Letting Emotions Live
I was sitting at my mother’s bedside during one of our last visits. At that point, she had suffered with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) for years and was almost completely paralyzed. We both knew the end was near, and I was reading her a letter that described all the ways she had influenced my life. Afterward, I buried my face in my hands and sobbed.
My mother looked over at me, and with obvious discomfort, she said, “You will be fine.”
“I know I will be fine. But I will miss you so much.”“I would like you to read that letter at my funeral.”
“I don’t think I can do it. I might break down.”
“No, you won’t. You know what to do,” she assured me. “You’ll get up there and handle it.”
And I did. A few weeks later, I read that whole letter at her funeral without a tear or a tremble in my voice. But the intense emotion I was feeling had to go somewhere. When chronic pelvic pain descended five years after my mother died, I would come to appreciate how holding a lifetime of unexpressed emotion had affected my body.
It’s probably not a coincidence that I eventually developed a condition that no longer allowed me to deny my emotions. Whenever I held onto grief, anger, resentment, or fear, my body would tighten up or cry out in pain. In order to get better, I had to acknowledge those feelings and find ways to let them flow through me.
One simple example of my newfound ability to let my emotions flow happened in the fifth year of healing, when I dropped off my daughter at the airport for her flight back to college after a holiday visit at home.
At the curb in front of the terminal, I leaned over and gave her a hug and said cheerfully, “Have a great flight! I love you!” She hopped out of the car, and smiling, we both waved goodbye.
But as I was driving away, I thought, Wait a minute! How do I really feel Immediately, and to my surprise, I started to sob. I pulled over and cried for a half hour. Then, like a summer storm, the dark cloud passed and I felt peaceful again.
That’s when I realized I was experiencing my life in a whole new way. This may not sound good, but it really is. Because my body became (and remains) more fluid, healthy, and free. Before, I was numb to the emotional pain in my life, but I also didn’t feel intense joy, wonder, and connection. Now, I feel all of it—the exuberant and the excruciating!
Not everyone shoves down negative emotions. Some people explode with anger or frustration; others continually seep out negativity like a toxic stream of consciousness. For those who are consumed by constricting emotions, the key may be to feel them without becoming them. For those with only one emotional response, like anger, perhaps the way forward is to recognize and appreciate the range of emotions underneath this habitual response. For example, if you dig a little deeper to understand why you are angry, you may find other emotions lurking under there, like fear or anxiety, which may actually have preceded and triggered the anger. In all cases, healing is acknowledging and owning our constricting emotions, and learning to release them in ways that don’t create more problems for us and the people around us.