Should I express my emotions?
Common among those of us who find ourselves adrift in grief, anxiety, depression or frustration is the disquieting sense that certain of our emotions are being unduly bottled up. Or – if we are parents of children whose sense of safety and stability has unfortunately been disturbed – we worry for their sake, hope that unprocessed emotions will not surface in years to come, and drive once innocent children to self-destructive ends.
Both of these concerns are fears of repression. They arise from a warning in our culture to beware of keeping in what should not be kept in. But what should we do with our anger; our grief; our loneliness; our fear; our resentment; our sorrow; our shame? And what about those other complex brews we so rarely have even the words to describe?
To answer, let’s consider a different question, one which goes to the heart of the problem. That is; why might we repress our emotions in the first place?
To answer that, consider the following story:
Once in a forest lived two bears. The bears were the same age but belonged to different families. For the most part, they were friends, but occasionally they would argue, or even fight, especially when they were hungry, and especially when there wasn’t enough food to go around. Then the bears would panic. Their friendship would quickly become a furious competition, fuelled by jealousy and fear as if their very lives were at stake.
Indeed sometimes their very lives were at stake.
One such occasion a scuffle broke out near a tall cliff. The bears rolled, bit and scratched out their claims to the last salmon of the season. In the throes of their struggle, neither bear paid any attention to the most immediate danger. Their bout edged closer and closer to the abyss. Soon it was too late. One of the bears fell.
For us humans – aided as we are by self-awareness – we can often distinguish between real and perceived threats, but not always. Each of us at some point has found ourselves overcome by uncontrollable reactions to circumstances we only understand in hindsight. Sometimes our reactions produce disastrous consequences beyond our most terrifying dreams. The truth is that in comparison to our own nature, we ourselves are merely an afterthought; which is why we do our best to keep things in; knowing full well that’s only a temporary solution.
Then comes a time when a niggling thought keeps us from rest. We get the sense that certain emotional reactions – long since stored away – are driving us mad. Or we fear for the sake of our children; or we know not what to do with our grief and loss, other than attributing them to our own failure. So we decide to get some help. We make an appointment with a therapist.
Then we confront a terrible tension. In one of our hands, we hold fast to emotions and they’re driving us mad. In our other hand is the story of a dead bear. We are afraid to repress, and simultaneously we are afraid to express. Both hands have their reasons.
In the course of our treatment, and beyond, what we will come to realise is a third way. We will find that expression is not the opposite of repression; that to feel deeply those forces which breathe life into Art is a journey beginning and ending in our hearts. There we will come to make a space capable of holding what our hands cannot hold. More than anything else we will come to accept our emotions for what they are.
As for the sake of our children; should we ourselves endeavour with courage and compassion to make room in our lives for acceptance; should we demonstrate patience for the depth and breadth of all that lies beneath our conscious minds; then we will know what it is to be present for our children, as they make their own journeys home.
Contributed by Daniel Silver (Counsellor, Relationships Australia Alice Springs)