It was Shakespeare’s Hamlet who asked whether it was best to be, or not to be. Whether we live or die is undoubtedly important, but the quality of the life we live will come down to our ability to process our emotions. In other words, it is often our ability to feel that determines whether we want to live or not.
This might seem like a strange concept for me to be talking about, yet it is one that rises to the surface in every client interaction I have. I find myself helping people to deal with their emotions time and time again. Whether they have guilt issues, or anger management issues, or depression…it all comes back to how people experience their emotions.
This is going to get waaayyy too heavy if I keep on with the theoretical stuff, so I’ve written a little story called ‘Pebbles’ to help illustrate this point. Enjoy!
Imagine a charming village street lined with strange little shops. You find yourself standing out the front of one of these shops. There is a sky blue front door and a bell that jingles whenever it opens. The door is painted with the word, ‘Welcome.’ It is a curious and inviting place, so you walk through the blue door, hearing the bell above your head and marvelling at the cool, quiet interior.
It feels timeless once you are inside. The shop is empty of people, except for an ageless woman behind the counter, carefully polishing a glass jar. It’s hard to tell whether she is old or young. You look around and the walls are lined with shelves. The shelves are neatly stacked with many identical jars, and the jars glow with colours of every hue. The effect is that of a soft disco. You peer at the jars closest to you, assuming that the shop sells whatever is in those jars. Each jar contains a strange, swirling sort of vapour that changes colour constantly. You can only guess at to what the jars contain, but it is surely psychedelic.
The shop owner, who could be either a grandmother or a witch, smiles at you with youthful teeth.
‘Sorry, nothing in here is for sale,’ she says.
‘This is a shop, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, but you aren’t interested.’
‘How do you know that?’ you ask, slightly affronted but also fascinated by her approach.
‘You won’t want any of this,’ she says, indicating the glowing walls with one wrinkled hand.
‘What’s in the jars, anyway?’
‘The ability to feel emotion.’ She is deadly serious.
‘Oh, in that case, you’re right!’ you say. ‘I’m dealing with too many emotions as it is.’
‘I’m certain you are,’ she says. ‘But, out of interest, do you truly feel all your emotions?’
‘Of course I do,’ you say, bristling at the question. Those darned emotions are always lurking, waiting to trip you up. The old woman waits expectantly, and you feel that you must elaborate so that she understands you.
‘I am constantly under attack by my emotions,’ you begin with a sigh. ‘There’s guilt and shame, for starters. And then there’s the loneliness of the past year, plus the rejection, and the anger that comes from being endlessly unproductive… not to mention the depression.’
‘Hmm,’ she says, looking you over appraisingly. ‘And you have more fat on your body than is healthy. Do you ever eat in order to avoid feeling those emotions?’
You pause, more shocked than insulted by what she has said. After all, she’s stating a fact. ‘I guess so. Those emotions are unpleasant, so it’s only natural to want to avoid them. Eating helps.’
She nods. ‘It’s easier to numb yourself with food than to feel those unpleasant emotions fully, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, that’s it,’ you say, recalling the times you’ve stood in front of the fridge, bored and depressed, stuffing your face with cheese or cake, or standing at the counter eating toast covered in Nutella…anything to keep those thoughts at bay. Or the times you opened a packet of Oreos, thinking how one cookie would make you feel better in that moment, but before you knew it, you’d eaten the whole damn packet.
‘For others,’ the shop lady continues, ‘it’s easier to drink alcohol than to feel those feelings. Drugs, food, alcohol, sex, even exercise…there are so many ways to numb ourselves.’
‘True,’ you agree. ‘I know someone who works out like a machine, and he certainly has his own demons to fight.’ This guy is aggressive and angry most of the time.
She nods again. ‘We have learned many ways of avoiding the painful task of experiencing our emotions. Rarely are we taught how to deal with them in a safe and productive manner. Do you understand the magic of emotions?’
‘No,’ you say, deciding to play along.
She speaks slowly and precisely, with a confidence that you admire. She is either very clever or totally deluded. ‘Emotions are the source of your health, your wealth and your personal power.’
‘Okay,’ you say, wondering what special sauce she’s been drinking.
The old woman continues unperturbed, her bright eyes locked on yours. ‘Once you fully feel your emotions, you will come to own them. When you finally have ownership of your emotions, nothing will ever hold you back in life. It is the key to success.’
‘Really?’ you ask, raising one eyebrow and adopting the sarcastic tone of voice that comes from being a lifelong critic of anything woo-woo or unbelievable.
‘Really,’ she says, in a matter-of-fact way. ‘But don’t take my word for it. Here’s a sample for you to try.’
She reaches for one of the jars behind her and holds it in her small, brown hand. You look on in amusement, thinking there’s no harm in trying her swirling jar of happy gas. Hell, it might even give you a high.
