You know that old saw about how we teach what we most need to learn? Well, in that case I should have a chaired professorship in how to feel.
As a kid, I was expressive, uncomplicated. Trampolines made me grin so hard my cheeks hurt. When my cat died, I cried my way to the school’s guidance counselor.
But somewhere between the ages of 7 and 14, I shut down emotionally. I internalized this belief that it was better to function than to feel. And so over the years, I’ve become a genius at compartmentalizing.
Is my dad in hospice, dying so much more slowly and horribly than any of us could have imagined? Excuse me while I research the world’s healthiest diets and crochet my brains out and fight with the nurses so he can have his tiny sips of Diet Coke, goddamnit.
Is my relationship in shambles? You’ll find me collecting pictures of Juliet roses for the florist and debating shoe heights with my bridesmaids. During my free evenings, I’ll beg my life coach to fix my exercise routine and my emotional eating patterns and make me into a better, more disciplined person, the sort of person who can fix all of this, please.
You get the idea. But you might not see what any of this has to do with writing.
I have a theory. Writing, as you’ve probably noticed, entails feeling. And when we avoid writing, when we procrastinate by reorganizing the fridge or (more likely) scrolling through Facebook, it’s because we’re afraid to feel. We’re afraid because we worry that accessing our emotions will make us lose control, will loosen our grip on all of the things we’re barely managing as it is: our careers, our relationships, perhaps even our diets or our substance use or our sanity.
That’s why we have this cultural image of writers as alcoholic, philandering, selfish, suicidal. We picture the tortured genius sitting down to his typewriter with a cigarette and a sweating tumbler of whisky as his mistress dresses herself to go home. We call to mind the brilliant poet who lost her husband and stuck her head in the oven while her children slept in the next room.
Sure, these writers existed. But how are we supposed to settle down at our keyboards day after day when we worry that writing means feeling and that feeling means losing control over everything we hold dear?
There’s a secondary problem here, too: stories and memoirs and poems that are devoid of feeling, that lack some secret swells of wild emotion, are boring as heck.
So what are we to do? How are we supposed to feel, or at least get comfortable enough with the prospect of feeling that we don’t continually distract ourselves while dust gathers on our dreams and our resolutions and our works-in-progress?
If you’re looking for answers—oh my goodness, you have so totally come to the wrong person. But here are three practices that have helped me access and accept my emotions—and process some of my unconscious fears about writing.
[Important disclaimer: If you’re coping with trauma, abuse, PTSD, or mental illness, please enlist the help of a mental health professional before working through any of these steps, and please take good care of yourself.]
Step 1. Check your beliefs.
Get a grip on what you believe about feelings and emotions. Before you skip this step or dismiss it as soft-science quackery that doesn’t apply to you, read through the following questions:
- Which is more important to you: feeling or functioning?
- Do you believe that it’s easier to function if you suppress or ignore your emotions?
- Do you believe that tamping down negative emotions makes you stronger?
- Do you worry that a contented life is a boring life?
- Do you believe that feeling joy or gratitude or contentment will “jinx” you, preventing good things from happening in your life?
- Which emotions frighten you? Which emotions do you judge in other people?
- How in control do you feel emotionally? How much do you value emotional control?
- Do you believe that emotional expression helps or hinders your relationships?
- What do you see as the upside of suppressing your emotions?
Relax: you don’t have to whip out your journal and write out answers to all of those questions. (Although you’re certainly welcome to.)
Instead, pay special attention to the questions that got under your skin. Did any of them make you feel defensive, angry, guilty, nervous, uncomfortable? If so, spend some time with those questions.
Sure, it can be healthy to put certain emotions on the back burner for a time. As my (very talented) surgeon cut out my ruptured appendix, he probably wasn’t crying about Bambi’s mom or fuming about the Lexus that tailgated him that morning, and I’m grateful for that.
Alas, emotions tend to bubble over or scorch or even catch fire if we leave them unattended for too long. So consider how a reluctance to feel emotions—both bad emotions and good emotions—may reflect blocks in your life, your work, your relationships, and your writing.
Step 2. Notice your numbing.
Spoiler: Everyone feels emotion. Even psychopaths. Maybe even people in comas.
But we don’t always feel or notice our emotions. When we have unhelpful beliefs about emotions and productivity, or emotions and relationships, or emotions and self-control, we tend to cope by numbing.
My numbing agents of choice are chocolate, self-criticism, and the internet. Yours might be booze, dieting, social media, binge-watching The Crown, or cat gifs.
Notice when you turn to one of your numbing agents—especially if you have one of those moments of “I turned on my phone to text my grandmother, so how the heck did I just spend an hour and a half scrolling through Instagram?”
Ask yourself: what happened right before this? Why did you engage in this numbing behavior? Were you trying to avoid or escape something? If so, what?
Step 3. Sit with it.
When you finally notice an emotion, you might be tempted stuff it in the back of the fridge. As I said above, sometimes that reaction can be appropriate.
But if you don’t trust yourself to feel emotions, you’ll find it hard to give yourself over to writing. Your relationships might come to feel less rich, your passions less fulfilling. Your days may lose their color.
(I speak from experience.)
Sitting with emotions is a skill. As with most skills, some people take to it more easily than others, but we can all improve through practice.
As fate would have it, I had to face some tough emotions while I was writing this very post. A friend texted me, implying that I’d made a pass at a guy she is seeing. The accusation hit me hard. It resonated with my guilt and shame over all the times in my life I’ve been greedy or inconsiderate, all the times I’ve been a bad friend.
My first instinct? Time for lunch, then back to work. But my stomach clenched. My hands shook. Outrunning my feelings was not an option.
So I turned to this guided meditation by psychologist and self-compassion expert Kristin Neff. In the meditation, Neff walks us through a three-step process for sitting with emotions (and goodness knows I love three-step processes):
1. Soften. Notice where in your body you feel the emotion in question. Do you have tightness in your shoulders? A sinking feeling in your belly? (In my case, I had tightness in my chest and a fast, unsteady heartbeat.) Imagine softening that physical sensation, or even just softening its edges. Neff suggests picturing water washing over the sensations, gradually wearing them smooth.
2. Soothe. Rest your hand on the place in your body where you feel emotion most strongly. Be kind to yourself. Recognize that we all experience painful emotions. Acknowledge that it’s difficult to feel this way.
3. Allow. You are feeling a strong emotion right now, and there’s nothing wrong with that. You are physically safe. Acknowledge that you are allowed to feel the way you feel right now.
Neff’s meditation helped me to recognize the emotion underlying my response to my friend’s text: fear. I felt deeply afraid that I’d be outed as a bad person. (Which, I suppose, implies that deep down I believe I’m a bad person. But that’s an issue for another day.)
Was my fear a pleasant emotion? No. Would I recommend it to a friend? Not particularly. But that emotion was mine, and by acknowledging it and sitting with it, I gave my subconscious a reminder that it is safe to feel.
In other words: it is safe to write.