Feelings aren’t easy.
My approach to feeling for most of my life was kind of like how a cat approaches playtime. The cat’s cool with it for a little while, and then a switch flips in their little cat mind and they are just done. All four legs shoot out, their joints lock, and they launch the full force of 18 tiny claws towards the hand of whoever they were just playing with because now it is time to go away.
If the hand belongs to a human, that human can choose to back off, or not, because let’s be real – they’re bigger than the cat. If the hand is still a metaphor for feelings, sure, they could overcome us too. But mostly those feelings will creep under the couch and sneak out again later when the cat (who is me, or you) is sleeping or has otherwise let their guard down.
It sounds like a cruel game that feelings play, but the truth is that aside from deep trauma, most feelings – even the big gnarly hard ones – don’t last forever. They get bigger when we avoid them, but if we can pull our claws in and let them run their course, they usually won’t stay for as long as we thought they would.
But we fear that they’ll last FOREVER and it’s too much, so we run away. In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown talks about numbing or taking the edge off of tough feelings as something that most of us do, and once that behaviour becomes chronic or compulsive, then it enters the field of addiction. And this isn’t just about taking in mind or mood-altering substances – it can be any distraction, like shopping, food, sex, technology.
I felt pretty numb in the first few months of sobriety, and felt cheated by the fact that I didn’t magically just feel better. I imagined that some huge bright light would take over my life and it would be bliss 24/7. Even as I started to feel more, it wasn’t necessarily all good stuff. And even without drinking, I found more subtle ways to get out of feeling all of those pesky feelings completely.
The catch is that we can’t selectively numb feelings. It’s like expecting the mute button to only work on the commercials, but getting full surround sound when the show’s back on. We lose access to the full spectrum of feelings, good, bad and everything in between.
But if you let them each have their little playtime, none of those feelings will stick around FOREVER. In the last few months, I’ve been caught up in waves of grief that I thought would bowl me right over, and many time I threw those stiff claw-bearing legs right up. But the times I just let it go, and felt all the sadness there was to feel, I was often surprised to find the other side. The feelings would end, and then there’d be room for new ones – maybe joyful ones – or just plain calm. Then those feelings would fade too.
It’s not 24/7 bliss, but feeling all the things is less work than fighting them all the time, and it’s far easier on my claws.
Anastasia Chipelski is the Managing Editor at The Uniter. She’s making friends with feelings but mostly as an excuse to use more cat metaphors.
Published in Volume 70, Number 25 of The Uniter (March 24, 2016)