This might not seem like one of the necessary tools, but it is vital, absolutely vital, to understand — wait, scratch that. If it were understandable, we wouldn’t need counselors. It is important to understand and accept that this tool is a necessary part of a healthy and full life:
I’ve read articles written by professionals that define emotions and feelings separately. This is in regards to what happens mentally and what happens physically. You are angry, and you feel your blood pressure go up. You are scared, and you feel the adrenaline kick in. I’m going to use them interchangeably because, to me, how the body responds is part of the package.
Healthy children naturally go through the process of exploring emotions as they learn and grow. Survivors have to go through it too, sooner or later. Now is as good a time as any to start the adventure. It’s an adventure unlike any you’ve ever undertaken. You’ll get out of it what you put into it, and it will be with you the rest of your life.
If this chapter seems more disconnected than any of the others, that’s probably because it is. Emotions are complicated. They also mean different things to different people. More importantly, what invokes them in one person may dam them up in someone else. Or more confusing yet is that one event will bring joy to one person and sorrow to another, depending on their perspective.
Emotions are messy. Really, really messy.
I was taught that messy is bad. Can you see where this is going? I didn’t, at first. If I felt ecstatic, I thought I was bad. If I was angry, I was bad. If I was sad, I was bad. If I was hurt, I was bad. If I was anything but calm and reasonable, I was bad.
Can you imagine what kind of nightmare that created in a teenager? Add to that, I’ve had severe PMS (complete with mood swings and cramps), since I was eleven. I was out of control. But the emotional bottling, stuffing my emotions in a bottle or a box and pretending they weren’t there, started much earlier.
I had been taught to maintain an emotional desert, while emotions from others swamped me. There was only so much room for all that emotion, and mine were sacrificed to maintain the delicate balance.
There are old habits to break. My emotions had been used against me to control me. I was repeatedly told how I felt, regardless of the truth. I was told which feelings I was allowed to have, and criticized and punished for having feelings other than those desired by those in control of me. I was taught that some emotions were good and acceptable and others were unacceptable and even sinful.
“Anger is hateful.” “Hate destroys.” “Discontent is evil.” “Despair is an absence of God’s spirit.” “You have to love everyone because God said so.” “You are evil if you are ever angry, hurtful, thoughtless, quarrelsome, hateful, etc.” “If you don’t stop crying, I’ll give you something to cry about.” “You have a stupid laugh.” “You look awful when you cry.” “You are such a Polly Anna; when are you going to grow up?”
And how was I supposed to respond to emotionally charged questions like: “You know I love you.” Do I? “I’m doing it for your own good, and you know it.” Really? “This hurts me more than it hurts you.” Are you kidding? “You don’t hate them.” Don’t I? “Don’t you use that tone of voice with me.” Why not? “You hate me.” How do you answer that?
Trying to wrap my mind around what emotions were or what they meant was a monumental task when I wasn’t allowed to experience them fully. I was expected to live off the emotions of others. If they were happy, I was to be happy. If they were sad, I was to be sad. On the other hand, if they were angry, I was expected to accept it and take responsibility for it.
The insanity of living in an emotionally abusive situation is impossible to understand or explain, unless you have lived in it. Why? Because it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.
I’ve worked hard to learn to recognize, understand, accept, and embrace my emotions.
Looking back on the early process, emotions remind me of the monsters under the bed or in the closet, the terrors of the unknown, those scary, unleashed, uncontrolled feelings. You can’t see them, but they rule your behavior with an almost unshakable power, even as you try to pretend they aren’t there.
That’s why nightlights come in handy, reminders that there’s really nothing to fear under normal circumstances. Of course, that’s part of the problem, living with abuse may be considered normal, by many, but it isn’t healthy. Keeping that in mind, it is possible, with time and practice, to make our emotions allies instead of unknown enemies.
How? First by learning what is true, and then trusting ourselves. Not easy, I know.
When I started expanding this chapter, I knew it would be difficult, but I had no idea how difficult. I’ve been wolfing down donuts like I’ll never see another one ever again. Eating is one of my most tried and true ways of stuffing my emotions.
While writing this paragraph, I found myself swimming in anger at the recent violations of my boundaries. I’d been touched without permission. In an unrelated incident and yet related in context, I’d been told to “get over it” by someone who doesn’t know me. I didn’t handle it well. I felt frustrated, hurt, angry, embarrassed, guilty, and confused, for starters.
