If James Hillman is on point that “emotions have us” not the other way round, then they can be ‘framed’ as searching for, expressing or painting something hidden, lost or repressed such as our imagination.
Most of us have suffered public contempt for “being too emotional,” or for “being too intense” or for “being too much” or for “being unstable” because of our emotional expression. To many, our emotions have defined us almost exclusively negatively.
Public criticism of the expression of emotion, unless contained and restricted to novels, plays, poems, movies and canvases or dances or musical manuscripts, is rampant in the public discourse.
For men in particular, the expression of anger and rage is especially dangerous in places not designated as “boxing rings” or “padded rooms” or forests where we flail branches of trees, baseball bats, or some other instrument against the trunks of large trees. And there is also the social ‘habit’ of ‘drowning’ sorrow/anger/rage/rejection/abandonment in some alcoholic beverage (or drug whether prescribed or not), in the hope either that the “medication” will take the pain away, or alternatively, that our inebriated state will give cover and explanation for our most profound emotional pain.
Therapy, traditionally, attempts to parse the nature, the source, the impacts and the “price” of intense emotions, whether through a return to childhood memories, or through some activity like art therapy. In his initial assessment of cancer patients seeking his help, Bernie Segal asks them to draw a picture of their life. Too often, the picture that emerges is one of a kitchen sink, giving public vent to the notion that the patient sees his/her life as the place where all the “garbage” gets dumped. He also asks those patients, “What do you need with this disease? Or “Why do you need this disease?” And, “Do you really want to be free from it?”
What if we were able to paint the picture of that rage that seems to have us in its grip? What if our bodies (headaches, stomach pains, stiff necks, diarrhea, sleeplessness, stammer, involuntary tears, or other visible symptoms) were telling us what we weren’t “hearing” or “grasping” or “comprehending” or “facing” or “unwilling to tolerate” and those symptoms were the voices of our gods, angels and interior mentors?
Rather than adopting the conventional, derisive and judgemental perspective on these physical symptoms, even among mature adults as well as among the young, what if we were to be able and willing to provide a safe space (where one does not and cannot do harm to self or to another), a tolerant and empathic ear, and importantly, a patient and unfrightened and unfrightening imagination? A question like, “What is this “god” or “demon” trying to say?” might be a very different approach not only for the person who is in the throes of his emotion, but also for the person presently providing supportive safety.
From personal experience, it seems that, when in the grip of a strong emotion, I am not necessarily clear or confident in the precise “voice” or “lesson” or “picture” that the emotion is trying to utter. And, of course, there is a potential conflict if a supportive ‘other’ invades the space being filled by the emotion by asking any question, regardless of the helpful motive s/he might bring.
De-toxifying intense emotion, however, as natural, and potentially even beneficial to the individual in its “basinet” seems, however we look at it, to be a far more temperate, supportive, clarifying and genuinely creative voice, and reduce both the perceived need for, and demand for punitive judgement. Seeing intense emotion as legitimate, natural, innate and even essential to the health and wellness of the human psyche, (obviously only in situations in which no harm is inflicted to anyone), could and likely would open many doors that are currently closed to public discourse.*
My family of origin, as one example, witnessed intense emotions being thrust like paint-balls against the walls of the minds, ears and psyches of the rest of the family. Many of those “paint-balls” were venomous judgements of others by one member of the family. And, for the most part, these paint-balls were greeted with silence, confusion, and withdrawal. They also aroused anger among the targets, each of us unaware of how the anger was more indicative of the “self-loathing” of their source than it was a legitimate judgement of the targets. Self-loathing, as a well-spring of deep emotions, often conflicted and conflicting, merits a far different response than silence and withdrawal.
