Updated: Jul 16, 2019
When I was growing up, and well into my twenties, I believed that a good life shouldn’t really lead to feeling the trickier feelings like sadness, anger or fear. I thought a good life should be entirely filled with happiness, ease and fun.
So whenever I felt worried, upset, or hurt in any way, the very fact that I was feeling these emotions was a sign. It was a sign that I had definitely taken a wrong turn somewhere, and that I needed to quickly back-track. It was a sign that I had to find my way back to that good life.
Yet however hard I tried to ‘stay on track’, and engineer my life to avoid these unpleasant feelings, I could never seem to stop them from bubbling up from time to time. And when I felt them, I felt weak, and if I'm honest I thought I was feeling them because I was weak. And weakness, of course, was a bad thing, which I was naturally motivated to avoid.
So when my tough emotions did inevitably bubble up, I absolutely believed that I should ‘stay strong' and hold them all in. Or, at the very least, I should never let anyone else see me feeling them. I should appear strong, even if I wasn’t feeling it. So, even when I was upset inside, whenever someone asked me how I was, I would just say: “I’m fine, thanks”, and I would carry on looking ‘strong’.
But then, one fateful day when I was twenty seven years old, I decided to do something that felt pretty radical for me … I decided to start seeing a therapist.
I actually felt that I was, of course, ‘fine’ when I made this decision. Despite those pesky emotions bubbling up now and again, my career was on track, I had good friends and a loving family, and I was pretty happy with my life. Okay, so I felt anxious and stressed quite a lot, but then I’d been pretty anxious for as long as I could remember, so I figured that was 'just who I was', and that I just had an anxious personality, with an accompanying natural tendency to feel stressed easily. It never dawned on me to think that this was something I could change. And of course, no one could really see my anxiety or my stress - I was doing such a good job of hiding it, that many people, even those closest to me, were entirely none the wiser.
So in my mind, I didn’t really need therapy, I’d be just 'fine' without it. But at that time, I was doing a postgrad degree in clinical psychology, and this meant that I was studying to be a therapist myself. And since I am forever a very keen learner, I was curious about what it was like for my clients to sit on that ‘other’ chair in the therapy room, so I gave it a go (for strictly academic reasons, of course)…
And oh boy, I am so very glad I did - I learned a HECK of a lot in therapy. But my lessons were not quite what I expected to learn … Oh no. My primary learning wasn’t about my clients, and how they felt on that chair, and how I could help them. Even though I had thought that I didn’t need therapy at all, I ended up learning copious amount about me, and my emotions. And this turned out to be some of the most important learning of my life.
My first lesson in therapy was this: Despite trying to outrun, deny, and hide from my emotions my whole life - they were all still there inside of me, as powerful as ever. First there were the ones I knew had bubbled up from time to time, and that I’d held in. But then, somewhat alarmingly, there were also the ones that I hadn’t even realised I’d pushed down inside of me - the ones I had unconsciously repressed. I came to learn that I had been so good at holding in my emotions that I was often doing it without ever making a conscious choice in the matter, totally on autopilot.
Ahh, I also reluctantly realised, so this is the catch when we hold in our emotions - They never actually go away … they just go further down inside of us - and then they always come out again in some way, eventually. And mine certainly came flooding out in my therapy room. Fears, disappointments, worries, grief, anger, sadness, shame … I don’t think there was a tough emotion that I didn’t express in the process of my therapy.
Yet, curiously to me, my therapist never told me to 'stop crying' or 'be strong’. She never suggested I shouldn’t feel these emotions, nor did she try to ‘fix’ me, or my life, in any way. She simply accepted all of my emotions, whatever they were. And whenever I apologised for being upset, and said I needed to be ‘stronger’, she questioned this. She let me know that there was an alternative perspective in this matter - that perhaps being emotional was not being ‘weak’ at all.
This alone was simply and utterly ground-breaking for me. This challenged everything I thought I knew about emotions. And of course I wasn’t a total novice on the topic of emotions at this time in my life either - I had already done a degree in psychology, another in neuroscience, and I was studying on a clinical psychology doctorate course. And yet here I was, learning new things about emotions … and strikingly, I was only able to learn this by expressing my own emotions, in the presence of an emphatic, compassionate and non-judgemental person. I had simply not been able to learn any of this from reading books, or listening to lectures. And for me these were by far the most intriguing things about emotions that I’d ever learned - Perhaps emotions didn’t need to be held in, or ‘fixed’, and perhaps being emotional wasn’t being weak at all …
My next lesson was that all of my tough emotions, just like all of my positive ones, are normal and understandable - I learned that far from being a signal that I had taken a ‘wrong turn’ on my path, it was in fact inevitable that I would feel both positive and tough emotions, whichever direction I was headed in - Perhaps then, it was also possible that we can feel tough emotions in our life’s journey, and still be confident we are on the right track.
It also transpired that I didn't need to live such an anxious life. After my therapy, some of the same things still made me feel anxious, and fearful, but I certainly became braver and more courageous to face up to the situations that were triggering my anxiety. I learned that my true self, at my core, was braver and stronger than I’d ever imagined.
