Timing is a principle that we get at its base. A cake on any other day but your birthday is just a cake. Bathing suits are great for the pool, but a risky fashion decision for a business meeting. However, society not only tells us when it is appropriate to eat or wear certain things; it also dictates when it is ok to feel, what it is ok to feel, and whether or not it is appropriate to reveal certain feelings. These social constructions (They have not always existed. Somebody actually made them up!) can prevent us from honoring and sharing our natural feelings as they occur. Ignoring, hiding, and suppressing certain feelings over the course of our life can cause great suffering.
Let’s look at some examples you might be familiar with. Honey, your cousin does not mean to insult you. He is just having a bad day. Since he is older, it would be bad manners to yell at him back, so try to find something to keep yourself busy, so that you do not ruin the evening. This example has the potential to cause harm later with the conflict that develops between having the freedom to express anger when it arises. Let’s go one step further, and think of a depressed parent. Honey, I am sorry that you have had a long day, but this really is not the time to share your feelings or your thoughts, since daddy is feeling particular sad today (even though it is about every day).
Gender construction becomes an issue as well. Boys don’t cry. Girls shouldn’t get angry or fight. Of course, there are so many more, the emotions you are allowed to show at the office, in your romantic and platonic relationships.
There are even emotions that people tend to prefer in their friends, family, and romantic partners. We all know the formula: happy, easy going, and supportive. Comedian Kevin Hart once got a big laugh from an audience after contradicting this expectation by saying that he needed a crazy woman because he is also crazy. He thought it would be stressful to come home to someone who was so happy that they were aggressively directing their happiness towards him, “Guess who’s home!!! You are!!! You are!!!” I don’t think that crazy is an emotion, but I think his point was more about wanting to be with someone who could express the full spectrum of their emotional experience, so that he was free to do the same.
Ajahn Brahm is famous for writing a book called “Don’t Worry Be Grumpy.” Brahm, a talented, comedic-wisdom provider, notes that happiness is not an accurate criterion for what allows us to feel at ease. This runs in contrast to terms we have like happy-go-lucky and easy-going. I don’t know about you, but pretending I am happy when I am suffering inside feels like a punishment to myself; a criticism on my emotional state or perhaps my person for allowing such an unpleasant emotional state to arise.
The funny thing is that we are not responsible for our emotional state. It manifests in connection with our thoughts and the environment. It is like apologizing for having to use the bathroom or to breath. Please go to the bathroom or just breath. Your body is highly intelligent, and knows what you need. Don’t apologize for drinking water, it would set up the worst eulogy ever. Here lies Beatrice. She was a kind heart, who down to her last action was willing to give up her need for water so she could focus on our needs. Geesh! We sound like monsters, and not the furry kind that kids take to bed, but the ones under the bed or in the closet.
Of course, water deprivation is an extreme, but the hyperbole exists to draw your attention to being able to express yourself emotionally in a sincere way because your mind and body are affected. When you suck in your anger to not offend others or prevent yourself from feeling low because others expect you to be up or hide your stress because others come to you to feel at ease, you are setting up for a damaging stress pattern. This pattern will likely lead to anxiety and potentially panic. If you need some motivation to find ways to allow these emotions to breath ask someone who struggles with panic to describe an episode.
So how does stuffing your emotions lead to stress, anxiety, and even panic? Well, when your sincere emotion comes up and you stifle it, it actually takes force to hold it down and express a different emotion. This gives you a feeling of inner conflict. As this conflict continues your body will tighten and the extra energy expended will require more than your available resources. Over-expended bodily resources are the physical manifestations of anxiety. The fear of the real emotions coming up or the fear of the thoughts, bodily sensations, and emotions connected to anxiety leads to panic.
Basically, the process is: stuffing your feelings leads to stress (internal conflict), which leads to anxiety (too much work for the system and fear that emotions will come up), which leads to panic (what if the anxiety and anxiety symptoms are too much?). The saddest part of this way of living is that we slowly construct the model that our natural selves are flawed and simply not good enough, which is why we have to pretend to be someone else people will accept and spend time with.
Given our self-compassion practice, there is only one conclusion we can draw from this, stuffing our emotions is simply not worth it. Our goals are to feel whole, enough, and at ease, and stuffing does the opposite. There is nothing wrong with being hospitable, kind, or sacrificing at times for the greater good of someone or many someones for which you are responsible, unless it is compromising your self-acceptance and well being.