It warrants a kind of compassion and empathy for the “soul” of the person obviously writhing in pain, and apparently unable to express the real message of the emotion, or to participate in options that would amend the situation in which the emotions erupted. Seeing and hearing those deeply hurtful “cuts” from the tongue of a member of the family as “the troubles” of that person demanding “treatment” that was apparently unavailable, rather than a potential gift for the person and potentially even for the rest of the family, resulted in decades of angst without evoking the imagination either of the source of the emotions or of the rest of the family. Intimacy, care, collaboration and compassion do not walk away from the expression of intense emotions, unless those walking away consider those emotions to be dangerous, immature, psychically ill, or even demonic.
Likely we have all had moments in which our emotions “seemed to get the better of us” as the vernacular puts it. And, similarly, those moments have likely resulted in witnessing the walking away, the silence, and the distancing of others from their expression. And there is a range of other emotions that accompany that alienation, separation and abandonment.
If we were to be asked, upon reflection, what those moments of intense emotions were trying to “say” we could most likely put words and pictures to the root cause and source of those emotions. And those words/pictures would be worthy of encoding, especially upon the initial release of the energy that accompanied them.
I recall being told I was no longer either needed or wanted in a specific situation, by a person for whom I had deep respect. After driving for several hours through the night, immediately after receiving the news, I recall falling to the floor of the basement of a friend’s house, and weeping inconsolably for two or three hours. Those “attending” to me, in my grief and anger were gentle, kind and somewhat confused. They were also withdrawn, leaving me to the cauldron of my loss of pride, the loss of my self-respect and the devastation of the experience of abandonment.
Abandonment, that word that beats loudly in the unconscious, raising the spectre of the orphan, comes in many different faces and voices. It comes in an overt trigger to evoke the work needed by the orphan to grow and to develop and evolve. Carol Pearson reminds us (in Awakening the Heroes Within) that the orphan’s goal is to regain safety, and that its gift is interdependence and realism.
And how and when one is permitted to “hear” and to “adopt” and to “embrace” the orphan, for example, or one of the other archetypes that can be given voice through turning points that can be found in the signposts of strong emotions, is unique to each of us. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that we can find clues in those moments when we find ourselves in the “throes” of our deep, authentic and warranted emotions (not manipulative, or manipulated, or deployed to achieve a deceptive end or goal).
When we lose a love, a job, a friend, or even a pet, we grieve, and learn to recover our commitment and passion, as the ultimate gift of the loss.
How we perceive our own emotions, and the authentic emotions of another, is a subject that has received gallons of ink throughout the centuries, from individuals with different backgrounds: philosophy, psychology, politics, medicine, theology, and even economics and biology. The theme that runs through their pages is often considered to be confused and confusing. This piece is not attempting to write the last word on the question of human emotions.
It is, however, determined to confront the far too prevalent convention that emotion unpacked, and released is too dangerous, and must be repressed, controlled and kept under wraps. It is also determined to push back on the convention of applying pharmaceutical prescriptions to each and every experience of emotions that might include discomfort, unease, worry, shame, embarrassment, and many of the other “life” experiences that will dot our path through our lifetime. The separation of reason from emotion, is another of the myths needing de-mythologizing, as is the experience of faith, love and life choices.
First, emotion accompanies, so intimately and so imperceptibly, every breath we take, and every perception we ‘hold’ and every value we incarnate. Second, the chemistry, and the physiology and the neurology and the anatomy of each emotion remains something of a sacred mystery, much like the far edge of the solar system whose edges the satellite Horizon is only now beginning to plumb.
This piece also invites an open-eyed, open-minded, open-book and open-attitude to the process of getting to know, to embrace and to discern the meaning and the purpose of this “force of nature” that comes into every room into which each human being walks.
Looking at the plethora of ways by which we deny, avoid, repress, treat, and judge this integral aspect of human life, throughout history, one is prompted to inquire: “How is the current approach working for us?”
*This is not a justification for the trump-venom, distortion and compulsive “enemizing” of all people who might disagree with him. And it does require a highly sensitive and empathic discernment of potential manipulation, another of the means to which strong emotion is deployed.