I decided I needed to start with my earliest memories of emotions. My very first emotion memory is of fear. Fear, hurt, fear, anger, fear, frustration, fear, humiliation, fear, guilt, fear. Lots and lots of fear. Fear over what I could not control, which was essentially everything. Fear of the rage that was aimed at me. Fear of the rage that was aimed at others close to me. Fear at the rage aimed at things I didn’t even begin to comprehend. Rage that would frequently explode from seemingly nowhere. That terrifying sense of constantly walking on eggshells, wondering when the next one will explode all over me.
I never knew what would happen when that rage was cut loose, but it was never good, and I was either to blame or glad someone else was blamed. I felt guilty about that. The escape never lasted long, so I figured I was punished for that sense of relief at someone else’s expense anyway.
There have been moments when I wondered if I had any memories of happy times. I do have memories of laughing and having fun, and yet there was always an underlying fear. There was no way to predict the next emotional explosion.
Gradually, the rage became my own, about a lot of things.
The most recent bout of rage has been directed at not being able to lock my bedroom door. Our home had no locks on the storage room door, the basement door, the utility room door, and the girls’ bedroom door. What’s wrong with this picture? That lack of a lock was telling because I wasn’t allowed to lock doors, unless it was the house, though I better not lock anyone out, and I better have my key with me. It was years before I acknowledged the rage boiling inside me because I wasn’t allowed to lock the bathroom door.
The truth: I was raging at not being able or allowed to protect myself.
Rage almost consumed me at being blamed for things I did not do, at feeling out of control, at feeling helpless. I was in a constant state of having to bank the growing rage.
Anger unexpressed becomes depression. It’s safer to suppress than express when that expression could become violent.
I made a choice: Depression. Now, I’m looking for other options, in order to make a different choice, but I’ll be honest, I’m still depressed. I’ve faced so much, and sometimes I wonder if it’s simply a habit. I don’t know how to be any other way, but I’m not giving up hope.
As of the end of December 2011, the rage is fading, and the depression is lifting. I’m almost 50 years old. It’s been a long, hard road, and it isn’t over yet, but it’s good to know the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t a train but actual daylight, or more truly, God’s light. And I’m able to see it.
I placed emotions in this spot in the toolkit because they’re interwoven with everything. Pretending they aren’t pertinent will not make them go away. Others refusing to accept responsibility for their emotions is what landed me in this nightmare to begin with; I wanted to make a different choice.
Most of my life, my different choice was to follow what I falsely believed: That if I controlled my emotions, keeping them carefully even, then the turmoil around me would also calm.
I was wrong. I even knew I was wrong, but that didn’t keep me from trying, over and over and over. Largely because I didn’t know there were any other choices. I’d been taught that I must remain calm, at all times, and at all costs. It was my responsibility to be the rock in the storm, no matter what. The only way to maintain that calm was to bury or dismiss all emotions that weren’t calm, and I was very bad if I didn’t succeed. Bad things would happen, and it would be all my fault.
In my fortieth year, I discovered and embraced the wonder of the immense range of emotions that exist. Unfortunately, I didn’t know how to recognize which emotions were which. Surprise and fear can seem like the same thing. Anger and frustration are similar in some aspect but not others. To add to the confusion was the realization that I was unfamiliar with the sheer intensity of so many of the emotions. I understood rage, and it terrified me. But joy that fills your whole being was less familiar. That fear could be fun was completely new to me. The discovery was refreshing and opened the door to possibilities I never imagined.
When I finally claimed my own emotions and decided to take responsibility for them, I wasn’t actually prepared for how out of control I would feel. I felt like I was on a rollercoaster, and I wanted off, NOW. One thing kept me from quitting and continuing to hold on: I knew the only way I could reclaim my emotions was to own them, every single one, the warm-fuzzy ones, and the uncomfortable, prickly ones.
Though I understood this in the broader scheme of things, there was a lot to learn. Oddly enough, I hadn’t yet figured out that rejecting any of my emotions was, in fact, a rejection of myself. It was a real struggle to acknowledge that this was an all or nothing choice. Either I rejected it all, and continued on a course that I had already decided was a failure, or I accepted it all. If I wanted to become a whole person, then I needed to accept and embrace all of my emotions. It actually wasn’t an easy decision, but I finally decided that I’d had enough rejection. I chose to be brave and accept it all, including the responsibility that went with it.
As a side note, funnily enough, once I accepted them all, I discovered that the less than pleasant emotions really weren’t as bad as I thought, once I put them in proper context, even things like hate and jealousy. I reminded myself that in the Bible it states that God hates and is jealous, so there was clearly something lacking in my understanding, and I needed to figure it out. As regards the Bible, I discovered that the meaning of words have changed over the centuries. Too often I was trying to look at the Bible through my twentieth century eyes, unmindful of the fact that it was written long ago, and translated a few hundred years ago.
