Emotional Repression Killed Someone Close to Me.
It almost killed me too.
“Discomfort is the price of admission to have a meaningful life.” ~ Susan David, PhD, Ted Talk
I, like you, have been fighting my negative emotions all of my life.
Somewhere along the mucky maze of societal conditioning and dysfunctional family patterns, I started to doubt most of my feelings, especially the so-called bad ones.
My self-doubt led me down the bleak road of emotional repression. However, as I repressed what I deemed the icky, I also began to repress what I deemed good. For my emotional brain, it became too challenging to veer off the emotionless road of repression into the colorful field of expression. It was easier to just treat all of my emotions with the same doubt and mistrust. Maybe you’ve been there too?
The problem with repression is that it eventually backfires.
As a therapist, yoga teacher, trained reflexologist, and former Reiki teacher, I know from firsthand experience that unprocessed feelings burrow themselves in our bodies. Unfelt emotion can manifest as chronic physical or mental illness — or perhaps a combination of both.
I have personal evidence that your unprocessed issues get stored in your tissues.
My years of emotional repression caught up with me when I experienced my second major loss: the death of my grandmother. My grandmother was everything my mother wasn’t. Her home was my safe haven from a chaotic, abusive household. But she was also one of my unconscious teachers in the subtle art of not feeling your feelings.
My grandfather’s death five years prior broke her heart. I felt it. I started to spend more time with her, just because I knew my presence acted as a healing salve to the pangs of grief that started to take a toll on her body.
She started to get fat, even though she wasn’t eating much. Her sudden, intense weight gain boggled the doctors for a year. Yet, I knew why. She was sad. Very, very sad.
When it was too late, they found a massive tumor in her adrenal gland; she had Stage 4 cancer. By the time they found the tumor, the cancer had spread throughout her body. She was dying. I consciously knew it, but my psyche was in denial. I did what my grandmother taught me to do — repress the truth. My grandfather died a long, slow death from emphysema. For 10 years I saw my grandmother wear the armor of denial. Her armor seemed to work well for her — until it didn’t.
In my state of denial, I brought her healing stones and laid them on her while we watched movies in her hospice room. She was chipper when I was there, which convinced me she wasn’t that sick. We were playing the “stuffing your feelings” game together — and it seemed to work until it didn’t.
It stopped working for me at the funeral when I went into the bathroom and began to sob uncontrollably — the kind of sob that comes from the basement of the self.
My foundation was cracked. My mother came in and told me to stop; she put a padlock on the basement door and swallowed the key. I went back into the church and I was silent. I was silent for a long time after that. Too long.
The “dis-ease” that repression causes is insidious.
It may start out as a headache or fatigue, or perhaps a subtle melancholy. But, like a rapidly growing cancer, it spreads fast and furious when it’s ignored.
I ignored the melancholy when it hit me on my way back to college. I was in an intense semester — taking junior and senior-level classes as a sophomore because I liked the challenge. “I‘m not going to let grief beat me down” was my mantra as I studied and researched, determined to get As in every course. And I did. I was academically successful but emotionally beaten down.
Somehow, I rose above that emotional fatigue by overworking and obsessive planning. When my grandmother’s inheritance came through, I made plans to spend a semester in Edinburgh, Scotland. My grandmother had always promised to take my sister, cousin, and me to the UK, her favorite place to travel.
Instead of feeling connected to my grandmother in the land of my ancestors, I felt extremely alone. The culture shock and isolation many study-abroad students experience ripped open the basement that I had shoved my grief and rage in. I wasn’t strong enough to feel the rage, so instead, I got depressed. I couldn’t fight it anymore. I was weak. I was out of touch with my family and unable to talk about my struggles with the few friends that I’d made in Scotland. It took a diagnosis of Major Depression, a suicide attempt, and years of inner work to begin to understand that my emotions — all of them — are valuable and valid.
Thankfully, I didn’t die and I was able to climb out of the dark basement of my unprocessed feelings with the help of some excellent mental health clinicians, adult mentors, and healthy friendships. But my journey wasn’t easy. It wasn’t linear either. Most of the time, healing isn’t a straight and narrow path. Rather, it’s like a labyrinth that feels as if it will never end. I hit many dead ends and felt like I made many wrong turns along the way. And two decades later, the journey continues. My emotions still overwhelm me at times — but the tools I’ve gained along to way to process them (yoga, nature walks, writing, loving on my daughter and my cat) are my saving grace.
I’ve learned that this being human stuff is grueling at times. Some of my deepest lows have led to my most heavenly highs (my major depression period-inspired my journey as a therapist). Some of the most chaotic, insane, and abusive experiences have led to me finding my bliss (helping others in crisis feeds my spirit something fierce). The depths of my emotions, while scary at times, have led to some of the most meaningful, profound relationships (being highly sensitive and empathic has magnetically drawn me to like-hearted souls).
Being human is as magical as it is painful.
Being human is as chaotic as it is blissful.
Being human, with a logical thinking brain and deeply feeling heart, is as scary as it is profound.
Frustrating as it is, there is no rule book for feeling your emotions, and there is a good reason for that.
We are all unique. DNA makes us all snowflakes — intricate and complicated. We are so individually, biochemically unique that there is no one-size-fits-all method for processing your feelings — no matter what some self-help “gurus” may proclaim.
The key that my mom swallowed all those years ago in the church bathroom wasn’t real at all. But I had to learn that for myself. She told me, as her mother told her, that feelings weren’t to be trusted, and I believed her. After many moments and hours and years of getting comfortably uncomfortable with my discomfort, I finally realized the key was a mirage.
Perhaps we have all given someone else permission to tell us what we can and can’t feel.
To begin the process of feeling it all again, we don’t need their permission. In fact, we don’t need them at all. What we need is the inner courage to trust what is arising and allow it to flow through. We need to become our own ally — and when we do, we realize the keys and the locks and the shoulds and the shouldn'ts begin to dissolve.
In the dissolution of what we thought we were, we find what we truly are: uncomfortable and messy. Vulnerable and raw. We learn to love that dark, shadowy basement, and realize without it, we wouldn’t be fully human. And being fully human, mess and all is what it’s all about.
Originally published on Elephant Journal as, When our whole Foundation is Cracked & Broken — but we’re Determined not to Feel It.
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