|Learning How to Be True to Our Emotions without Being Abusive with Them
© 1996 Michele Toomey, PhD
As complex paradoxical beings, we have the capacity to experience many emotions, and often contradictory ones at the same time. We can be excited and eager even as we are afraid and cautious. We can feel relieved even as we are worried. And we can feel anger and disappointment even as we feel regret and understanding. The range of emotions we can feel is both a wonderful gift and an awesome responsibility, since every emotion has the potential to free us to be intimate with ourselves or others, even as it has the potential to be used to violate. There is a way to deal with emotions that is honest, fair, respectful and caring, and therefore, liberating and intimate. Yet, there is also a way of using emotions abusively that is violating and oppressive. I would like to discuss with you what we need to know and do if we are to be emotionally liberated, not emotionally oppressed and oppressive.
First, let us explore what it means to deal honestly with our emotions. Honesty requires that we take the time to register and then recognise that we are feeling something, and then seek to discover what it is we are feeling, where it is coming from, and why this feeling or these feelings have been triggered. To be honest we cannot deny, deceive, diminish or exaggerate our feelings. We must claim them and then try to understand them. An honest search of ourselves, of what associations and images come to mind, and what reactions we're having, will allow us to discover as much as we can about what is going on for us. Then, as a journeyer, we must process, not judge, what we discover, trying to understand what it all means and where it's coming from, so that we can be known to ourselves.
An honest attitude and an honest approach to ourselves frees us to discover the truth about ourselves to the extent we are capable at the time. Knowing the truth about how and what we feel and why allows us to know ourselves, and knowing ourselves is what will free us to be true to and intimate with ourselves. It is this integrity, this honesty and this intimacy that frees us to journey through life known to, not alienated from ourselves. Then when we attempt to communicate with others, we are able to begin with an honest claiming of what is going on for us. Any interaction with others that is based on such an honest expression of what we are experiencing has the potential for intimacy and a respectful exchange with another.
It is not as simple as it sounds, however, to be honest about how we feel, and that leads to fairness, the next issue needed for a liberated intimate relationship with ourselves and others. There are many unfair biases that interfere with honesty about how we feel. Sexism and racism are the two major biases that I will discuss here. Sexism unfairly attributes weakness to females and labels emotions that are seen as signs of weakness suitable only for girls and women. It ridicules boys and men if they display any of what is considered the weak female emotions such as fear or anxiety, sadness or upset that is expressed with crying, gentleness and caring that is expressed tenderly, or feelings of loneliness, dependency and need. Sexist bias defines masculine as strong, aggressive and independent. The one emotion that boys and men can express to prove their strength and masculinity is anger. Anger is expected to carry a male's emotional life without jeopardising his image as strong and masculine. Anger, therefore, is over-used by boys and men and under-used by girls and women who are influenced by these sexist assumptions.
The unfairness of considering any emotion as a sign of weakness or strength violates the integrity of the self, which has the need and the capacity to experience every emotion and for whom every emotion is legitimate. To be emotionally honest in the face of sexism is not easy, and it is certainly not easy for adolescents who are in the midst of establishing their sexual identity. In a society where strength is considered superior to weakness, and males superior to females, it is not surprising that adolescent males rely heavily on anger to prove their masculinity and adolescent females who resort to anger to show their strength run the risk of jeopardising their femininity. To be emotionally honest with vulnerability of any kind is to confront the image of weakness and face it down as a lie. This kind of honesty is not easy; in fact, it is extremely difficult. Yet, honesty is what is needed.
Anger has its rightful place in our life, but it has no right to dominate it. In fact, any emotion that dominates us, violates us. We should never be dominated by any emotion. As paradoxical beings we must move back and forth between our contradictory feelings and never be overcome by only one. Neither our feelings of vulnerability nor our feelings of strength should dominate us. If they do, we lose our freedom to move and to choose. Feelings of vulnerability must be matched by feelings of strength, and vice versa, or fear and anger will dictate our life choices. If we become only aware of our vulnerability we will be always fearful and afraid to risk. Once this occurs, anxiety accompanies any decision and we become prisoners of our fear. Dominated by the need to feel safe, we lose our ability to venture and our world gradually becomes smaller and smaller and so do we. Eventually we become a caricature of who we are and an exaggeration of what we fear. We lose the integrity of our paradoxical complexity and as that occurs we lose our freedom. We may even lose our voice, since fear often keeps us silent.
On the other hand, if we choose to deny our vulnerability and only focus on feeling strong, we will become another caricature and an exaggeration of ourself. We will hide our vulnerable feelings beneath the intimidating expressions of anger. If we get upset, we react with anger. If we are disappointed, we get angry. If we are lonely or depressed, we are angry. If we feel hurt or rejected, we lash out with anger. Everywhere and every time our response to an emotional situation is anger. We are loud in anger. It drowns out other feelings and drives them and others away. Dominated by anger, we become alienated from every other feeling hidden underneath it and we prevent both ourselves and others from getting close to us. We become known only from our anger. Because it is loud and aggressive, anger appears to make our world bigger when it dominates our emotions. Actually, it serves only to reduce it and our world is as confined by anger as it is by fear.
