Tag Archives: emotions

Stories of emotions

Most of us tend to start from the assumption that our emotional responses are inherently right – which is a sane place to be. Those of us who cannot trust the validity of our emotions tend to be badly damaged, and make very little sense to anyone else. It’s very hard to be a functional person with a belief that your emotional responses are fundamentally invalid. However, if you’re mentally ill, you may well be feeling anxiety, paranoia and depression in ways that are not a fair reflection of reality. Simply invalidating those responses leave the sufferer even more adrift, stuck with the feelings, unable to trust them and not having some magical way of moving beyond that.

How we relate to other people’s feelings is really important in terms of how we function within communities and whether we support or undermine each other.

On a few occasions now I’ve run into people whose fundamental belief is that we all feel the same sorts of things in the same degrees and for the same reasons. Take that as a starting point and your own responses become the yardstick for what everyone else should be feeling. When this doesn’t work, it can be easy to assume there is something ‘wrong’ with the person who feels differently. Rather than face the disorientation of admitting the model is flawed, and perhaps not even able to recognise this is a model, not a truth, it can be tempting to hang on to the story and invalidate the responses of anyone who feels differently. That approach precludes any meaningful interaction with most people or their emotional experiences, and narrows our capacity for empathy.

Often our ability to empathise depends on our ability to imagine, and on how good our imaginations are. Can we take our modest, first world problems and empathise with a person who has just come out of a war zone? We may be at risk of arrogance and assumption if we think we can, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try! There is a lot of commonality in human emotion, and there are far too many people whose reality really does feature the unthinkable. Trying to imagine and empathise without becoming too attached to the stories we create that way, is a very difficult balance to strike. It’s something I struggle with, and trying to think my way into other people’s experiences is a big part of what you do as an author.

We can also practice some very unhelpful forms of double-think, where what is true for us is not assumed to be true for other people: If I feel got at clearly the other person is being mean. If you feel got at, clearly I am being challenging and perfectly reasonable. If I question your Druidry and your right to call yourself a Druid, that is my right and I’m doing you a favour. If you question mine, you are bullying and abusing me. I’ve seen this far too many times. It shuts down dialogue and makes it virtually impossible to talk about real problems. If we cling too hard to the belief that we must be right, we cannot hear when we’re getting things very wrong. If we are too readily persuaded we are entirely wrong though, we open the door to anxiety, depression and paranoia. The person who is not well cannot trust their own emotions, but it is also true that the person who is persuaded not to trust their own emotions becomes unwell.

There is an immediacy to emotion, and perhaps the most pernicious story of all is that we cannot control our responses. This idea is used to defend violence and rape at the extreme end. “I felt it and I couldn’t not do otherwise” allows pretty much anything it occurs to a person to do. No emotion is wrong – they are simply what we get. However, as we grow out of childhood, and we grow through adolescence, we should become able to control our responses to enough of a degree not to be harming other people with them.

Being broken

The most lovely beach pebbles have been rubbed and battered into smoothness. It’s not the most gentle process. Lovely things so often pass through fire, through radical change. Carved out of their original rock, or beaten and cut into shape, the process of becoming is so often a process of breaking as well.
This can be some consolation when life kicks you about. Just as the blade, or for that matter the ploughshare endures the heat of the forge, so to the mind becomes more than it was, through challenge, endurance, erosion, sculpting and other invasive experiences.

It’s not a one off thing, either. Some people seem to get more experience of being crafted by the universe than others, but it’s hard to tell from the outside. One man’s mountain is another man’s molehill, but without a few molehills, the chances of surviving the mountain unscathed are rather slim. What knocks one person down is merely a trial for another. We’re all different. Some of us show the process of being tested more than others.

There’s always the temptation to not go there. To buy off the problem, do the thing that would be easy, but intrinsically wrong. There is so often a smooth, simple path that lets us carry on as we were. Of course sometimes that one leads right up to a precipice, as we increase the size of the trial by trying to duck it. There’s only so much cheating of system any of us can do of course because in the end we die, everyone dies, the piper is paid and you can’t avoid that one forever.

I’ve met people for whom life has been – either by choice or accident – a pretty easy stroll so far. I also know people who have, out of necessity, and out of love, walked through hell. Sometimes more than once. The people who do it of their own free will, for the sake of something that needs to be done, are awe inspiring. They don’t tend to announce themselves or make a big deal out of what they do, but they work in places of pain, misery and horror, and they keep working, keep facing the hardest things in order to help, to make better. Somehow, the more it breaks them, the more they shine and the more powerful they become.

I recall reading a blog post months back (can’t remember where) talking about how, when you’re broken on the floor and sobbing such that snot comes out of your nose, you are also as powerful as it is possible to be. Because you care enough to be going through that. The only real insulation from pain, is apathy, and that’s a hideous, soul destroying price to pay for the illusion of comfort.

No snot-laden weeping here today. Just pausing to look at the strange and winding path I’ve travelled in these last few years, and to think about the burning beacons along the way. The people who were not afraid to weep. The people who walk into hell on a regular basis because life asks it of them. There’s this collective belief that strength is the absence of tears, the absence of breaking. It’s a brittle sort of strength, a cold strength at best and it can’t do much. The strength that comes in breaking, the power of being snapped open and having bits torn off… is terrifying. But on the dark days, its important to remember this stuff.

Nature, Mindfulness and Emotion

Here’s a thing I keep banging my head against. I want to be mindful in all things, conscious of my actions and words and in control of them. I consider this essential for living in ethical and honourable ways. What this means in practice is that I spend most of my time trying very hard to maintain suitable levels of self control.