‘Before I give it to you,’ she says, her brown eyes reminding you of polished chestnuts, ‘I want you to think of the biggest issue that’s been bothering you this week.’
She waits, and you think back over your week, settling on your recent procrastination. It has stopped you from going to the gym, from finishing that building project at home and from doing anything useful in the past few evenings.
You hope she can’t read your thoughts right now, because you have a particular habit of procrastination that is self-gratifying and has been happening since you were a teenager. This will be interesting, you think. Procrastination is an issue but it doesn’t really have any emotions attached. It just happens. Let’s see what her potion can do for that.
‘Okay, I’ve got it,’ you say, holding out your hand for the glass jar.
‘Here you are,’ she says, handing it over carefully. You notice that the gas swirls with a yellowish glow once the jar is in your hand. ‘Tut, tut,’ she says, shaking her head at the jar. ‘That’s not a pretty issue you’re dealing with. Now, hold that issue in your mind, unscrew the lid, and take a deep breath. The contents will work after a moment.’
You do as she says, unscrewing the lid and thinking about your procrastination. The vapour rises from the jar as you breathe it in, and though you detect no smell or taste, you can see how it flows through your nose and mouth and into your lungs. Your eyes are clouded by cool yellow fog. It feels like air and nothing more.
You wait a long moment, ready for light-headedness or anything different. Nothing happens. Through the fog, the little woman stands behind her counter, watching you with interest, her bright eyes inquisitive. Some sales trick, you think. How is this fog supposed to help with your procrastination?
At the thought of procrastination, you feel a wave of something stirring deep within you. It seems to come from your chest and spill outwards, filling your body with something uncomfortable. What is it?
‘That’s it,’ says the old woman, nodding in encouragement. ‘Be curious. What does procrastination feel like now?’
‘It’s…it’s amazing how it’s sitting right in my chest. It’s awful. Hang on, I think it’s more like frustration with myself and at the time I waste.’
‘Frustration. Hmm. And what’s below that frustration?’ she asks, her voice firm and gentle.
You feel it burrow deeper within you. ‘Anger. Anger at myself, and at the world.’
‘Anger, yes. And what else?’ she asks, her head tilted to one side.
‘Fear…of not getting anywhere. Fear of being a complete failure. Of disappointing people.’ You are frightened. The fear is strong. It clutches at your chest and your throat tightens. You feel your heart thumping in your chest.
‘Take a deep breath. Relax into it,’ she suggests, at just the right moment.
You do as she says.
‘Fear is only a feeling, that’s all. It can’t hurt you.’ Her demeanour calms you, for she is unperturbed by the roller coaster of feelings racing through your heart and mind and body. It happens in bursts, the waves rolling through you. You take another deep, calming breath and allow the tension to ease in your chest and throat. The fear loosens and fades.
That is when shame appears. You know shame, all right, it’s been with you for as long as you can recall. Shame about having weird sexual interests, shame about being worthless, shame about being unsuccessful. Yes, shame has certainly tried it on with you, but you found ways to avoid feeling it. You ate until you were overloaded with carbs and had to take a nap, and you headed into your room to masturbate, and you played video games for hours and hours; oh yes, you know how to avoid shame. You’ve never wanted to face the shame of feeling like a loser who never completes anything, the shame of being a failure, the shame of being fat, the shame of letting other people down; the shame of not being normal and good, the shame of not being who someone else wants you to be.
This is first time in a long time that you’ve had to experience shame in all its glory. The emotion rolls through you like a great vibration of red-hot awfulness. Surprisingly, after a minute, it dissipates into nothingness, just as a thunder storm might pass overhead.
You sigh, feeling lighter as soon as it passes. The yellow vapour clears and you shake your head. The emotions have moved on and you feel strangely empty. It is a good emptiness. You feel clear. Light. Unencumbered by anything that is negative. In your hand is the jar, and within the jar lies a small yellow pebble.
You can’t believe it. You just experienced the most awful emotions you’ve been avoiding for most of your adult life, and yet, none of it was as awful as you thought it would be.
You fall to your knees in shock as a realisation hits you: That you’ve wasted precious years living in fear of these very feelings! Sure, they are intense in small bursts, but they aren’t that bad. In some weird way, they are even cathartic. You shake your bent head in wonder.
All the overeating, the masturbation, the video games, the endless tv watching; it was all in avoidance of your emotions. You did an excellent job of not feeling these emotions, but it was also an excellent job in avoiding success. Through the fear of feeling, you played it safe. The fear of feeling fear and shame, for example, has stopped you from building your own business, from going on adventures, from finding love. You stare at the yellow pebble, still in the jar in your hand, trying not to cry at the loss of those wasted years.
‘What would your life be like,’ the old woman asks, patting you on the head gently, ‘if you knew that you could take on any emotion and survive it?’
