Many years ago, and in the throes of relationship turmoil, I went to see my wise friend and mentor. Having sobbed and complained about the behaviour of my soon-to-be-ex partner, I then went into a long diatribe about how I knew I was supposed to accept what was happening and that my inability to do so was evidence of my obvious and inherent flaws. Having recently encountered New Age teachings, I had unquestioningly swallowed the idea of unconditional acceptance and surrender. I believed – for a mercifully brief period, as it turned out – that all my suffering could be affirmed out of existence.
My friend listened, patiently. And then picked up a sharpened pencil from his desk.
“What would happen if I poked you in the eye with this?” he asked.
Flinching, I replied. “Well, it would really hurt.”
“Exactly” he said, and smiled.
It took me a few moments to realise what he was getting at. I was hurting, not because there was something inherently wrong with me, but because what was happening was hurtful. The behaviour I had presumed I should accept wasn’t acceptable. My feelings were there to guide me, rather than being inconvenient reactions that I should repress, censor or overcome.
The belief that we should not be feeling what we are feeling is a major source of distress. This belief may come from a variety of sources. We may have grown up being told certain feelings were unacceptable (in some families, for example, anger is always suppressed or grief goes unacknowledged). We may have been taught by our culture, religion or spirituality that particular feelings are signs of deficiency, weakness or badness. Wider society sanctions or punishes feelings according to race, gender and sexuality. So when we find ourselves in the grip of rage, grief, envy, anger, fear, or any other emotion which has been unduly designated as ‘negative’, we think there is something wrong with us. We assume we need to fix, solve or get rid of the feeling. In addition to feeling the feeling itself, we also have to contend with shame or self-blame for having it in the first place. Our confidence is eroded; we doubt and criticize ourselves.
At the heart of this dynamic lies the internalised ideal self-image, the fictional uber-self which remains forever out of reach and unattainable. The ideal self-image varies for each of us, of course. Created in childhood and refined as we progress through life, we measure our actual selves against it and find ourselves wanting. Perhaps our ideal self-image is of a serene, calm person who can cope with any eventuality. We find ourselves raging and hostile and judge ourselves accordingly. Or our ideal self-image is adventurous, fearless and risk-taking, and we find ourselves trembling with uncontrollable anxiety and caught in a cycle of self-hatred as a result. Regardless of what we believe we should be and feel, we are stuck with the moment-by-moment reality of what we are actually feeling and being. We can find ourselves caught up in frantic efforts to try to make our real selves conform to the ideal self-image. Such activity is, ultimately, a violence to ourselves and often to others; we often attempt to keep our ideal self-image intact by making others wrong, lashing out in the process.
If we are willing to investigate more deeply, we can begin to unpick the strands of this Gordian knot, and allow ourselves to feel more honestly and deeply rather than suppressing or denying what is here. First, we notice the presence of a should or should not, a must or supposed to. I shouldn’t feel like this. I’m supposed to accept this. I should not be jealous. And then we question it. What tells us we shouldn’t feel like this? How do we know we are supposed to accept this? In inquiry, we are not asking these questions from an intellectual perspective. Rather, the answers come from a deeper place; from memory, from the unconscious caches of data we have stored in both mind and body. It may be we discover we vowed never to feel anger because we had a raging parent who traumatised us. Or we were bullied in school for daring to show tears in the playground. The possibilities are endless; we each discover how such inhibitions, vows, rules and so on work within us.
In my sessions with clients (and in my own looking), there is often a moment when a previously denied, forbidden or taboo feeling is finally felt. In the safety of the space, the feeling can be itself at last. And even if it is excruciatingly painful, there is a relief in being able to be with the reality of what is here. The feeling can express, tell and show, its message being acknowledged after many years. We may be astonished to discover the wisdom that lies within all of our feelings. We become more honest with ourselves. We come closer to the realness of ourselves as we no longer cling quite so tightly to the ideal self-image. We find ourselves more willing to feel what is here, and less willing to buy into teachings and rules that tell us how to be or what to feel.
All our feelings – whatever their nature, and whatever our ideas or beliefs about them – are natural responses or reactions to experience. They naturally arise, not because we are wrong or at fault, but because that is what our systems are designed to do. They are an essential part of the experience of being human. Being judgemental about them – either our own or others – misses the point entirely. When we develop the capacity to feel whatever we are feeling – and we have a safe space either on our own or with others to do so – we no longer need to act out in destructive or harmful ways. By becoming fully conscious of what we are feeling we are able to be present to ourselves without the self-shaming or self-criticism that leads us into denial. We begin to feel the full spectrum of our feelings, and connect with our innate aliveness, freed from the rigidity of trying to fit into the shoulds and oughts of the ideal self-image we no longer ascribe to. Instead of trying to be Teflon-coated super-selves, we become fully and vulnerably human, embracing all aspects of our being. Life touches us – and we touch life – ever more deeply.