Essentially, I was exploring a foreign country, expecting to comprehend everything without knowing the customs or the language. Emotions are a language of their own. When I decided to accept my emotions, I accepted the responsibility to learn about them and learn to understand them. Gradually, I was doing much better.
By the time I’d met my third counselor, I was successfully navigating my emotions, though I still frequently felt out of my depth. There was so much, so many subtle differences. So many shades of gray. Then my counselor taught me there were three basic negative emotions: Hurt, fear, and frustration.
I knew I could recognize hurt, fear, and frustration. This helped me narrow down my exploration for understanding what I was feeling. It’s a lot easier to choose from three than from a whole list. I was content to hold to that list. Then I read an article, and it had a whole list of emotions. Really?
I was curious, so I searched for more information. I found a myriad of lists. One list summarized the primary emotions as love, joy, surprise, anger, sadness, and fear, followed by more lists of secondary emotions or what they called feelings, and tertiary feelings, which means the third order or rank. It was mind-boggling. Was it any wonder I still felt confused and overwhelmed? Even as I felt I’d made progress, and I had. I wanted more.
Acknowledging my feelings meant that I was able to explore why I felt the way I did. Every time I went through the accept-and-explore process, I discovered there was something else deeper. Then I discovered that I had a living, breathing example of how to avoid feelings. Me. I was still ignoring the emotions that made me uncomfortable. Had I learned nothing?
I was jealous of a young lady who had a certain gentleman’s attention. Once I stopped lying about feeling jealous (I was ashamed of feeling that way), I was able to recognize that on a deeper level I actually felt painfully inadequate. I dug a little deeper still and realized that I felt inadequate because I didn’t feel I was good enough for said gentleman. Then I realized that I was trying to change myself in order to fit what I though said gentleman was looking for in a life companion. Could I twist myself in knots any more thoroughly? I stopped being me in the hopes of attracting a man, who wasn’t interested in me.
To my dismay, I realized that I did this ALL THE TIME! I ignored my feelings in the hopes of fitting in. I tried to emulate the feelings of others, because I didn’t believe that my feelings were of any value. I was trying to play the chameleon. This is NOT a quality or trait I admire in anyone, nor has it ever been. So why was I doing this? Cue the negative tape. Yep, all those reasons, and a few more.
Maybe if I change, then I’ll be lovable.
My friends assure me that I’m lovable exactly the way I am, and I’m gradually beginning to believe them. God sent them to me. How do I know? Because they bring out the best in me. It isn’t that I don’t see the flaws in me, I do, but I want to be a better person… I want to be a whole person.
The only way to become whole is to develop and build and strengthen and grow. This also includes trimming, pruning, remodeling, and revamping. I work at changing for the better, not to fit some blueprint I think they have of me, but because I know that being my best self will bring out the best in them, too. It is a healthy give and take.
Yes, I’m expecting you to search yourself for answers. I told you this wouldn’t be easy. I also know you’re up to the task, or you wouldn’t still be reading this book.
So you’ve discovered all these amazing emotions. It’s important to recognize that there really is a certain pleasure in reacting exactly like you want to, without holding back. I’m thinking in terms of lashing out at those who have hurt you. There are terms for it, like ‘face,’ ‘gotcha,’ ‘take that,’ ‘so there,’ ‘neener-neener,’ and the raspberry. However, it carries with it an incredibly high risk of innocent casualties, including yourself. Think of that biting remark to the person that is taking too long in line, until you learn that they lost their job, or a loved one died, or they have a disability. Then you live with feeling like a heel because you’ve needlessly hurt someone else; exactly what was done to you.
I wish there were an easy answer to learning how to feel and be responsible, but there isn’t one. It takes work and practice, re-adjusting, and more work and practice.
Like many survivors, I learned to stuff my emotions, figuratively and literally. To keep from feeling, I’d eat, particularly given the starvation tactics with which I was well acquainted, i.e., eat whenever possible because you never know when you’ll be forced to go hungry.
Once I became an adult, I was in charge of my food, and yes, it wasn’t long before I was out of control. I didn’t do illicit or controlled drugs, alcohol, or tobacco. Food became my drug of choice. If I was sad, I ate. If I was happy, I ate. If I was angry, I ate. If I was depressed, I ate. If I was stressed, I ate.
But if I was scared, I didn’t eat. It doesn’t happen often. After what I grew up with, it would be reasonable to think that not much scares me, which is true to a point but not the whole story, not by any stretch of the imagination.