You straighten as you answer her. ‘I guess I wouldn’t be afraid to try anything. It was only the fear of feeling something painful that stopped me from taking action.’
‘Exactly,’ she says, her brown eyes sparkling. ‘It is not too late, my friend, to feel all that we are designed to feel.’
‘In that case, I suppose I should buy this jar,’ you say, standing and wiping your face with the back of your hand.
‘No need,’ she says. ‘It is yours. You already have the ability to feel, by the way. This jar is merely a holder of the emotions you will process. You must simply allow the emotion to have it’s time within you. Hold it there. Feel it, fully, until it passes. You learnt how to do that today.’
‘But I should give you something! You’ve helped me so much,’ you say. You mean it. This has been incredible.
‘You already have given me something,’ she says, a mysterious smile playing around the corners of her lips. ‘You’ve given me somewhere new to thrive.’
‘Huh?’ You say, confused by her cryptic message.
‘Every time you stop and feel, I am there with you.’
‘Who are you?’ you ask, staring at her in an attempt to understand.
‘I am the Feminine,’ she says. ‘I represent your feminine energy.’
As you stare at her in disbelief, her form changes from old woman to young, yet those sharp brown eyes remain the same. Her voice is youthful and musical now and her face is that of a beautiful young woman.
‘Most people have spent so long being led by their masculine energy that I have been forgotten. It’s a yin and yang concept, if you like, or two sides of the same coin…’
‘Darkness and light?’ you suggest.
‘Yes, that too. I’m peddling my goods to you in this dream because you are in need of them. The feminine energy is powerful, gentle and all-pervasive and it will help you where my brother, the Masculine, has failed you. Instead of the masculine energy of logic, competition and risk-taking, I step in with empathy, creativity and intuition.’
‘You’re right about that. I have been hustling for years and getting nowhere fast,’ you admit. ‘It is probably time for a change in approach.’
She raises one finger warningly. ‘It is time to embrace both sides, not one or the other. Both masculine and feminine energy have a place in your soul. When they are in balance, well, that is when enduring success and satisfaction become possible.’
‘I’m all in! What do I do to get more of you?’ you ask, feeling excited by the prospect and deciding on the spot to have both.
‘You get conscious. You listen to your inner voice closely and you feel what is in your heart. You try to understand the point of view of others. You dive into your creativity. In this way, you will have better intuition, stronger emotional connections and more unique ideas. These will help transform your life where masculine energy has failed you.’
‘Are you sure I can’t just buy a jar full of pebbles? It would be a lot easier.’ You’ve always tried to find the easy way out of things, but at the stern look on her face, you close your mouth and listen.
‘The pebbles will come as you learn to feel. Whether you choose to experience your emotions and collect a jar full of pebbles, well, that’s up to you.’
The shop behind her fades and disappears. The woman disappears, but her voice echoes one more time: ‘That’s up to you.’
You are lying in your bed, staring at the ceiling and trying to remember how you got there. It seemed too vivid to be a mere dream. The mysterious woman may be gone, but her message remains loud and clear.
In the following weeks, you embrace the feminine energy that has always been part of you. It is like wearing rose-tinted glasses everywhere you go, and the results are surprising. You no longer eat when you are not hungry, and you do not overindulge in an effort to avoid an emotion. Instead, you feel each emotion, in all its complex glory, and you realise that you have the capacity to do so. You allow yourself to vibrate with emotions when they appear, and once they have had their moment, they fade away. It is incredible how you are no longer fearful of experiencing them.
When you catch yourself procrastinating, you stop and ask yourself: Why is this happening and what emotion am I avoiding?
You notice that behind your procrastination lies fear, shame, guilt, overwhelm, frustration, depression or anger. They all tend to show up in their own way. Each time, you are ready for them. You experience these emotions as they arise. You face them head-on and you let them have their moment. You dive into them. You learn to revel in them. They always pass by after a minute or so, like waves lapping on the shores of your mind. You like to imagine that a coloured pebble is left behind each time. As you get used to facing emotions in this way, you become more confident about facing the difficult things in life. It leads to moments of beautiful clarity and catharsis.
You become resourceful. You become open to self-love and to the love of others. You go after some big goals because you no longer have any fear of facing the negative emotions that may follow if things don’t go as planned. You reach some of these goals and your life is upgraded in wonderful ways. If you fail in some areas, you allow yourself to feel the pain of loss, disappointment and failure fully, and then you shrug it off and get on with things.
In the years left to you, aligned as you are with your feminine energy (as well as your masculine energy), you finally become the person you wanted to be. You find love, happiness and success like never before. As the shop lady foretold, your entire life has transformed. You even have the jar full of pebbles to prove it.
That’s the end of the story, folks. I will be expanding on this idea of feeling your emotions, so think of this as the introduction to a new concept.