I believe in feelings. Both of my parents lost their mothers in their early teens, one to cancer and another in a car accident. Because their families taught them to carry on stoically in the face of tragic loss, they lived with a load of unexpressed grief locked up inside. Like many other people of their generation, they coped by staying busy, wearing a cheerful mask, and numbing themselves with television, food and alcohol. Because they were disconnected from their own deep emotional truth, I grew up disconnected from mine. Living without being in touch with my own feelings left me a stranger to myself.
Everything looked good on the outside: At the end of high school, I was speaker for the class, captain of the drill team, well-liked. But the inside didn’t match the outside. At our graduation dinner, as my friends cried and hugged each other, I watched with a curious sense of detachment. Intellectually, I knew this was a time to say goodbye and let go, but I didn’t have any feelings to go with that thought. I was emotionally disabled. Not surprisingly, none of those friendships lasted past high school.
When I argued with my college boyfriend, I didn’t know that I felt angry or hurt until days later. Lacking the accurate internal guidance of feelings, I couldn’t tell the difference between a friend and an enemy and sometimes confused the two. I pushed away good people who wanted to love me, which left me very lonely. Internal conflict raged, since the unexpressed feelings inside wanted out, while my childhood training directed me to hold them all in.
Healing came gradually, starting with a college friend who empathized with my relationship problems and suggested I attend a support group. Over the years, working with counselors, yoga and meditation, I have since discovered that feelings are a package deal. Joy, happiness, contentment—they’re all linked up with sadness, anger, fear, and grief. You don’t get one without the other.
As I began learning how to feel, and then how to express my feelings constructively, I also began waking up to life. Sure, it hurts to experience anger or grief, but it beats starting each day with a gray cloud of numbness hovering over your head. The payoff comes in moments of simple happiness like holding my sweetheart’s hand. I can develop lasting relationships because they are rooted in genuine feelings. I have more confidence because I know myself better. For me, these are priceless gifts.
Feelings are sometimes scorned, but I believe they are an essential element of my internal guidance system. I know from experience that when I lose touch with them, I am at risk of harming myself and others. Feelings help me live with more inner tranquility, and less outward strife. They teach me how to give and receive love. I believe that learning how to feel is my own small contribution to world peace.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.