Anger is a great intimidator. However, I must admit that I eventually learned to tune it out, so much so that sometimes it didn’t even register because it wasn’t the vitriolic outpouring with which I was familiar. And yet, I lived with an ever-present sense of fear that I am only now beginning to recognize.
An important clarification is that I’ve lived in almost a constant state of fear, but not scared. To me, being scared was usually associated with being startled or experiencing a sudden fright. Fear is deeper, more long term. For example, the sudden appearance of a spider might scare me, but I don’t fear spiders. I’ve had them in my window, off and on, for years. I kept them because they’re good bug eaters. (And that last little tidbit is called a distraction. I’m feeling uncomfortable with my fears, so I find a way to laugh at it. Not a bad gift, but not a helpful one when you’re trying to face the truth.)
Anger can be incredibly frightening. The general perception of anger tends to be one of fear and hate. It’s one of those pesky bad emotions. And I believed that, for a long time. So all that anger I was feeling made me bad, which meant I had to suppress that anger, and there I was swimming in depression, which was safer, at least until I learned how to manage my anger.
So, great, I’ve acknowledged that I have a wide variety of emotions I never suspected, now what? Finding a safe place to explore those emotions became a priority.
I started with movies and books. For me, it was pretty safe. It was happening to someone else. I was the observer. I could stop the movie or close the book whenever I didn’t want to face it anymore, and I could start up again, when I was ready.
I had to give myself permission to feel everything. As I watched and read, I studied what triggered my various emotions, like fear, anger, sadness, joy, peace, including the unpleasant emotions like hate and jealousy.
It was important not to stifle any of them. At last, I finally realized that stuffing my emotions didn’t help anyone, especially not me.
I was shocked to learn that being scared really could be fun, like the surprise of unexpected fireworks, and being passionate wasn’t wicked or rabid. Anger is able to push me when I’m afraid to do something I should, like going to the dentist or standing up to someone who has abused me. I will always hate abuse. Jealously allows me to question myself about why I feel that way. What is it I feel I’m lacking? Sadness is appropriate when someone dear passes on or a dream moves out of reach.
By acknowledging my emotions, I accept ownership. By accepting ownership, I accept responsibility. By accepting responsibility, I accept that I make the decision on how to deal with them, manage them, use them in my life. No one else.
I have discovered that emotions aren’t so much controlled, because they are constantly happening, as they are channeled. But it was a skill I needed to learn. How?
Children don’t know the power of acting on what they feel. They learn by trial and error. As a survivor, I knew, from experience, the fall out of striking out in anger, but I didn’t know how to express my anger without striking out. It was strike or suppress. I needed to learn what my other choices were — what was and was not appropriate — while still being allowed to own my feelings, all of them.
Of necessity, I was brilliant at reading the emotions of others, but had absolutely no clue about my own. I hadn’t been allowed to have them in front of anyone, so I had no idea how to express them. I should say I didn’t know how to express them appropriately, because sometimes they simply boiled over. I would be effusively gratefully or blisteringly angry. The swings were so frightening I’d scare myself into suppressing all my emotions again.
I excelled at mirroring the emotions of those around me. However, when an emergency occurred it was terribly confusing to me that I was able to completely shut off all emotions in order to do what had to be done. I did finally learn that being able to rein in my emotions, to think reasonably, in an overwhelming situation, is healthy. Imagine that. This skill, known as disassociation, is actually healthy when used sparingly. Emotions are not bad, and holding them in check in certain situations is healthy.
Confusion, frustration, annoyance, irritation, oh, yes, I was very familiar with those particular emotions, but joy, happiness, peace, contentment, were ever fleeting and elusive. I wanted to trade the first set of constant companions for the second set.
Knowing how much I didn’t know, I went hunting for books.
Many of the self-help books I’ve read talked about emotions in terms of being good and bad. The feel-good emotions, of course, are desirable, whereas the negative emotions are shunned. They are to be overcome. You knew you were on the right track if you could successfully eliminate all negative emotions.
Talk about setting yourself up to fail!
This was the message I heard: I’m bad, if I’m depressed.
One went so far as to suggest that the most desirable state of being is to enjoy only peaks, no valleys. What’s wrong with this picture? In case they hadn’t noticed, all peaks makes for a flat line, and a flat line in life means your dead.
Valleys help you enjoy the peaks. Valleys are the contrast necessary to appreciate the peaks.
