When I was in high school, my emotions overwhelmed me. Joy, misery, confusion, embarrassment—I was powerless against the undertow of every one, constantly grasping towards the shore. When my mother accidentally hit a raccoon on a road trip when I was 10, I cried for two hours. Outings to theme parks got me so excited that I usually threw up in the yard before we even pulled out of the driveway. In ninth grade a boy I barely liked broke up with me and I wandered around school like a zombie for weeks, my eyes red and swollen.
I think being emotional and giving yourself permission to be vulnerable are both great and brave things that are undervalued in our world, but this wasn’t that—I was walking around so emotionally raw that it was interfering with my life. I once missed a term paper deadline because I was consumed with being angry with a boy, and when I was granted an audience with the teacher to explain myself, I gravely said that I was going through some “pretty serious stuff right now.” The teacher must have hurt herself trying not to roll her eyes, but she granted me a very harsh extension, and I had to spend a sleepless night writing a paper. This just added more fuel to my fire. Had my life been a sitcom, it would have gone something like this:
INTERIOR. COFFEE SHOP. DAY
A group of my friends are hanging out.FRIEND
Where is Emily? Is she still miserable over
The camera pans to the corner, where we see ME, sitting on the floor, knees to my chest, crying softly.
Giving myself over to emotion so completely made me feel like I was on a roller coaster that kept speeding up—I never knew what would knock me around next, and I had no way to control it.
Part of growing up is learning to put a buffer between our emotions and our actions. That buffer is our thoughts. Let’s say a friend does something that upsets you—maybe you saw that he friended your asshole ex on Facebook. But it’s one o’clock in the morning on a school night. Your heart wants to call him RIGHT AWAY and unload. This is where your head steps in and says, “Hey, maybe this can wait until the morning.” This is where you type out an angry email to him and DON’T SEND IT until you’ve had a chance to reread it after you’ve cooled down. On the other hand, you don’t want to NEVER confront him about it and just stew for days or weeks or months and get all passive-aggressive and ugh. Your goal is to put your emotions in the passenger seat, where they’re riding shotgun to your thoughts, like a constant companion and advisor, but never give them the steering wheel (they will just constantly get you into accidents). Ideally you’ll find the sweet spot of rational, healthy communication somewhere between selfishly exploding and self-destructively bottling everything up. (And, believe me, this is something you will keep negotiating and renegotiating for the rest of your life, so you might as well start practicing now.)
So, how do you do this? I’ll tell you how you don’t do it. Ever the extremist, when I went to college I decided to counteract my teenage emotional tornado by intellectualizing all my feelings away. I thought I could control my emotions by ignoring them. I became a robot, basically. The first time a guy dumped me in this new regime, I exhaled noisily as he walked away and imagined I was exhaling him. I distracted myself from crying by telling myself, and my friends, all the reasons why he was never going to succeed as a person. I repeated over and over how little I needed him until I believed it. No breakup could hurt me, because when you think about it, all relationships end, and we die alone anyway. (Go ahead and roll your eyes now.) A friend was terribly rude to me in public, and I shrugged it right off—I just told everyone else that I’d suspected she’d felt insecure for a long time. A band I loved came to town and, rather than dance around and sing along, I stood stock-still in the audience. Why be excited about a good concert or a friend’s engagement or anything, when all happiness is fleeting?
I was proud of this self-control. I would explain to friends how much more “liberated” I felt. I pitied people who couldn’t hold back their tears. I felt evolved. In truth, though, I was terrified. I was afraid of the power of my feelings, of how easily they might take me down, and I was afraid of seeming like an emotional person because I’d internalized our culture’s misogynistic view of women as “hysterical” and weak. Also, to be honest, after experiencing everything so intensely for most of my childhood, I think I needed a break from emoting. It was nice to finally feel in control of my heart.
But the thing about never expressing your feelings is that it doesn’t just include pain and sorrow—you also never get to show happiness, bemusement, pure joy. I’d see kittens and silently acknowledge their cuteness and my wish to scoop them up and take them home, instead of just grabbing them and snorfing their tummies like I wanted to. About a year in I realized that this was not a lifestyle I could sustain any longer—aside from being obviously unhealthy, it was just boring.
Right around the time I started getting sick of my Ice Queen routine, I experienced some major health problems that landed me in the hospital for a month (it’s a long story involving a coma and an operation, but I’m totally fine now). I felt like an infant, both because my body was too weak to hold a cellphone or walk, and because I was scared and didn’t know how to process it. This was not a situation that I could intellectualize away. My feelings were huge and confusing and they came crashing in like a tidal wave, knocking down the walls I’d built against them. I spent a few days crying, which was followed by a flood of relief (that I’d gotten through it) and gratitude (for everything around me).
When I got out of the hospital, I would take walks around my neighborhood to help build up my strength. On one of those walks I remember hearing a lyric from Peter Bjorn and John’s “Objects of My Affection” that stopped me in my tracks: “And the question is, was I more alive then than I am now? I happily have to disagree. I laugh more often now, I cry more often now. I am more me.” Maybe it was cliché, but I did feel more alive, and it wasn’t just because I had almost died. It was because I was feeling my damn feelings again. I had always thought of my emotions as being separate from me, as being these alien things that descended upon me, but now I finally saw them as part of me: my hormones, my brain chemistry, my heartstrings.
You know how a dog with a lot of energy needs to be walked or it’ll find some other way to burn off that energy (usually by destroying something valuable in your home)? That dog = my emotions; those walks = what I call the Wallow. When something happens to me that brings on a flood of emotions, I give myself a set amount of time to feel those emotions fully, deeply, as dramatically as I want—but for 20 minutes max. (Obviously, I’m talking about everyday issues, not something traumatic like a death or the end of a long-term relationship, although the idea is the same: Don’t become so attached to feeling one way that you spend longer with an emotion than you want/need to.)
In those 20 minutes, I devote all my energy to being furious, or embarrassed, or uncomfortable, or whatever. If I get bored with my emotions, too bad: I order myself to continue. I sit in them, alone, without distractions. You wanted my attention, I tell them, and now you’ve got it. I feel my feelings so intensely that I get physically tired. After that, it’s easy to push them aside and move on to processing and thinking. I am no longer blinded by anger or guilt or a thirst for justice. I ask myself questions: Why did this event affect me so much? What do I actually want out of this situation? How can I get closer to what I want?
Once they’ve had their day in the sun, my feelings don’t feel so powerful anymore. They no longer threaten to pull me under and drown me. Instead, they teach me a few things. If I’d really paid attention to what I was feeling with the dude in high school, for instance, I would have realized that my sadness over the breakup had nothing to do with him—I just needed attention and didn’t know how else to get it. If I’d known that then, I might’ve shaken my funk quickly and let myself have fun at dance parties, which I now regret not having done. The Wallow lets me tune in to my emotional advisors and act in a way that appropriately honors them, whether that’s sending an email, asking for a hug, accepting a job offer or quitting a job, or telling someone they’re acting like a jackass.
Not everyone’s emotions are turned all the way up to 11 like mine were. If yours aren’t, be happy about that. But no matter what it feels like inside your head and heart, know that you can’t control how you feel, but you can control what you do with your feelings. Figuring out how to work with them instead of being bullied by them takes some experimentation with different combinations of logic, feelings, intelligence, and gut instinct. The run-over raccoons of your life deserve your time and your sympathy, but they aren’t getting anything from your self-imposed suffering. Neither are you. ♦