“Thou shalt be free As mountain winds: but then exactly do All points of my command.”
Fear: External forces and internal conflicts
Our culture emphasizes logic and rationality, and it looks down on emotional responses. We may have been taught that “crying is for sissies” or “never let ‘em see you sweat.” We may have learned that expressing anger will make a situation worse. We may have learned that feeling love will make us more vulnerable. We may have been taught that it’s not okay to feel shame because we’re supposed to love ourselves as we are and not care what other people think. Some of us may never have even learned how to feel emotions in the first place, and almost all of us go to great lengths to distract ourselves from the feelings we don’t want to feel.
But here’s the thing, and I know this is going to be a shocker: life is stressful! We cannot get through it without having emotional responses to the things that happen to us (and I count social media and news, even far away news about strangers, as something that happens to us). If we block any of our emotions, they’re just going to build up, and our physical bodies can only keep the dam in place and function in society for so long. Sooner or later, either that dam bursts or our physical bodies start to malfunction.
To add insult to injury, we may have even developed a fear of emotions, known as animotophobia. It’s like being a little kid and knowing there’s a portal in your closet to monster land, and more and more monsters keep piling up in your closet, all set to attack you at any moment. So you pile up as much stuff in front of your closet door to keep it closed, and you live in fear that one day, the monsters are going to break through that barrier and destroy you. The fear is there constantly until you open the door to see what scary beast is hiding in there. And that means your nervous system is *always* in overdrive, ready to act to keep you safe from the thoughts and emotions you’re trying to hide from.
Some of us learned that we need to put on a happy face to keep those around us happy, and we became people pleasers who eventually forgot that this facade isn’t really how we feel. Even programs that try to help us tap into our true selves more, like mindfulness and meditation, can give the impression that we shouldn’t have strong emotional responses, which may further exacerbate our fear and avoidance of negative thoughts and emotions.
We receive so many messages about how to be and what’s acceptable—from parents, from friends, from teachers, from popular media—it can be hard to keep track of what’s right for us. In fact, if we absorbed lessons at a young enough age, we may never have known what was right for us.
Personally, I was terrified of anything that might trigger tears because I couldn’t be seen as weak. I was equally terrified of expressing anger because I believed that all that does is make a situation worse, plus I knew how to see things from other people’s perspectives and so I could always rationalize myself out of feeling anger toward them. I didn’t allow myself to feel shame because I was supposed to be strong and confident and love myself. And so I became the mask of a strong, confident, capable person who didn’t cry or get mad. My special skill was dealing with difficult people because I didn’t let them get to me. I was so good at repressing my emotions that I had no idea it was all a lie. I’d gone numb and didn’t really feel anything.
Any number of external drivers from our relationships with our parents to how we were raised to the impossible expectations of society may have contributed to our emotional repression. And other people will experience emotional repression differently than I did. Men who can’t feel sadness may be more prone to anger and violence. Women who can’t feel anger, may be more prone to sadness and tears. If you’re suffering from chronic physical and/or mental health conditions, it’s probably worth tapping into your emotional state to see what you’ve repressed over the years.
Nicole Sachs talks about conflicting thoughts and emotions as being the problematic ones. If we feel strongly one way about something, it doesn’t tend to cause physical issues. But if we feel conflicting emotions about a person or event, that’s where the trouble arises. I found that to be true for me. During my journaling process, I worked through so many events and times in my life that had been really hard (and some that I thought I’d dealt with fine!). For most of them I had a lot of repressed emotions, often about not allowing myself to be mad if I felt I should also be grateful to a person, or not allowing myself to feel anything at all if it seemed like an event I should be able to get past easily or that I’d already felt enough emotions around. But occasionally, I’d find an event that had been hard and upsetting, and if there weren’t those internal conflicts—if it was just a hard event, if I felt justified in my feelings about the event or person involved, and if there were no external pressures to get over it in any particular time—then it would end up being a dull journaling session, or I’d have to find another topic. In fact, if I was struggling with a journaling session, I would often ask myself: “Where is the conflict here? What are the conflicting thoughts or emotions?”