kind and cooperative if you know how to make the space for grumpy, frustrated and unhappy feelings when they come along.


Riding the Waves of Me (Maybe)

A guest blog by Irisanya Moon

I originally wrote this as an Instagram post that came into my mind while out for a walk the other day. I use my walking time in the morning to chat with myself (yes, sometimes out loud) and to sort out my feelings. I recognized that my energy had been vacillating between joy and sorrow, and to be even more specific, extreme joy and anxious sadness.

Up and down, up and down.

It used to worry me that I wasn’t ‘okay.’ I worried that since I wasn’t always happy, I was doing something wrong. But on that walk, I remembered what a spiritual teacher of mine said: emotions are like the weather.

Right.

My energy waxes and wanes.

When moving toward the new moon

I am fresh, new, open

I find opportunities

And openings

For a few days

Then

I get tired, sluggish, unmotivated

I need to be still, to have space, to breathe more deeply

As I move from new to full

My energy expands

I am creative and wilder

I build, arrange, and share

I have bundles of energy

And sleepless nights

I then move into anxiety

And wanting to do all the things

Before the shadow grows

It is a brave thing

A serious thing

To ride the waves

Of being human

And the stories I assign

And the feelings

That just want validation

And chocolate

Or a good cry

And a wide laugh

This business of being

Invites me along

Hold on

I invite you to track your emotions, your weather patterns, and just see them for what they are. Moments. Hours. Days. Weeks. But always passing. Always shifting to something else.

And thank goodness. This business of being human certainly offers its share of pain, though I also know (and remember) that delight will not be far behind.

Irisanya Moon is an author of four books: “Pagan Portals: Reclaiming Witchcraft,” “Pagan Portals: Aphrodite, Goddess of Love & Beauty & Initiation,” “Practically Pagan: An Alternative Guide to Health & Well-being,” and the upcoming “Pagan Portals: Iris, Goddess of the Rainbow and Messenger of the Godds.” She is also a blogger at Patheos Pagan and teacher and priestess in the Reclaiming Tradition of Witchcraft.