Any emotion that becomes our primary and possibly our sole emotional expression, limits our capacity and violates our complexity. Anger, when allowed to get out of control, violates others as well. It has the force to intimidate and the fear it invokes has the added dimension of possible physical violence. Anger, therefore has the potential to be both emotionally and physically abusive and therefore is doubly to be feared.
Yet, these two emotions, fear and anger, keep sexism and racism alive. Whatever racist assumptions are made about any particular race also feed on fear and anger and a false sense of superiority or inferiority. Gender and race are both birth rights, and biased assumptions based on them violate the person with the bias and the person who is the object of it. In racism, the race that conquers and dominates another is considered the superior race, as is the race with the greatest anger. Righteous anger is a racist way of claiming superiority. Often, gentler nations and races are looked down on as too much like women, and female weakness is attributed to them because gentleness is seen as weak.
We are left to deplore sexism and racism and the violation it does to our integrity and our complexity. Honesty and fairness are jeopardised, as we have seen, but so are caring and respect. If emotions are to be treated respectfully and caringly, we must not have disdain for any of them. To be true to our emotions without being abusive with them requires us to treat each and every emotion we have with the greatest care and respect. Just as honesty and fairness go together, so do care and respect. When the gentle tenderness of caring is coupled with the attentive firmness of respect, our paradoxical nature is at one with itself. Respect without caring becomes too stiff and formal, while caring without respect becomes too soft and indulgent. Together, caring and respect bring attentiveness and warmth. Our feelings must be both attentively cared for and respectfully addressed.
What does this actually mean? If we become afraid, we need to put our emotional arm around ourselves and in a caring way, ask ourselves why we feel afraid. If our fear is not honest and fair, it can spin out into hysterical out of control anxiety, and our hold on ourselves must be very firm to exact accountability before we give care and concern. Whatever honest and fair answer we give ourselves after that, we would then need to say how sorry we are that this fear has been triggered and then ask ourselves what we know about why it got triggered and what we need in order to calm it. Then we need to ask if there is anything we want done about it. If the answer is yes, we need to ask what and why. If the answer is no, we need to ask why. In either case, our questions and responses should be non-threatening and invitational even as they are direct and accountable. If what we say is honest and fair, and what we need is respectfully listened to and cared for, we will have responded with the integrity and fairness, care and respect that frees us to be true to our feelings, and not abusive with them.
If we become angry, we would need to firmly put our arm around ourselves so that we can contain the strength of our reaction until we check to see if it is honest and fair. If our anger is honest and fair then we have the space to explore why we are angry and to be respectful and caring of our angry feelings. If our anger is not honest and fair, then we must firmly hold ourselves in check until we discover what emotion is underneath the anger. This is a critical time for any emotion, since indulging an emotion when it is not honest and fair violates our integrity and thiss throws our system of checks and balances off and it and we become out of control. With anger, that means we may act violently toward ourselves or toward another. Attention to the honesty and fairness of anger is our greatest protection against being abusive with it. Honest, fair anger can be expressed as ours and explored as to why, without lashing out at others and abusing them just because we are angry.
Unfortunately, anger is often used abusively, and we may have learned to react abusively without giving it a second thought. This means we are caught in a pattern that is out of control and therefore we are out of control. Anger is not the only emotion that can lead to being out of control, any emotion can, and the self-indulgence that results from this pattern is destructive. We lose our freedom and our integrity when we are out of control. There is no justification for being out of control even though there may be very understandable reasons for why and how we became so self-indulgent. Our hope lies not in out of control reactions, which only violate and imprison us, but in gaining control of our responses to our reactions, so that we can be free to be true to them, not abused by them.
Expressions of honest, fair anger need to be statements of why we are angry and how it makes us feel. They should not be abusive clubs and dangerous weapons meant to destroy ourselves or another. Destruction and conquest are violent acts and are not respectful or caring to either ourselves or others. They make us into vengeful marauders and self-indulgent bullies who leave devastation in our wake. What we need to be aspiring to is anger that frees us to be true to our strong feelings of unfairness, not anger that violates with its own abusive unfairness. No emotion should be so indulged that it dominates us and spins us out of control.
Every emotion should have its rightful place and its turn, as the occasion arises that calls it forth. And when it takes its turn and we express how we feel, we should be fuller in stature and freer in expression and truer to ourselves than we were before we spoke. If we are an exaggerated caricature of ourselves, out of control and alienated from ourselves, something is terribly wrong. Our liberation is dependent on a complex relationship with ourselves. We must be self-disciplined, even as we are self-indulgent. We must be free to express ourselves even as we are self-contained. We must reflect as well as react. We must be honest, fair, respectful and caring with every emotion we feel.
And we must never endorse abuse and violation either of ourselves or of another. We must, therefore, learn to process our emotions, not be at their mercy, if we are to be true to them and to ourselves.