Navigating the Seas of Our Emotional Lives

The path to peace is through our painful emotions, not away from them.

Casey Affleck in Kenneth Lonergan’s MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. Photo credit: Claire Folger, Courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions

Here “Life Gets Better Now” podcast hosts Mary Hayes Grieco and Erin Warhol explore how recognizing, processing and healing emotions is an important part of caring for your health and well-being.

Erin: I loved the beautiful and heart-wrenching film “Manchester By the Sea,” starring Casey Affleck, a role for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. And I was intrigued by something he said to Terry Gross while being interviewed on her Fresh Air radio show, about this role.

Of his character, Affleck said: “…it’s been said to me before that he’s a man of few words, that he’s not very expressive, that he doesn’t say much, stuff like that. And it’s been said that he’s sort of shut down or doesn’t feel anything, which is another reaction that I was surprised by it because I felt like the character was really boiling over with strong feelings in every scene.”

Mary: Yes, that was one of the most emotional movies I’ve seen in a long time. For me, as a counselor, it was somewhat excruciating for me to watch a story about untreated trauma and loss in which the character dealt with his unfortunate story in such dysfunctional ways, like drinking too much, seeking isolation, and exploding with rages that hurt him and others. So unnecessary! You ache for him and want to grab him by the collar and insist that he frickin’ deal with this. But his shame was too great, and it really held him back from living a good life. I really wanted him to receive all the compassion that surrounded him and get on with healing. Even the worst stories can be healed, if one brings themselves to it.

Erin: What struck me about that, was how emotions are really such a mystery to many of us. We may be swamped by them, especially if they are deep, overwhelming, and painful. But we sometimes think people don’t feel anything when in fact, they do: they feel a ton, but have no idea how to handle it, let alone how to express it.

Mary: Yes, it could be said that “Emotional Literacy” is one of our current “frontiers” in understanding how to manage our lives expertly, and to know how our story has shaped us. We need to learn how to recognize our emotions and handle them in a healthy way. And most of us have some version of a bad story in the past that is coloring everything in the present, preventing us from living as who we mean to be and remove the obstacle that is hindering us from traveling forward to become our best.

In a most basic way of understanding our full humanity, we can say that emotions add color, and texture, and story- the pleasant and unpleasant drama in our lives. They add the interesting stuff in the movie — in every movie! We really care about the emotional truths going on in there. Where would literature and storytelling be without that emotional drama?

Erin: Some people seem to be naturally heavy with emotion and others appear to be lighter. Where do these emotions come from?

Mary: Some of our strongest, problematic emotions come to us from “before.” They come from our parents, and our grandparents, and our racial and ethnic roots. Because in the course of a lifetime, every person, and every people, every race, develops a body of experience, our “emotional body,” that we are all kind of vibe-ing to, consciously or unconsciously. Some of this is part of our strength, and some of it holds us back, because certain things “trigger” a cloud of negative emotions like shame, fear, powerlessness, and despair. Eckhart Tolle has a term for this — he calls it “the pain body.”

Erin: Clearly some people are more comfortable with their emotions, feeling them and expressing them. But I think a lot of people are really confused about them, and especially what to do with the emotions we don’t like. I can think of lots of unhealthy ways to handle yucky emotions: eating them, drinking them… or running away from them. In the case of Casey Affleck’s character, there can be destructive outbursts from time to time. Are there other consequences you can think of if a person just ignores or does not tend to their emotional pain?

Mary: Yes! If we aren’t aware of our emotions, and if there are strong emotions that are asking to be dealt with and we don’t, that can create disease, in the physical body. There are so many stress-related physical conditions that have roots in chronic, unconscious emotional pain: headaches, ulcers, back problems, and cancer. Our emotions also impact our mental body and can keep a negative outlook in place, or a negative belief about self and life.

Erin: And that is “the pain body,” right?

Mary: Yes, Tolle says that we all walk around with this invisible, but palpable and important body of old energy called “the pain body.” It is a backlog of old energy that we carry along with us, from our unhealed and unintegrated experiences. And that pain body develops a life of its own — it wants to live, and to persist, and to stay alive. Even if it’s a foggy collection of unconscious miseries, it wants to stay alive and live the experience of misery again. And it feeds on triggers, things in our present life that trigger it and creates more of that pain, because it’s familiar. It’s a familiar old friend, so to speak.

Erin: What does a healthy person do?

Mary: Becoming emotionally literate, and masterful in your life path, includes learning to handle our feelings appropriately, in the present life situations. In daily life, it’s knowing how to feel, and when to express, contain, share, and release our feelings with others, and how to detach from excessive sensitivity and emotional “triggers” that are based on things in the past. Recognizing the feeling is the first step, followed by a choice of how to process it, and then doing so, with some self-discipline. And from time to time, we have to dig into our personal past or our collective past, to heal the pain body. Often, people have no idea they have a bunch of feelings they are carrying around, that are not necessary in today’s reality. In the movie, “Manchester by the Sea,” the lead character was a case study in how to remain stuck in the effects of tragedy, instead of consciously healing it, and opening up to life again. Yet, there were some hints by the end that healing was slowly coming, anyway. Thank God!

Erin: Right. There is a lot of imagery in the film, “Manchester By the Sea,” with ice and snow and even some frozen chicken, in one scene. And a slow thaw, as spring comes. I think a lot of people have “frozen emotions,” and the movie was portraying this symbolically. I’ve heard you say before, that we have to “thaw out” some of our emotions.

Mary: Yes. If we are going around numbly or acting in some overly cheerful or overly glum persona all the time, we have probably got some “frozen emotions.” We act like we’re fine, but those feelings are seeping out in problematic behaviors or in health problems.

In becoming emotionally literate and masterful, we need to be able to be with all of our stories, to go through the processing of them, not avoiding the feelings. We need to come to peace with our stories and turn all of our former wounds into our current wisdom. This is why people seek therapy and healing through the forgiveness work that I use, which is a holistic method.

Erin: Tell me more about the connection between forgiveness and healing emotional pain.

Mary: In the old understanding of forgiveness, people tried to “forgive and forget,” and reconcile with other people who hurt them, but in the new understanding, forgiveness is the healing of emotional pain, and it’s done by you, for you, whether or not it is ever possible to reconcile. With real forgiveness, we have to go through feeling the pain first, before we can let it go by doing the other steps, which include the mind, our boundaries, and our spirit.

I love seeing the transformation of forgiveness because what forgiveness actually does is to drain the powerful problematic energy from your “pain body;” Chunk by chunk, your pain body gets smaller. Because everything that you forgive, is permanently digested, it’s permanently done. And you become new about that thing. And the next time that same trigger comes along, you are not reactive, because that piece of pain has been addressed and dissolved and healed. The more forgiveness work you do, the less reactive you become. You still have feelings, and preferences, but you don’t have that immediate response from stuff that has been latent, and carried along in your pain body.

Erin: What is the main benefit of being more emotionally aware and emotionally articulate?

Mary: Sometimes we need to share with people and receive compassion for our situation, or mutual understanding and cooperation so that we are more in harmony. But we don’t need to share everything. As you learn emotional literacy and emotional mastery, you will find that you have more soulful energy in your body. It’s calm and joyful, and ready to create the new.