The opposite end of this option is to cut yourself off from your feelings entirely, which solves nothing. In fact, this creates even more problems, because the feelings do not go away, though it is possible to bury them so deeply you don’t know they’re there.
Then there is the book that implied that the “bad” feelings hinted at sin. Excuse me? I’m sinning when I’m sad over the death of a friend? Or I’m worried because my job was suddenly terminated? Or I’m depressed because I’ve been abused all my life and I haven’t yet figured out how to change?
Granted, feeling badly can be a sign of sin. If I hurt someone, I hope I feel badly so I take whatever steps I must to change and be a better person. That being said, the concept of feeling bad being a sin can also be used to manipulate a person into doing whatever is decided to make the offended party feel better. “You hurt my feelings when you ignore me.” Yes, you’ve been avoiding this person because they screamed about how stupid and inept you are. See the problem? You’re accused of committing a sin, and you haven’t. They are angry or scared or frustrated, and you are the unfortunate target. You’re only sin was in being in the way of their tantrum.
I don’t find either philosophy particularly useful. However, I think it reveals a great deal about those who tout the philosophies. What need are they filling in telling others what is and is not acceptable to feel?
When someone believes they must tell me how to feel, I find myself wondering why. Sadly, there are people who intend to do good, and believe they are doing good when they correct what they believe to be another person’s faulty perspective about how to act and feel. Unfortunately, it often requires that they shred someone else’s sense of self. “It’s for their own good.” “How will they know what to change, if I don’t tell them?”
Who made them an expert on my feelings and what’s best for me? Not to mention the fact that very often these same I-know-what’s-best orators have enough problems of their own without adding mine. How emotions should be viewed and treated is definitely a case of “if the philosophy fits in a nutshell, it should probably stay there.”
Fortunately, I’ve also read and agree that emotions simply are. They happen. They can be spontaneous, and you can evoke them. Ask any actor. Feelings are neither good nor bad, in and of themselves; it is what you do with them that will determine their value to you.
You can stuff your emotions into dark places that never see the light of day. You can disassociate from your emotions and become so good at it that it seems they aren’t there at all. You can twist them so they look like something else.
Or you can fully embrace your feelings and fully live your life, with all the wealth of colors those feelings will add to every event and moment.
Life is complex, as complex as all those feelings. That’s what makes it so interesting!
When I’m happy and at peace I tend to laugh more and sing. If I’m sad, I cry. If I acknowledge my anger, then I give myself the option of finding ways to either healthily release it completely (exercise is a great way) or funnel it into something that isn’t destructive to me or anyone else. For example: There are certain jobs I don’t like, but they have to be done, like cleaning piles of paper or stuff that I’ve allowed to grow out of control. I allow my anger at myself to power me through the cleaning and sorting. It’s amazing how much I’m able to accomplish when I allow myself to express my temper constructively.
Emotions are powerful. As an abuse victim, my emotions were severely warped and twisted, until some were unrecognizable. However, I firmly believe it’s possible to untangle the misconceptions from the truth, but it takes time and practice. Abusers will say that it’s too late. If I believe them, then they win. A part of me cries out that I’m stronger than that.
I also believe it’s imperative to have examples to follow. I started with my dog. Yes, my dog. I needed someone or something that didn’t have its own agenda. I needed something simple. There isn’t much that’s less complicated than a dog. It was a good starting point for me.
I did realize that sooner or later, I would have to practice with people, so I needed to find people whom I felt I could trust. For me, it worked well with people on the internet. There were automatic boundaries. I was careful about my associations. I already knew not everyone was safe, so I approached each new acquaintance with care.
As time has gone by, I’ve been blessed with remarkable friends who have taught me a great deal about love, compassion, courage, joy, sorrow, pain… I’m very grateful for all they have taught me and shared with me, and continue to do so. My life is so much richer than I ever imagined it could be. More importantly, I learned it was never meant to be a journey taken alone, though that was by far the easiest choice, at first.
Allow yourself to feel, because it’s a gift. Too many survivors learned too well not to feel at all. Actually, the sad truth of the matter is that the emotions are there, boiling, under the surface, waiting to be set free or explode. Not being able to feel is isolating. Only the adversary would advocate isolation. God is all about love, which has never been solitary.
Remember the three-legged stool? Love God; love neighbor; love self.
We aren’t on this earth for ease and smooth sailing; that’s called Heaven. God gave me all my emotions, and I am learning to trust Him to open windows and doors that will help me more fully embrace them, particularly as they add so much richness to life.
© 2010 The Project: The Tools I Wish I’d Known About Sooner / My Abuse Survivor’s Basic Toolkit by Judy