What Actually Works When You Feel Shitty
Processing tough emotions in a healthy way is not something many of us were taught how to do. Personally, I grew up that way. It never even crossed my mind to consider doing anything with them. I didn’t know there was an option other than to react.
So that’s what I did: hole myself up in my room and cry, emotional eat, wipe away my tears, and keep plugging along. Later on as an adult, it was the same old story: wipe away the tears with some combination cocktail of drinking or drugging or eating and keep plugging along. Sometimes, I exercised because I heard it let off steam, but it never really worked for me and I would be even more amped up.
It wasn’t until I started this whole healing journey 3 years ago that I began considering being more intentional in my approach.
I recall being at my friend’s house going through something tough. She ran me a bath, lit a candle, turned on some soothing music, and told me to take some time for myself. I was deeply touched by her kindness. Nobody had ever done that for me before, including myself. In fact, it seemed pointless. As I entered the warm bath, I remember thinking What’s the point of all this? What a waste of time.
At that point, I objectified my body, my soul, and my self as not needing tenderness or soothing experiences. It was unfamiliar territory for me. I was more used to treating my self and my body like a machine. Plug in the input and go through the motions, like just fucking do what you’re supposed to do no matter how you feel. Feelings were never a part of the conversation.
When I found myself in a significant love relationship that devolved into characteristic patterns of tumult and chaos, it naturally brought up all the tough emotions as love is wont to do.
Emotions I didn’t know how to process bubbled inside of me, big ones being Rage and Melancholy, and they swirled there. I dealt with it the same way I always had — just wipe away the tears and keep going. Haul my ass out of bed, paste on that fucking smile, and try to pass for a normal person having a normal day. (Spoiler alert: my presentation was pretty dismal, I wasn’t fooling anybody.)
And Rage is hard to talk about because there’s so much shame that surrounds it. It feels embarrassing and shameful. It scares people. I become self-conscious that they’re thinking “She must be unhinged” … “She’s unsafe to be around” … “She’s crazy”.
But honestly, there is a lot of Rage in me. So much rage for my childhood and against my parents, my family, the world.
When I think I’ve gotten a grip on the rage I have about my childhood, that I’ve forgiven and moved on, it bubbles up unceremoniously and spills over in lashing-out behaviors and anger misdirected at situations that hit that same feeling of being a powerless child with absolutely nobody to turn to.
The questions I kept returning to were When does it end? How do I get over this?
Burying My Rage
I thought I had purged my rage in Puerto Rico the night I sat under the stars for hours on a lonesome hilltop, alone and sad and angry, unleashing unfettered screaming and sobbing. These sounds I held back for so long were gobbled up by the night and space that felt dark enough and vast enough to hold my secret safe and secure.
As I left that graveyard behind that night, I wiped my hands clean of it, satisfied that I had done some real cleansing and purging. But, it returned. And continues to come back in waves. When I talk to my family. When a forgotten memory surfaces. When an intrusive memory comes back to taunt me again, and again, and again.
Why the fuck is all that rage still here??! When will I be over this crap?
The feedback I got was to sit in the Rage. Sit in it, feel it, accept it. It will only grow by repressing or rejecting it.
“Yes, yes,” I agreeably said, “I can accept it. Ommmm… Ommm….”
Now is it gone?
But although I went through the appropriate motions: the meditation, the mindfulness practices, the yoga, the journaling, the forgiveness exercises, talk therapy, plant medicine … It’s still there.
I got fed up and angry at the Rage. I’ve been doing what people say works — What’s everyone playing at?
The funny thing is that although I tried to accept it, know it, and feel it … let it come into my body, be aware of it when it arises, notice it and name it, I did it all with the assumption that if I do this, it will go away.
So, did I really accept it?
No, it was conditional.
“Okay, Rage, I’m willing to accept you only if you promise to then go away.” That’s not true acceptance at all.
The key I was missing is that processing tough emotions isn’t about doing the work just so it will go away or cease to occur.
I thought that was the goal, for it to vanish and be cleansed, but that’s not the point at all. Not even close.
So I dropped the expectation that I’m not supposed to feel these things.
Challenging emotions and feelings, what people sometimes term as “negative”, can feel like an annoying piece of toilet paper stuck on the bottom of a shoe or a rank odor that you want to cleanse ASAP lest it tarnish the space around it, or on a more intense level, a curse or scarlet letter that marks you.
They beget this energy and attitude from us of “Ughhh why are you here!?? You always ruin things!”
Many of us feel this way towards these types of feelings and emotions. All of us are navigating lives marked by traumatic experiences from childhood; it might not be so horrifying as abuse or neglect, but nobody’s parents were perfect. There were probably certain emotions that were not allowed in your household.
Maybe you were allowed to show weakness but anger was unacceptable and met with punishment so you repressed it or rejected it like me. Maybe anger was accepted and your parents could hold space for that, but to show any weakness or neediness was not. These emotions then take shape in our minds as something to be rid of or avoided at all costs.
When these unaccepted and unintegrated emotions and feelings are repressed or met with resistance, much like my Rage, we are missing the forest for the trees and causing ourselves a lot of distress in the process.
Tough emotions and feelings are important signals that carry messages, not just annoyances or disruptions although they do tend to carry those energies quite well, eh. Find out what they have to say. Get to know them, their smell, their flavor, the way they show up in our bodies.
Anger can tell us when we are being mistreated. Sadness can direct us towards what we care about. They are integral parts of ourselves and they’re not going away any time soon. Nor, should they.
Would we even be human if that was the case?
Somebody recently said to me, “Your Rage is to be expected,” when I shared my Anger and Rage and the reasons behind them. I blinked back at her and asked her to repeat what she said. I thought I misheard her, I had never heard it normalized like that.
Usually people try to nullify or dilute it somehow because it’s a really intense emotion, it makes us squirmy, but she just let her words hang there. She held me in her validation of the appropriateness of my Rage. And her allowance of my Rage let me open up to it as well.
There is a little footnote to all this. Sometimes, when we feel anger or rage, it might not be so much a signal of mistreatment or a boundary being crossed, as it is an old wound being touched. Therefore, introspection and discernment are key, as it is in much of the healing process.
But it’s with this new attitude and perspective, that my relationship to my Rage and Melancholy has been transformed. These two Scarlet Letters I carried with me as my albatross to bear are no longer something to be ashamed of, frightened of, things to dread and avoid. I no longer have animosity towards them or blame them for showing up and subjugating me to their terrifying forces.
I’m still in the beginning stages of getting to know these textures in my life. But the more I embrace them and hold them as a part of me, as valuable and welcomed as Joy and Humor, the more I get to be okay with them showing up from time to time.
When they pop their chaotic little heads in, I say, “Oh. Hey there. It’s you.” Lol.
While I’m not rolling out the red carpet, full of benevolence, fanfare, and rejoicing (let’s be real here), these days, I listen when they show up because we’re all allies flying through the cosmos together.