Inside Out (Disney/Pixar)
A friend wrote to me last week saying “I hate human emotions”. I knew exactly what he meant! Do you? This feeling that we sometimes get, that it is all a bit too much, that emotions are uncomfortable, inconvenient, and just plain awful. Why do we have to feel? And why do we have to feel so much, sometimes? Wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t feel at all? If we could just go through life bypassing all these burdensome emotions?
However, when we say this sort of thing and ponder on these type of questions, we are really only thinking of a particular set of emotions, right? I mean, no one wants to give up joy, do they? We just want to let go of sadness, anger, disappointment. I mean, not even to just let go, we don’t want to feel them in the first place! Unfortunately, we are not actually able to repress or suppress negative emotions without affecting the expression and flow of the positive ones. When we repress and suppress the bad, we always end up affecting the good. And because repressing and suppressing requires so much energy, this is what we end up focusing on: the bad. We focus so much on it, that it becomes familiar, often too familiar. Familiar to the point that it becomes the standard by which we experience the world around us.
A great example is people in the LGBTQ+ community. I will speak from experience here: I became aware of my attraction to the same sex when I was 5 years old, and I started living life as a fully out gay man at 19 years old. That’s 14 years of conscious effort and behaviour to hide who I was from the world around me. I actually saw a meme the other day which made me laugh. It said “What is your acting experience?” to which the response was “Well, I was in the closet for many years”. People who know me now find it hard to believe that I ever passed as straight, but when I was in the closet I literally thought about every single thing in my day to day: the tone of my voice, my body language and posture, hand gestures, the way I sat and crossed my legs, the verbal language I used, my hair, my clothes. There were periods of rebellion, when I didn’t care about any of this, but because I used to be immediately punished by my environment when I dared to leave my box, I learned to do it less and less.
What do you think the impact of all this pretending, this repression and suppression, was? Well, I was so conscious about masking every part of my being, that ultimately I forgot who I actually was. Inadvertently, I also bypassed joy, wonder, and fun in my life. It is truly ironic that I became a Dramatherapist, and that I now work in children’s mental health, because I really, really, really struggle with play, spontaneity, and the joyful bliss of wonder and innocence. For as far back as I can remember, people used to say to me that I was too serious, that I didn’t know how to take a joke, I didn’t know how to play. They were absolutely right. To this day, I still struggle with all of the above. Why? I literally spent half of my life controlling every single aspect of it, in relation to how it appeared to the outside world. A child can’t be a child if they are constantly worried about what the world thinks of them. By default, there is no innocence, wonder, or spontaneity in worry. By repressing and suppressing the more uncomfortable emotions, I ended up repressing and suppressing the comfortable and exciting ones as well. And this happens to everyone in various contexts and environments.
So, this got me thinking about a few things. Mainly that our problem isn’t really with our emotions, but perhaps with our expectations. To be honest, I never really liked to categorise emotions into positive or negative. I find them quite neutral in their origin, power, and manifestation. Now, our reaction to them is a whole different thing! The reaction, yes. It is definitely categorisable! But even here, I still don’t like the positive/negative label. I prefer to use the terms creative or destructive. Quite literally, are you creating or destroying? And so, going back to my point, our problem isn’t really that we feel, but that we feel things we didn’t want or expect.
When we start something new – a new job, move into a new house, meet a new person – we tend to lead with hope. We want it to be good, to mean something, to bring us joy and happiness. Hope is very important! However, when we face obstacles on our journeys, the feeling of hope and excitement, often turns into disappointment, sadness, even anger. We have just moved from one end of the continuum to the other. Emotions are fluid, they move back and forth on this continuum of felt experience. But what gives it meaning? What gives it the category of “good or bad”? The mind. The rational and logical part of our brains. In order to simplify the brain, many theorists and practitioners have divided it into three main areas: reptilian, emotional, and rational. These areas follow the evolution of humankind, and so, if you think about it this way, emotions are actually quite primitive. And really not that definable. They just are. With evolution, we started to assign labels to them and quantify them in terms of their outcomes and manifestation in the world around us.
Many somatic therapies – body-centered – focus on this exact point: feel the emotion, don’t think it. The body knows what to do with it, but when we interrupt that process with our minds and begin to rationalise their meaning, we actually end up losing their meaning completely. The rational brain will dissect it to the point where there is no emotion left. Obviously, this process is also helpful, otherwise the brain wouldn’t have evolved the way it did. However, how much is rationality actually getting in the way of living in a more wholesome, holistic way? When we say we hate emotions, what we are really saying is that our emotions and feelings did not lead us to the destination created by our minds, via expectations. We attached our emotions to an outcome, a result. We wanted them to lead us to a specific point, and we then blame them for that, rather than the expectation we created in our minds.
When we meet someone new, for example, it is obvious that we are probably going to create expectations. We are human, after all. We are social beings, who want to be loved, and belong, and know that we matter. We are relational, we literally need someone else. However, our disappointment about obstacles to our expectations, is literally about the expectations. Not the emotion! What a great thing it is to feel! To have a spark, a connection with someone, a fellow human, a fellow being who is also looking to connect and spark. But then the rational mind comes in and starts asking all these questions: what does this mean? Where will this go? How will I know if this is it? How will I know if this means something? I do this ALL THE TIME! I usually joke that by the time the other person sits down to watch the movie, I’ve already finished the trilogy. It’s not my heart that is doing that. It’s my mind.
Let the heart feel. Check your mind. Let your emotions be what they are.
Ryan Campinho Valadas