No one who truly cares about you wants you to sacrifice your self-acceptance and well being. Thus, doing so in the short or long run will actually make them unhappy. Think of all the relationships you are privy to in which one or both people do this, and near the end of this relationship they have a blow out in which this sacrifice is disclosed. This hidden truth is certainly one of the most damaging.
Relationships that harm intentionally or unintentionally, by their very nature, tend not to last because they teach the body that they are un-liveable. However, given that most of us were not aware that relationships could end because of too much self-sacrifice, we are likely to attribute the ending of relationships to not enough self-sacrifice or events out of our control.
We come by our emotional experience naturally and having and expressing the full range of emotions is healthy, diminishes conflict, stress, and anxiety. It also gives us and our friends the opportunity to accept ourselves just as we are. If you modify your experience to suit others (even with good intentions), you will never be able to know whether you or other people will accept you for you. The truth is that you only want the people in your life, who will accept your sincere experience because in your pursuit of happiness, meaningfulness, and ease they are the only people who can help you to get there.
So, how do we get there? To quote the movie, “What about Bob?” “Baby steps.”
The first step is accepting that we come by these feelings naturally. Social constructions and peer pressure to act a certain way are real, and it makes sense that they would affect us over time. Everybody wants to be loved, so most people are going to follow the formula available (e.g, happy, easy going, supportive). Even though these constructions are real, we are going to choose a different course of action because of our strongest core beliefs: all people deserve to be free from suffering and to live with self-acceptance and ease. Soften into your experience instead of hardening when these feelings arise.
The second step is making space for these feelings. Because the process of stuffing them has gone on for a long time, we will understandably be patient with the length of time it takes our body and mind to be able to make space for them. Remind yourself here that it not your job to force the space, but simply to provide an opportunity for it. Inevitably, while trying to provide the space you will have feelings of conflict trying to draw you back to the past behaviors. It is not personal. It is just what you are used to. Simply acknowledge these feelings when they come up. You already do something like this every time you wait in conversation to speak or have to wait for your turn to use the bathroom, so you are already well trained in being kind to yourself and making space for thoughts and feelings without feeling like you have to act immediately.
The third step is try to express the emotion that you are feeling. It is important to go at your own pace and to think about the kind of speed that will yield long-term success. Churning out a litany of swear words at your boss for borrowing your stapler after you have told him not to will probably slow your process of emotional acceptance or perhaps not. What am I the all knowing? Use your good judgment. I have faith in your abilities. When I began this process, I started with just allowing myself to feel things without people present. Then, I began with a safe person. Later, I moved to a neutral person, and finally I moved on to a difficult person. Now, I do so when I can to increase my well-being.
Fourth step, make the goal for this change in behavior a transcendent one. By which, I mean find a goal that goes beyond yourself. When we have goals that are bigger than us, we are able to summon more resources and feel that we are working with or at least in conjunction with many other people on our goals. This makes our goals far easier to achieve. Take some pressure off yourself and stock your resources. You are not just trying to feel and express your emotions sincerely. You are also part of a larger group that believes in self-acceptance and a meaningful life. These are important moves towards your collective goals!
Fifth, don’t do this alone. Enlist supports. Find folks that you think would be supportive of your journey or who want to accompany you on this journey. Be accountable to each other, but also be very, very kind. If this work feels like a punishment, it will undo its very intention, which is one of kindness.
Sixth, celebrate the victories! Far too often we concentrate on the stick instead of the carrot. I don’t know about you, but being reminded that I will be punished all the time if I do not engage in certain actions gets old. I just become annoyed and distracted by the punishment, and find something to strive for that is more rewarding. So think of something that naturally provides your life with on-going health and well being, and go straight to it after you have done something to get better at accepting and acknowledging your sincere emotions.
My favorite quote from a movie is from the Power of One. The main character is trying to persuade his teacher to support them in their desire to teach native South African people how to read, so they can better fight for their freedom. The teacher acknowledges the helpfulness of the action, but feels it will fall short of making any actual real difference. The main character who has been taught to best understand the world by seeking nature (it actually helps in real life), says, “A waterfall starts but with one drop of water, sir. Look what comes from that.”
Take some time every day to allow for your own drop of water- action towards acceptance and expression of sincere emotions as they come up. Wherever you are in the process, practice with kindness, and give yourself credit for whatever movement you can muster. Your only job is to show up and try. After a while, all those drops of water will become your own waterfall (acceptance and expression of sincere emotions). I have never asked a waterfall how long it took to get that way. I just appreciate that it exists. May we all have the patience and insight to appreciate the beauty and results of our own journey.
365 Days of Kindness. Self-Compassion. Day 34. In the Books.