How to start feeling

I grew up in a house with four women which meant there was a lot of estrogen going around.  We were pretty adept at late-night sessions, hashing out the latest crises in our lives, letting our advice spill over into the wee hours when judgment for such things is waning and emotions are running high.  I was always the more detached, cerebral unit in this group.  I used humor as an escape and a facade to avoid these tell-all episodes when possible.  For years, these sessions were the glue that held the women in my family together.   They defined our get-togethers.  Sometimes they left us feeling closer and sometimes they just left us feeling more crazy and isolated.  The outcome was always a gamble.  

Thankfully, these sessions have changed.  My sisters came to San Diego for a getaway weekend this past week.  We’ve become better at this over the years.  It’s easier.  For one thing, the facade is starting to come down.  We’re not faking the always-clean house anymore.  We’ve dropped the idea that we should have it all together.

Another change that is coming about is emotional autonomy.  We aren’t perfect at it yet, but we’ve started to trust each other to take care of our own crap.  We are adopting the philosophy of I’m going to assume you’re okay with whatever is happening unless you tell me it’s not okay.  Maybe in some family dynamics this would be moving in the wrong direction, but in ours it’s magic.  We have a history of being endlessly caretaking to the point that no one will say where they want to have dinner for fear that someone will be disappointed but go along with it anyway.  It’s enough to make anyone bonkers.  

The third things is that we’ve started to cool it on the advice.  Advice, usually, just sucks.  It’s not helpful and it often makes the advised person feel like an idiot.  We probably suck at this one the most.  We still relentlessly advise each other because how do you not try to help your sister when she is telling you about something in her life that is causing her pain!?! That’s why I said we’ve STARTED to cool it.  No miraculous change here—just incremental.

So I was actually really honored when my sister opened up to me about avoiding her feelings.  She realized she was doing this a lot and had been for years.  Numbing out the negative emotion with food or TV or whatever.  She said, with the bravest honesty, that she wondered what it would take to give that up–and if she even wanted to.

Her simple utterance rang all my truth alarms.  I told her that that was a VERY valid question.  It’s a lot to feel.  It’s so much.  And at first you won’t know how to get it out—how to unbury that stuff that’s been locked away under layers of food and TV and shopping and piles of subconscious.  You’ll notice yourself binge eating or binge watching and, now because you’re slightly more conscious than before, you see it.  You think, I’m just numbing—what am I numbing?  And you won’t be able to figure it out at first.  

And you’ll judge yourself because that’s what you’ve always done.   Your brain will say things to you like, You’re weak. You always do this.   And then you’ll feel some shame about the numbing behavior which will really only feed it and you’ll wonder if you will ever get off this cycle.  But what you don’t realize is that your foot is already on the path to consciousness.  Because you noticed the numbing!  You identified it.  So a few weeks or months or years will go by and sometimes you’ll notice the numbing and identify it as it’s happening and sometimes you’ll see it after the fact and sometimes you won’t see it at all.

Then one day, as you reach for your first handful of Cadbury Mini Eggs—or maybe it will happen because you’re surprisingly out of chocolate—you’ll stop yourself and decide to really drill down.  What is the feeling I’m numbing?  You’ll search for a word, the chocolate smell heavy in the air.  Anger…fear…jealousy…tired…disappointment—DISAPPOINTMENT!  That’s it!  I’m disappointed.  

You’ll retrace your feeling steps back through the events of the last ten minutes or ten hours or ten days or ten years to realize that what you’re feeling in this moment is disappointment.  And then you will wonder what it feels like–without the chocolate.

You’ll picture a time when you felt disappointed.  You might even have to reach back to childhood if you’ve been numbing for a while.  You’ll lean into that memory as you lean into the current moment.  The lean means that you are getting into your body.  You will pull that feeling through your gut, to your fingertips and as you let go of the stoicism you will begin to cry.  You might be driving down the freeway sobbing over your steering wheel.  You might prostrate yourself on the kitchen floor as the disappointment takes over.  You let it.  

Part of you thinks this is completely ridiculous.  Another part of you worries that now that you’ve started crying you might never stop.  But you’ve already come this far so you continue to sob.  Tears are now coming from the darkest corners of your psyche.  DISAPPOINTMENT.  It’s such a simple emotion, so familiar, so easy to bury under layers of chocolate or busy-ness or novels or TV.  But now it’s racking you in full force.  Your face is covered in snot and tears.  You feel strange as the sobs start to slow—no wait, now they’re back again full-force—okay, now they are slowing.  

That’s the thing about emotions—they can’t last forever.  This is as equally true for the good ones as it is for the painful ones.  You look in the mirror and see your swollen eyes and snotty face, but it’s not pathetic.  There’s a little fire that’s started in your chest.  It’s the fire of self-respect because you did the hard thing—the brave thing.  You faced the disappointment dragon.  You shouted and beat your chest at the mouth of his cave and he devoured you.  Yet here you are on the other side of it, soggy but intact.  And that simple fact is proof that you can do it again.  Over and over and over again.  You can be devoured by the dragon because you were born to do this.  You were born to feel—not to numb, but TO FEEL.  

The weeks and months and years will pass.  Your emotional vocabulary will grow.  You will begin to see the dragons on the horizon and the fear of being devoured will become less.  Still, there will be times when you put on the sumo suit of chocolate or TV or exercise or podcast.  You will check out and the dragon will pass by, but it will secretly be waiting.

Sometimes you will notice these moments and you will judge yourself for it.  I should know better! I am enlightened! You really suck at this!  But another voice will tell you, you are human and the balance is what it’s all about. Be kind to yourself. Be patient with yourself.  Love yourself.  That is the way to freedom.  At first the shoulds will be loud in your ears.  You will wonder if you will EVER be good at this.  

The weeks and months and years will pass and you will realize that good is silly.  Good is a box and no one is shaped like a box.  We only come in human shapes.  By then you will suck less at this enlightenment business.  But that saying that goes something like, the more I learn the less I know will have come to pass.  

You will be very brave about being devoured by the dragon then.  For this reason, some people will think that you have too many feelings.  You won’t worry too much about those people because you will understand that we all have dragons lurking on the horizon.  

Sometimes you will succeed at standing firm while the dragon devours you and other times you will find yourself running to food or shopping or TV or drugs or incessant napping or alcohol or social media or sex or gambling.  But because you are conscious more often than not, you notice when you do these things.  And the reward of it becomes less because you see it for what it is—not an escape but a delay.  

And you start to be kind to yourself, to understand that sometimes you NEED a delay.  You aren’t yet ready to be devoured by the next dragon.  But because you know you are someone who faces down dragons, you trust that you will eventually summon the courage to be devoured and you will love yourself as you wait for that day.

Here’s to the journey, sister. I’m on it too.