Now, here’s the rub. Most of my emotions are so intense, so all consuming, that the idea of them passing through gently is hard to imagine. I live in fairly intense emotional spectrums, and repressing any emotion so that it does not result in a physical expression is unspeakably hard. Experience to date suggests that the physical expression of my emotions does cause distress to others, and I am not comfortable with causing that distress, so mostly I try not to. Frequently I fail.

The quandary: Do my emotions, in their raw, chaotic and powerful state, constitute my nature, or are they something that I need to learn to tame and control? If they are my nature, are they allowable, is there some place for them, somewhere in the world? If I tame them, I might be able to become the more placid, docile, biddable person I feel certain the people around me would find it more comfortable to deal with. Would I be a better person if I could tame the extremities of my feelings?

Or is there anything in here that might have an intrinsic value, somewhere, somehow? (I’m unconvinced, but I have to ask for the sake of balance.)

I’ve spent most of my adult life trying for control, trying to be what those around me want me to be – of which one of the key elements has always been expressing a gentle, co-operative persona, which is just a construct, is not in any way ‘real’ in terms of how I understand myself. And there are days when holding that together and keeping it smiling is so hard that I just want to curl up and weep.

I will confess that I have spent my whole life yearning for some kind of space where I could feel safe about letting some of the other stuff out. There have been times, sharing music, when I’ve been able to express and feel fully alive, in the moment, whole… but music is abstract, and it’s easy for people not to have to look too hard at what’s really going on there, which makes it inherently safer. There are times when the sheer loneliness inherent in feeling unable to share my emotional self, is crippling. I say it, in case there is someone out there who feels this too, and who can find some catharsis, or companionship in these words.

I’m not sure it is mindfulness. It’s a good cover. It may in fact be fear. I know perfectly well that what lives on the inside is a fairytale monster full of teeth and excess. If it gets out, if anyone sees it, I will become an exile. Hiding is survival. Mindfulness keeps the fear of what I am under control.

I know I am blessed with some brilliant, insightful and forthright commentators on this blog. This is without a doubt the most personal thing I have ever put in a public place. It will be interesting to see what anyone does with this.

Rational Female

This is an answer to Alison’s feedback on Facebook feminism.

I have no idea how long my own culture and those similar to it have been tending to view rationality as masculine and emotion as feminine. I think it’s an idea that is receding in influence, a bit, but we’ve a way to go. It’s a bloody stupid idea. It reinforces ideas of gender difference, underpins all those arguments that for so long kept women out the workplace, politics and anywhere else involving power. It’s also a thought form that encourages us to raise our sons not to cry, or acknowledge pain. Anger is about the only emotion some men feel allowed, and that doesn’t help anyone.

Plenty of very serious, sensible, rational people who I have met along the way firmly believe that emotion itself is irrational. The only rational thing to do with emotion, is to squash it, Mr Spok style. I have had plenty of encounters with both men and women where the expression of emotion has been treated as evidence of my irrationality. I have also had plenty of people tell me to my face that I’m cold hearted, unfeeling, and an ice queen for not expressing my feelings in a suitably feminine way. I’ve been told that when I do occasionally show how I feel, others consider this suspect and assume I am just trying to manipulate them. I can’t win.

Everything that happens inside our heads, be it ‘intellectual’ or ‘feeling’ involves the same brain, the same brain chemistry, the same little electrical impulses. Emotions involve hormones, physiological reactions created by all our history of evolution. They are not separate and ‘other’ but intrinsic to being human. Most importantly, emotion is not irrational. Emotion can be discussed, explored, contemplated, understood, harnessed, celebrated. We have emotional intelligence. This desire to separate things out goes with a long history of dualism. Mind and body. Body and soul. Introvert and extrovert. Stable and neurotic. Thinking and feeling. These are methods for putting people in boxes and positioning them on charts: Human creations that are arbitrary in many ways, and reduce our sense of our own natures.

I am a stable, rational, introverted thinking, feeling unstable, irrational extrovert. Most people are.

It is the fear of our emotional selves that makes us comfortable calling it ‘irrational’. If we label feelings as irrational, we can invalidate them and never have to think about what they mean. Depression isn’t a reflection of all that is wrong in the world. Grief and fear are not reactions to abuse. Anger is not a reaction to oppression. That’s a very convenient dismissal that does us far more harm than good. Our emotions are reactions to life as we experience it. If we ignore our own, innate reactions, we ignore what’s happening to us. We live in denial, powerless to make any kind of meaningful change. People who placidly accept may look rational and pragmatic, but they are also far easier to control than one who protests. People who cry are a challenge to those who do not want to engage with anything. People who are enraged to the point of taking action do not necessarily uphold the iniquities of the status quo.

The irrational repression of our emotional lives keeps us prisoner. The irrational belief that emotions are silly makes us weak. The idea that to be rational and able to think in a logical way is unfeminine, is just another way of disempowering ourselves. To be fully human is to be both thinking and feeling. It is to be able to think logically about the implications of our feelings and to be able to respond with emotional insight to intellectual ideas.

Autumn commented on one of my justice blogs that many people are in prison because they just did something, in an unpremeditated way. Crimes of uncontrolled emotion, born in the moment. People who are, I assume, unable to think about their feelings and who consequently have no control over their own actions once their emotions are engaged, or once alcohol or similar has made that easier. Being overwhelmed by emotion should never be an excuse for a dishonourable action. But until we collectively embrace the idea of being able to handle emotion rationally, the idea that an emotion can ‘make us’ do something, will hold sway. And until we can recognise the validity of what our emotions tell us, we remain easily led by anyone who wants to bully us whilst mocking us for the irrationality of our feeling hurt by this.