Do you allow yourself to be open to whatever emotions, desires, and beliefs come up for you in a given moment- or do you try to control your inner reactions?
Although our mental states (thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and desires) often arise automatically and sometimes even without our awareness, many people do not want to believe this. They only want to acknowledge that they have feelings, desires, thoughts, etc. that fit in with their judgments of the kinds of mental states that are permissible.What is permissible or not varies by the person, and often by certain rules or injunctions developed in childhood, based on experiences such as having certain types of feelings responded to with rejection, anger, or dismissiveness.
Some people have internal rules prohibiting feelings of anger, even if they are not acted on and would seem justifiable on an objective level. At times, as a therapist, I may sense that someone is angry, annoyed, or irritated- either because of their body language, silence, or perhaps reaction to a given situation; or based on a situation that seems to be good cause for anger (or at least a less intense version of the emotion- such as annoyance), such as not getting what they want over and over again. However, when I try to reflect this in what seems like a simple statement to me, such as “Maybe you feel angry about that”, this is met with resistance or dismissal- often with the use of logic. I might be told things like, “That’s just the way things go, why should I be angry about it?” or “I know they couldn’t help it/didn’t mean it so why would I be angry?” or even “I never get angry”.
Now, you may be wondering why it even matters. Well, the reason that it matters is that feelings that are unacknowledged or suppressed express themselves indirectly. The feelings leak out in other ways. And we can’t deal effectively with the leakages because we haven’t allowed ourselves to see clearly the source of the problem.
And it’s not just angry feelings that some people have “rules” against or avoid acknowledging. For some people, feelings of excitement feel dangerous and have to be immediately deflated; for others, feelings of shame have to be covered over with something more “macho” like anger; and even feelings of fear are anathema to those who want to prove their own fearlessness to themselves. Certain desires can be “forbidden as well”, such as when a tired mother desires momentarily to go back to the days before her infant was born- despite loving her child with all her heart. It’s not the specific emotion or desire that’s the issue, but the idea that a person is not fully open to the full range of emotions or mental experiences available to the human race in response to situations, perceptions, and needs that arise from moment to moment.
Trying to control our automatic thoughts and feelings stops us from getting important information about ourselves, our needs, and our surroundings. We miss out on information that could inform our intuitive and rational decisions because we don’t want to see the whole picture of our responses. We also lose out on the opportunity to empathize with others (such as our children, partners, or friends) who may be experiencing similar feelings or wishes. But even more importantly than this, it costs us so much mental energy, physical strain, and cognitive load to try to control, bury, and hide from ourselves the normal moment to moment responses that arise inside of us. And doing this for long enough can lead to a number of consequences, whether it’s depression or helplessness (because how can we address our needs effectively when we aren’t aware of them?), anxiety (the signal we get when there is something in our unconscious minds that is frightening to us- that exists but can’t be allowed into our awareness), or signals from the body that something is amiss (such as stomachaches or headaches).
So, the price we pay for the belief that only certain feelings or thoughts should be “allowed” into our experience, is a steep one. It may work for a while to believe that we are always in control of what goes on in our unconscious, automatic mind- but the fact is, that our emotions register in our bodies long before our minds have a chance to decide whether they’re permissible or not. So we put ourselves at odds with our own selves when we refuse to take information in from the bottom up- letting our bodies inform us of what we’re experiencing, and then trying to appraise and make sense of our responses. Often, the mind has become a substitute for the original caregiver who taught us to ignore our own cues, needs, and desires- the mind is now the authority who judges our feelings, dismisses them, rejects them, denies them, or criticizes them.
We can all learn to make peace between the different parts of ourselves, to let our emotions, bodies, and minds live in a more peaceful co-existence. If you want this, then now might just be the time to open yourself up with more curiosity to that which arises within you- and you may just be surprised at what you discover!