And interestingly I learned that my anxiety and stress were actually ‘cover emotions’ for lots of other more painful emotions. It turned out that as hard as my anxiety had been for me to feel and manage, it was far easier for me to feel ‘anxious’ than it was to admit to feeling all of these other, more painful emotions. So it seemed that once I had embraced all of these other emotions from within my depths, my anxiety ‘cover’ was no longer necessary, and so it kind of just … started ebbing away. Interestingly, I’m currently reading Gabor Maté’s book ‘When the Body Says No’, and Maté presents evidence that repressing our emotions actually causes significant physiological stress in our body. This also fits with my experience - the more I started accepting and expressing my emotions, the lower my resting level of stress became.
In retrospect, I think I’d been afraid that if I let myself embrace all those other difficult feelings, which I had long tucked away deep inside of myself, then I would be overwhelmed. That I would start crying and never stop, and that would have to quit my job, move back in with my Mum, and pull the covers over my head, and never re-enter society again. And I think I though that I would lose relationships with people - I thought that people would no longer love me if I expressed all of my unpleasant emotions - that is, I felt ashamed of my emotions. I feared that if I were to just let them out, then I would literally no longer be able to function in my life. I never thought any of this consciously and logically, but on some level I must have genuinely believed that all of this would happen. Why else would I have been so scared of letting my emotions be expressed? My emotions must have felt so threatening to me that I literally would not allow myself to fully feel them, for the fear of the destruction they would bring into my life.
Yet none of what I had feared actually happened. When I pulled up my emotions from the depths inside of me, yes I often sobbed through this process. And yes, it was extremely painful. But only for a time, not forever. Much quicker than I had ever imagined was possible, I stopped crying, very naturally and without forcing this, and I felt relief. And far from not being able to function in society, I found I was able to function better for having released my emotions - I was able to concentrate better, pay more attention to everything that was important, and engage more fully in everything around me. And yes, some relationships in my life have ended as my life has carried on, but many have continued, and I don’t believe now that the relationships that ended did so due to my emotions - there were many other factors at play each time. And in fact, the relationships that have continued have actually become stronger as a result of me expressing my emotions honestly and openly.
I have simplified my experience of therapy here of course. And I know that for many people, these insights are very possible to achieve without therapy, and that there is no one-size-fits-all approach for therapy. I engaged in a mix of psychodynamic counselling, and psychoanalytic psychotherapy, but there are many other types of therapy available, which may yield many different journeys and different learning for people. And it is fair to say that excavating and expressing my buried tough emotions in therapy was one of the hardest things I have ever done, and therapy hasn’t solved all of my problems either. It hasn’t guaranteed me a life without struggle, since I signed up to it.
Yet despite all the caveats described above, I can say this: Having therapy changed my life for the better. I learned something very important in my therapy: Emotions were never the problem - it was my beliefs about my emotions that limited my engagement with life. I was ‘fine’ before therapy, but when I look back, I really only was 'just fine’ - my life now has so many more dimensions and much more vibrancy than anyone can experience when they are trying their hardest to stay ‘fine’. Once I learned that there were other ways to think about emotions, I felt less scared of them, and I felt more free, and capable of so much more. There is no doubt for me that my therapy changed life for the better by changing my beliefs about myself and my emotions.
I no longer believe that a good life should be easy - I now believe that hard experiences in life are sometimes very worth it. For me, learning to express my emotions in therapy has been very hard and it’s been one hundred percent worth it. I no longer believe that emotions are a sign of weakness. And I no longer believe that emotions are destructive.
And while I was admittedly blindsided to discover that the vast majority of my learning in therapy would actually be about me, years later and with hindsight I can now clearly see that my learning about myself in therapy was also me learning about my clients too. I see no qualitative difference between me, and the principles of my emotional processing, compared with anyone else’s. I am human, like everyone else. And I know that the beliefs I started out with are common - In our modern, western society we are often led to believe that emotions are weakness, and that we should pursue only happiness, and deny and avoid the tougher emotions. I now believe that these societal norms create false limits in many people’s lives, the way I now realise that I was limited myself.
There is no doubt that I have become a better psychologist for first doing this exploration of my own emotions, and for realising in that process that my humanity, my being human, is a collective humanity. The condition of being human, and of having human emotions, is common to every single person in this world - Psychologist or not, client or not.
I now believe that none of us get to choose to live a life without tough emotions, without hardships or struggles. If we are living fully and loving deeply, then tough emotions are part of the package deal. This doesn’t mean we are weak, or that we have done something wrong, or that we have taken a wrong turn. It simply means we are human. And I now believe that to be honest about being human, and to be honest about having human emotions, is evidence of great strength and courage, and is nothing akin to weakness at all. And I wholeheartedly believe that it is only through living within this honesty that we can ever possibly reach our full potential in this life.
I no longer believe emotions should be avoided, or hidden. For me, a ‘good life’ is now one in which we are all really emotional, some of the time. One in which we regularly experience and express the entire range of human emotions - both the positive emotions, and the tough emotions.
I now believe that while we don’t get to avoid tough emotions, we do get to choose how we respond to them. We do get to choose how honest we are with ourselves, and others. And we do get to choose to be courageous in response to our tough emotions - to face up to them, accept them as inevitable, and feel confident that we no longer have to run from them, or have our potential be held hostage by them.
And this can change our life.