On Tuesday morning I woke to the news of the terrible events in Manchester. My heart dipped noticeably on hearing that the tragedy had occurred at a concert given by Arianna Grande. My daughter had been due to go on Friday and I was filled with a mixture of emotion I couldn’t describe. The feeling wasn’t rational, it was instinctive and instant. Every day since I have felt my reaction as a father, imagining myself in some similar appalling situation.
We are naturally drawn towards action when we feel deep sadness because sadness is such a still and powerless emotion. Rising up with angry protest, redoubling a refusal to bow down in the face of horrific inhumanity, we hold vigils, write poems, leave flowers. These are practical and positive ways to respond to the debilitating feeling of loss, and this is the harmonious tragic beauty of combining raw emotion with the behaviours which marry most easily with it. What results is a sense of hope, a unity which is empowering in the darkest of days. But we aren’t always so good at reacting to emotion, or even experiencing it.
Many people come and tell me that they “over think”. I know what they mean. To move feelings into our heads and try to make logical sense of them is difficult. To rationalise and bargain in such a way that we make the feeling change or go away is almost impossible.
None of us want to feel dark and negative emotions, but our burning desire to avoid them makes them stronger, and we rarely do more than emphasise and amplify them. It is impossible to change your feeling with facts because emotion is far too strong for logic. Try telling someone afraid of flying that it’s statistically the safest form of travel.
Facts are helpful for your logical mind but do nothing for your emotional brain. I can’t remember working with anyone who thought logically that they were worthless or unlovable, but they felt it. Few clients suffering with anxiety believe that their fears are rationally likely to come about but they feel their inevitability. Even the most heartbroken soul accepts the probability that the pain will subside to some degree in time, and nobody literally thinks “If I start crying I don’t think I’ll ever stop”
Sometimes emotion is changed by action. Theory is a blunt instrument in the war on anxiety. By definition anxiety is a fear of the future, a terror of what might happen, essentially a fear of thought. It can only be overturned by experiencing the object of the fear and realising it to be less frightening than was believed. But most often emotion is changed by nothing more complicated than time, just like the weather.
I don’t want to feel sad or fearful, bored or broken. I would prefer to avoid feelings of rejection or betrayal, resentment and anger, but my willingness to endure them is the very thing which gives me the strength to do so.
Often a client will look at me in the midst of pain and ask “how do I feel better?” There is no answer rooted in logic, and there is none required because it is, in essence, rhetorical. It is an exclamation of difficulty, a question which opens the door to feeling, even if the feeling in question is one of a temporary hopelessness.
Freedom from over thinking comes not from finding better ways of analysis, but from dropping the temptation to analyse. Choosing instead the courageous path of feeling what you feel, good or bad, comfortable or bleak, without judgement or demand that it passes faster than it does. Relief comes from trusting that all things are temporary, that emotional change is a constant, and that there is never a life devoid of pain and difficulty.
People frequently cry in front of me, and usually they apologise through the tears. The emotion comes from the heart, bruised, battered, wounded, hopeless. But the apology comes from the head, an unnecessary addition borne from something detached from the feeling itself.
In what has been an awful week for the city of Manchester we are reminded in the most painful and brutal way possible that emotion is the most powerful force within us. We cannot imagine accurately anyone else’s grief and we do ourselves and them a disservice when we try. Better to feel what is yours without the filter of unnecessary judgement.
If we can always bring ourselves to feel our own rage, sadness, loss, fear, and all the shades of each we will probably find it very hard at times. But we will save ourselves the additional pain of self criticism and shame which often comes with believing we are acting in a way we should not. Your heart never lies to you, and your feelings can never be wrong or inappropriate. Like the darkness that falls literally or metaphorically, it just is, and light is the same, only ultimately and always, it is far more powerful, and it always wins.