Feel those feels
I’m 27 now, and have been in two long term relationships for the better part of the last decade. In the grand scheme of a life, this isn’t much, but it’s been enough for my perspectives on conflict to evolve. For the bulk of this relationship history, I thought that it was unambiguously good to wait until the fires of emotion had settled in order to have a calm, collected discussion about whatever was happening. Oftentimes when I did wait like this, the emotional fires would simmer down to a point where I didn’t feel a need to talk about the issue any more, because it was no longer front-of-mind for me. I used to commend myself and others for the ability to stay levelheaded, but I see it differently now.
When we’re little kids, we naturally channel our emotional state as a stream of consciousness. We cry and scream at a pin drop: when we’re hungry, when we’ve been away from a parent’s embrace for too long, when we’re sleepy, when there’s poop in our diapers, when we have to share our favourite toy but we just don’t wanna. We’re skilled in allowing our emotions to flow, but totally hopeless at guiding the path of the emotional expression. We’re untethered emotional firehoses. This is an ineffective route of expression.
As we mature, we learn that unfettered, uncontrolled expression of emotion is ineffective. We see that people pull away from us when we yell at them. We see that throwing tantrums in public embarrasses the people we’re with. So for many people, like me, we learn to suppress. We turn the emotions inwards, convince ourselves that they’re useless, and believe we can restrain them with the right kind of patience and resolve. In doing so, we avoid the kind of external damage caused by screaming at people, or flying into a violent rage, or breaking our hands punching lockers. But we also compress what should be fleeting moods into something deeper and darker. It might not explode, but that suppression and deeply held hurt pervades our daily experience, taking the form of shame, disconnection, and fear. This is the route of suppression.
So as we mature still, we must learn to find channels to allow that emotion to run its course, but do so constructively. I still struggle a lot with this.
We release through appreciating art which reflects our pain. We release through creating art which reflects our pain. We release through resolving conflict by returning to it with honesty about how we feel and what triggered us to feel that way. This is an effective route of expression.
When I’m upset with my girlfriend, I could take the ineffective route of expression: “You’re 15 minutes late! You always do this. You don’t care about me”.
Or, I can take the route of suppression: proceed with dinner, trying to pretend I was never angry. Telling myself that I had no right to be angry.
Or, I can take a more effective route of expression: “I felt angry when I saw that I had been waiting 15 minutes past the time we agreed upon for you to come to dinner. Next time, would you please either try harder to be on time, or try to let me know how late you’re going to be?” Beginning the dialog this way invites empathy, rather than defensiveness. Once this happens, I might discover the anger relents to reveal the more vulnerable fear that underlies it. And with the empathetic support of a partner, that fear too might be allowed to run its course. And from there, security and playfulness arise.
Going to a therapist by myself, I learned a bit about how to release and integrate past pain by allowing long held, deeply held emotion to flow.
Going to see a couples therapist with my girlfriend, we’ve learned a bit about how to release and integrate past pain we’ve inflicted upon ourselves and each other by allowing each other to see our emotions flow. By providing dedicated space for emotionally charged discussions about our relationship, we see the pain felt by one another. We learn to understand it and empathize with it. And we learn to have emotionally honest conversations outside of the therapy sessions. I think that since we’ve started going to therapy, we don’t have conflicts less frequently, but we reach resolution to conflict much faster when it arises. And each time after we reach resolution, we’re able to return to warmth and play, uninhibited by distance from unspoken conflict.
So if you’re curious, and if the resources are available to you as an individual or as a pair, go to a therapist and feel those feels.
Hello little evil
In the depths of my chest
You’ve taken shelter too long
How easy for you to hide in the shadows
Of an unexamined space
Living in your home
And giving nothing back
I know you mean no harm
You are not malicious
You simply are
How unfortunate for you
When a stray rock shatters a tinted window
Of your shrouded home
And you are brought to light
You thrash, You sob, You scream
As you are evicted
And it echos in your host
I wonder when the next rock
Will happen upon your now departed home
And reveal your brethren