Emotions Are Not the Enemy
My relationship with my emotions has been tricky. As a child, I possessed little to no control over my emotions. My parents told me horror stories about shopping in the grocery store only for me to drop to the ground, screaming and banging my head against the floor. Embarrassed, they would walk away. I recall my parents banishing me to my room when I misbehaved in which I would lay down in front of my door, wailing and kicking the door so hard that I left holes and dents in it. I even proceeded sometimes to hit myself with a rock that I used to hold my door open. I struggled to tolerate my intense emotions.
While my outbursts decreased into adolescence, I still internally struggled with emotions. I started engaging in self-harm. I would take dull objects like the nail file of a nail clipper and scratch myself until it bled. One time, I laid on my bed, wailing in agony and scratched my calf repeatedly until all the skin rubbed off, leaving a large, ugly wound as if I had been in a go-cart accident. Then I got the courage to start extinguishing cigarettes on my legs just to prove that I could tolerate the pain. All these behaviors were mere attempts to exert control when I felt emotionally out-of-control.
When I turned 16, the self-harm behaviors ceased. However, I consciously decided to train myself out of emotions. Even though I didn’t realize that I was transgender at the time, I still consciously struggled with others labeling me as a woman. I was also quite aware that women are not treated equally in our society compared to men. Nevertheless, I knew that I wanted to earn my spot at the table despite sexism. At that time, I decided that emotions would only work against me, for I believed that others would judge me more negatively as a woman if I showed emotions like sadness, insecurity, or even anger, particularly if those emotions arose in the form of tears. Therefore, from that point on, I suppressed them.
I didn’t master suppressing my emotions overnight. It took years before I could remain calm and stoic despite the emotionality of a situation. In private, I would still cry, but even crying alone did not occur often. By the time my husband met me in 2011, he nicknamed me the “Ice Queen.”
When I started my counseling program in 2017, I shared my discomfort with emotions in class one day, commenting that I didn’t understand how some people could cry so easily. My professor remarked that if I could not understand, then it would only block my capacity for empathy. This statement hit me hard because I always saw myself as a highly empathetic person. At that point, I knew that if I was going to learn to counsel people effectively, I had to learn to get comfortable with my own emotions.
I became more aware that when negative emotions arose, I instinctively distracted myself; thus, I started pausing and sitting in my feelings. Likewise, I started seeing a counselor regarding being transgender, but it was also a venue to sit and express emotions. The whole coming out process and accepting myself as transgender proved to be an intensely emotional experience. I felt fear, ambiguity, sadness, joy, excitement, and all kinds of other emotions at once. Once I started hormones, my emotions turned extremely intense and unpredictable.
An important moment for me occurred when my counseling professor spoke to me after class one day because I had expressed insecurities in my last journal.
“You’re highly intelligent,” he told me, “In terms of students, you’re one of the top.”
All the turmoil that I had been experiencing with my hormonally induced depression exploded, and I shook and cried.
He placed his hand on my shoulder and told me, “It’s a normal response to an abnormal situation.”
I didn’t realize until that moment how much I needed those words of support. The hormones, coming out, and visibly transitioning in front of everyone overwhelmed me to the point that I just wanted to melt and hide; thus, hearing his words reminded me to keep hanging on.
After my depression subsided and I graduated, I felt that I was in a better place in learning to accept my various emotional states; however, something was still missing. My emotions still felt like an intellectual activity versus a somatic and whole-body experience, and my intellectual nature still fought hard against my emotionality. Fortunately, I found a person-centered meditation encounter group.
I harbored some skepticism around meditation. I always pictured the hippies sitting in the forest, cross-legged, and going “ummm,” which didn’t appeal to me. The group facilitator provided guided meditation and taught me a key lesson in how to meditate: don’t focus on clearing your mind! Instead, I learned that I just need to acknowledge my thoughts as they emerge and then let them go and return to my breathing. I was not to judge myself or question if I was meditating correctly. The nonjudgment part helped me significantly.
Meditation increased my awareness of my body. For example, I tend to clench my jaw when I am anxious, and meditation helped me acknowledge when I am doing this and thus, I can relax my jaw. It also taught me to sit with myself without distractions. Nevertheless, I still wasn’t accessing some parts of myself. Then I discovered focusing.
I completed an eight-week focusing training the following year. Eugene Gendlin developed the practice of focusing to access the felt sense. Gendlin defines focusing as “…a process in which you make contact with a special kind of internal bodily awareness. I call this awareness the felt sense” (p. 11). Focusing helps people get out of their intellect and into their body; hence, I felt like it was a good way to help me tap into the somatic and thus, the emotional part of me.
I am unsure how to describe my early focusing attempts. I don’t know if I accessed anything! However, after six months, I started leaning into sensation. During focusing, if I felt any urges to move my body in certain ways or verbalize something, I just did it. Of course, my natural urge to analyze my sensations during focusing created quite a battle. I am so accustomed to mentally analyzing to understand. With practice, focusing helps me sit with an image, emotion, or sensation without intellectualizing it. It teaches me to accept the felt sense and to trust that it knows what to do.
Historically, I would often feel an emotion and then try to understand it or push it away if I believed that I shouldn’t feel that way. I am still working on just sitting with a feeling state and accepting it. Regardless, this process has allowed me to feel instead of suppressing.
I can move through many different feeling states a day, but now, I can accept it. I know that all states are temporary. People move in and out of positive and negative feelings, and it all contributes to the balance of life. Even though I don’t enjoy my negative or intense emotional states, I now feel like a richer, more holistic person. When I hurt, I feel alive. When I am happy, I feel alive. More importantly, learning to engage with my emotions has laid the bridge for me to connect with others in new ways that I could never have imagined. I can’t believe that I denied myself the opportunity to know myself in this way for so many years.
I share this emotional journey with you on a day that has been quite emotional. At the time of writing this blog, I am feeling strong sensations in my whole being. I feel sad, overwhelmed, disengaged, unmotivated, distracted, and even scared. I feel overwhelmed by the tragedies in our world that sometimes bring a sensation of cold indifference; nevertheless, people strive forward, and the human spirit awakens a strong sense of beauty and connectedness in me. I feel the precious, fragile nature of life sitting heavily on my shoulders and pulling down on my chest. I feel an energy circulating from my chest, traveling up through my throat, and gliding up the sides of my face before circling back down to my chest. However, it’s all contained. I’m safe in this moment, especially because these sensations are me.
I am grateful that I can feel
I am grateful that I can hurt
I am grateful that I can sit here
I am grateful that I can share me with you
I don’t know what my readers will get from this article. I hope that I can connect with you as a fellow person who feels. If anything, I hope that you finish this article with a newfound appreciation and acceptance of yourself as an emotional being. I encounter people all the time who fear feeling or have been told not to feel. Thus, I hope my readers can create a small space, even if for only one minute, to allow yourself to sit and feel. Just know, whatever you do feel is the miraculous feeling of being human.
I also want to acknowledge anyone who is experiencing trauma-related issues that block feeling or make it difficult because these are real barriers to feeling. I also carry hope that those experiencing these struggles can get to a place where they can sensate safely.
Thank you for reading my journey into my emotional self.
Gendlin, E. (1978). Focusing. Bantam Books.