In my experience, it’s a conscious choice to set out on the journey to being a whole person – complete, connected to my body and mind and emotions and soul. I say “journey” deliberately because I’m nowhere near there yet. But I know I’m getting at least a little bit closer to being a truly integrated human being, compared to where I was a few years ago.
Body, mind, heart, soul. Exploring and seeking to understand each of these aspects is a vital part of the journey. Today I’m thinking more about the heart, the emotions. I’m curious as to whether I’ve done irreparable damage to this part of my being.
I don’t recall ever being particularly afraid of my emotions until I reached teenagerhood. At that point, my emotions suddenly stopped making sense. They became unpredictable. They weren’t always under my control. They were downright scary. I had no idea, for instance, that having feelings for someone could cause such intense pain. I also was caught completely off guard by depression. Who knew that a feeling existed which would drain everything of color and cause me to want nothing more than to escape life as I knew it?
The first method by which I tried to deal with strong emotional pain and distress was one I would never recommend to anyone. I took to making up long, involved stories in my mind, essentially creating a fantasy world that I inhabited almost entirely. There were periods of time when I was so withdrawn into myself that I was literally only physically present in the real world – my body might have been in front of you, but the rest of me had left this plane of existence. Anyone or anything real was just an annoying distraction from the stories I was spinning in my mind.
It is not easy or fun to revisit this part of my past and I can’t remember, right now, why I finally re-entered reality. However, once I did, I started using another method of dealing with my emotions. The technique of self-talk can be helpful, but I used it to try and suppress my emotions entirely. All emotions, I began to believe, must be completely subject to the intellect. If I cannot explain why I am feeling this way, or even if I can logically prove that it is unhelpful or sinful to feel this way, then I shouldn’t be having this emotion. It’s not a valid emotion and I must therefore completely ignore it and act as if it doesn’t exist. All negative emotions, all “selfish” emotions (such as romantic interest in someone), were taboo. Eventually, I wanted to distance myself from every emotion other than things like “wonder at God’s creation,” “disgust at my own sin” (including “bad” emotions) or “gratitude.” Any other emotion was nothing more than rebellion or doubting whether God really controlled literally every aspect of my life.
This, trying purposely to submit every one of my emotions to logic, is what still haunts me today. I know that learning to control one’s emotions is an important part of reaching maturity, but I pursued that goal with no balance and no wisdom. Eventually, I had myself convinced that no feeling was really legitimate. Of course, I didn’t stop having feelings. I just felt very ashamed of them and did my very best to compartmentalize them from the rest of my life. Spock would have been proud of the way I strove to live according to reason. And it was just logic, based on my rather stringent beliefs at the time. There was nothing actually spiritual about it, though I convinced myself it was all for the good of my soul. (My soul was probably languishing in a corner, trying to gather the strength to protest the way I was letting my brain take over everything).
As time went on, I learned a better way. I learned to be more charitable with myself and other people. I learned that it’s okay to feel. But I can’t remember the last time I had a strong emotion without hearing the little voice in my head, standing over and against that emotion, saying “yeah, okay, but…” This obnoxious voice offers reasons why the emotion is just a passing thing, why I shouldn’t do anything about it, why I should ignore this emotion and live as though it doesn’t exist. And in frustration, I yell back at my brain, “for heavens’ sake can’t I just simply feel something without you getting involved?”
Can’t I believe what my heart has to say is legitimate? Can’t I cry without feeling a little guilty and stopping almost right away? Can’t I accept that maybe my depression is there for a reason and isn’t just me being a baby about life?
Of course I will be at my best when my heart can work together with my mind. But in order for that to happen, I first have to strengthen my heart. I have to teach my mind and my heart that they are not enemies. I have to allow my heart to sometimes trump my mind instead of always allowing my brain to trump my heart. Yes, I understand there must be balance, but sometimes I desperately want the sweet freedom of making a decision from my heart and never looking back.