Image by Georges Seurat,
Article by Amara —
Check out Part 1 to read about how, and why, Amara started seeing a therapist through the Secular Therapy Project.
Within the first few therapy sessions, I learned a few things about myself. I was horrible at identifying my own emotions and had zero vocabulary for discussing them. I really didn’t ever take time to work through my feelings. Why was I this way? To answer that fantastic question, we have to go through story time!
I mentioned in the last article that my biological father chose not to take part in my life. He had his reasons. Meaning, his wife and 2 other children had no idea I existed. I am the offspring of a Southern Baptist preacher’s daughter and a married Baptist minister of music. They met at work and had an affair after years of friendship.
The first time I remember meeting my father was on the sidewalk at the bank. He and my mother talked for a while and when they were done, I asked, “Mama, who was that man?”. She leaned down to me and replied, “That was your daddy.”
Great way to meet your father, right? I was 6.5 years old. He ended up meeting us at a play place later that day and we played air hockey. I didn’t tell him goodbye. That was the only in-person interaction I have had with my father in my entire life. After that, he sent a birthday card when I was 10 and called specifically to fuss at my mom about an online friend she made when I was 16.
I have set this particular stage for a reason: to convey one story. I remember the moment I decided to suppress emotions.
At the age of 13, I wrote a letter to my father. In it, I essentially asked him to have some type of relationship with me. I didn’t care if it was over the phone, through the mail, or any other medium he preferred. I wasn’t asking for much. I just wanted to know him. While I carefully folded the letter and sealed the envelope, I thought to myself, “This is the last effort I will make to have a relationship with my father. If he doesn’t respond to me now, I don’t want anything to do with him in my future.” Pretty dire words from a 13-year-old, right?
It wasn’t my intention to suppress all of my emotions or to not deal with anything, but that’s the coping mechanism I developed.
Fast forward 14 years from that day and I find myself walking into a therapist’s office for the first time. I didn’t think the non-existent relationship with my father had any impact on my life. But boy could I not have been any more wrong!
Developing an Emotional Vocabulary
We all know the words happy, sad, mad and content. We know the general sensations associated with those words. We know how someone’s face usually looks when any of those words can be used to describe their current mood. Happy typically means smiling and laughing. I know when I’m really happy I will be bouncing off of the walls and talking a lot. Sad typically means your head is held down. You may be frowning or shedding tears. I feel that an ugly cry has to be a universal human experience. If that is not something you have ever gone through, consider yourself lucky. 0/10 Would not recommend.
However, what I learned is that with every feeling we have, there are usually at least 3 descriptive words we can use. That means happy, sad, mad, and content just become categories for other more specific words we can use to describe our feelings. For example, “happy” could mean joyful, proud, interested, appreciative, intimate, peaceful, or powerful, and each of those can have multiple meanings too. Did I just blow your mind? Because I know I felt like Pheobe on Friends when she said, “That is BRAND NEW information!” (Yes, I found a way to bring a meme into a blog post full of text. You’re welcome.).
It was difficult to realize, but saying I was sad about something wasn’t enough to help me understand where the sadness came from. I had spent so long avoiding the negative emotions (besides anger) that the concept of finding 3 words for the feelings I had seemed like an impossible task.
Identifying Emotions, Needs and Basis for Reaction
My therapist recommended I do this really weird thing. It’s called processing emotions. He said I should actually think about what I was feeling and try to label the emotions with descriptive words. All I could think to myself was, “Who does that?!?”. Apparently, that’s the healthy way to deal with the feelings you have in life. I resisted the temptation to roll my eyes. Why did I need to do that shit? I was fine!
You know, except for the fact I was in therapy because I was depressed to the point of being numb and severely isolating myself from the world. Oh, right….. I probably needed to do that processing emotions shit more often. But how was I supposed to access a part of myself that I had not allowed out of a cage since I was 13??
I started with writing in a journal. This strange thing happened when I started writing down what I had been thinking. Thoughts that my conscious mind had not acknowledged started flowing out of me onto the paper. Dots I hadn’t connected before were laid out in front of me like Georges Seurat had put them together himself.
I would cry as I wrote because I was finally allowing myself to see and feel everything I had been suppressing for so long. It was hell. Not the fun kind of hell where all kinds of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll are acceptable. No, the torture kind of hell where your nose is running and eyes are hurting from crying, your brain hurts from thinking too much and the pages of your journal are filled up with the things you never wanted to see again.
To further torture me, my therapist recommended a book called Getting the Love you Want by Harville Hendrix. He recognized a large portion of my issues stem from the relationships in my life. The book goes into how we choose partners based on childhood experiences that we want to resolve through our current relationships. All of which is not a conscious effort or decision.
The book explains that when we react negatively, it typically comes from an unmet, deep-seated need. With that logic, the next time I got upset about something, I stopped myself from reacting immediately and actually thought about why I had gotten upset. I journaled about the situation. That night, I was able to figure out the main reasons I react negatively — and everything goes back to my father. Talk about daddy issues, right? However, the fact I was able to clearly draw a line between my feelings, the basis for the reaction, and the underlying need that was not being met, was a huge step in the right direction for me.
Learning to be Vulnerable
Feeling content or angry was always pretty easy for me. Those were the safe emotions. I could accept things that happened in the past and just live with it. I could get pissed off when someone didn’t treat me correctly. I was allowed both of those. It was feeling happy or sad that was frightening for me. If I felt happy, someone could take that away from me. I didn’t allow sadness because I couldn’t be weak.
What I have learned is when you don’t allow yourself to feel the whole spectrum of emotions, you don’t allow yourself to live life to the fullest. I still struggle with anxiety over feeling too happy. I still struggle to allow myself to feel sad or hurt. I struggle with sharing those emotions with another person. Being vulnerable enough to let someone see all that I am is truly terrifying. However, I understand that to love and be loved, to accept and be accepted, to acknowledge and be acknowledged, all require some level of vulnerability.
We even have to learn how to be vulnerable with ourselves. Feeling disappointed, hurt, neglected, abandoned; none of those make me a weak person. Seeing my emotions for what they are, and acknowledging where they come from, help me to be more emotionally resilient. Taking time to process helps me relate to others and maintain relationships.
Brene Brown’s words run through my head when I start to feel weak for having emotions and trying to talk about them, “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weak.” She was another torture device employed by my therapist to get me to connect to my emotions. She is a research professor at the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work and is best known for her TED Talk “The Power of Vulnerability”. If you have never heard of her, I would encourage you to look her up. She is a fantastic speaker and her books are also amazing for dealing with courage, shame and vulnerability. She summed up the epiphany I had in therapy by saying, “We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.” Now, where the hell was she when I was 13?
I’m not sure if I will ever be able to always go with the healthy way of processing emotions. All I know is I will forever be a work in progress and a person who strives to live my best life. We only get a short amount of time on this planet. I want to make sure I’m doing all I can to be the best version of myself; so, I can give that best version to others.
Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendrix:
Brene Brown TED Talk “The Power of Vulnerability”:
Secular Therapy Project:
Descriptive Emotional Words chart: