Last Sunday I was getting ready for the high school graduation party for our youngest child. Everyone else was either at church or asleep. As I rushed around the house, I began to feel nauseous. I knew I wasn’t physically ill; my body was bearing the symptoms of emotions I was ignoring. I wanted to do anything but feel my feelings—could I busy myself and ignore them? Could I eat something sweet and shove those uncomfortable feelings back down?
What do you do to avoid feeling your feelings and to escape experiencing the height and depth of all your emotions? Some turn to alcohol or drugs to feel better; others shop, gamble or become control freaks; still others exercise, work or busy themselves compulsively. It’s no accident that the naturally occurring chemicals in chocolate make us feel better; it has phenylethylamine which is the “love drug,” serotonin which is a mood lifter, and it releases endorphins in the brain. Alcohol can relax and numb us while controlling others enables us to externalize our discomfort and blame someone else. This all seems far preferable to dealing with guilt, shame and fear, which, as I learned from 12-step programs, are the primary reasons people drink. We all do something to avoid uncomfortable feelings whether or not we’ve developed a full-blown addiction. The problem is that the relief is only temporary, and the cruddy feelings remain. Feelings unexpressed come out some other way--often in hurtful, destructive ways.
While I contemplated what to do with my nausea, it occurred to me that sobriety from any addictive substance or pattern of behavior means the willingness to feel my feelings, especially the uncomfortable ones. This is the only path for those who want to be spiritually healthy and whole. Plus, my body was not letting me off the hook.
I sat down to pray, journal and get in touch with what was really going on. I wrote out feelings of anger at the changes in my life, and was left with a deep feeling of sadness that an important stage of my life was ending. Once I acknowledged my emotions, felt them, and received the wisdom they were sharing, I felt so much better. I was still sad, but no longer nauseous. I was both grounded and freed, releasing new energy for the tasks at hand. I also became emotionally available to enjoy the party and everyone who came to celebrate our daughter’s success. It was better and longer-lasting than a chocolate high and it wasn’t followed by guilt and shame.
This experience made me wonder why it’s so hard for me to lean into my feelings and listen to them rather than indulge the compulsion to avoid and cover them up. Part of the reason is taking the time to listen to my inner self and believing I am worth this attention. Part of it is fear that my emotions will become all-consuming (and then overcoming my resistance to asking for help from a friend or therapist!). Part of it is letting go of the illusion that I’ll feel better if I just ignore uncomfortable emotions. Part of it is the irrational fear that I won’t be loved if I’m honest about what’s going on inside me. I’ve actually found that the opposite is true. We become much easier to love when we’re honest and engage in our own self-care.
Two days later, we came home from our last high school graduation ceremony. Again, everyone was either out or asleep, and there I was, in the house alone with these feelings of loss and sadness, plus I was overtired to boot. I didn’t handle it as well as I did before the party. I found the dark chocolate bunny my kids left untouched after Easter, and I ate the whole thing while watching Netflix. At least I got some extra antioxidants since it was dark chocolate!
A big part of spiritual sobriety is also forgiving myself when I don’t handle my feelings well.
Image: Roger Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions: By Machine Elf 1735 - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13285286