“Every emotion has a purpose, and every emotion is important.
You can’t leave any emotions out if you want your life to work.”
Karla McLaren, emotions researcher and author
Relief. Amazement. Sadness. Anger. These were just some of the emotions I felt when I realized the migraines and neck pain I’d had for years were caused by neuroplastic pain. I needed to be able to feel all this and more in order to begin healing.
As Kristin Neff says in her book Self-Compassion, “We can’t heal what we can’t feel.”
I closed the valve to my deepest feelings for many years. I believed I was too sensitive. I bought into the cultural norm that says the mind is superior to the heart. My young self experienced my deeply felt emotions as painful and isolating and I became a stranger to my own emotional life. I had trouble making decisions because I wasn’t accessing the valuable information inherent in emotions, and I looked to other people to show me the way more often than is comfortable to admit.
Emotions are energy and energy wants to move! We feel joy and we laugh or dance or let out a whoop! We feel grief and the tears come. We feel anger and recognize that a boundary needs to be set. We feel lonely and we reach out to a friend, or sit quietly with our inner child and let her know we’re here for her. When we allow our emotions to exist without judgement they move freely.
It’s when we label them positive or negative, try to control or ignore, that they become a problem.
Dr. John Sarno identified repressed emotions, namely rage, as the primary cause of chronic pain. We now know there’s more to it than that, but repressed emotions are certainly a contributing factor in a myriad of physical and mental health conditions: migraines, muscle tension, fatigue and anxiety, to name a few.
Of course, it’s up to us to discern whether or not it’s wise to express what we’re feeling in the moment. Sometimes, the brain will shut down emotions as a way of keeping us safe in the face of danger. If the stressful situation is prolonged, or we never get a chance to adequately process the dangerous event, then the nervous system stays in a dysregulated state. What helped us cope in a particular situation or an especially stressful time can become an automatic response to life that is no longer helpful. Sometimes all that is needed for this pattern to shift is for us to bring it to consciousness. Other times, more work needs to be done in order for the nervous system to return to a state of regulation and safety. From there, we’re better able to live in the flow of ‘perpetual creative response’ to the present moment, rather than reacting to an old wound again and again.
My unexpressed emotional energy was, quite literally, a pain in the neck! The pain the brain was creating was not due to any physical injury, but to my tender emotions not finding a safe haven.
I’ve been exploring what it means to be there for myself. To, as I say on the homepage of my website, ‘come home’ to myself. To take my own hand and say, “There, there, honey, I’ve got you.” Meeting my pain with compassion gives me a felt sense of inner trust and awareness that makes it harder to turn my back on myself. I have a deeper understanding of what it means to be human: beautifully imperfect, sometimes needy, and wanting to be seen for who we are.
Migraines still threaten sometimes. This week I woke up with the telltale beginnings and was baffled by what was going on. I tuned into the sensations and asked them why they were there. I realized that my subconscious self needed reassurance that even though we’re dealing with covid in our home and I was having tech difficulties that made it difficult for me to work, I was not in any real danger. I spent some time gently letting it know I was ok and could handle the challenges in front of me, and that I was going to move on with the things I wanted to do for the day. My subconscious got the message, and the sensations soon subsided.
If tending to your emotional needs is challenging for you…if you find you try to please people by staying on the cheery side of things…if other people’s emotions make you uncomfortable…if you don’t even know what you’re feeling most of the time…you’re not alone. When we’ve spent most of our lives tucking our emotions out of sight it might take some coaxing for them to trust it’s now safe to come out.
Try getting curious. If it feels safe for you to do so, sit quietly, close your eyes and gently ask yourself, “What am I feeling emotionally in this moment?” And then, “What am I feeling in my body?” Can you feel the emotional sensation linked with the physical sensation? If something comes, lightly acknowledge it. If it doesn’t, that’s ok too. You’re giving yourself a taste of what it feels like to pay attention, to be present to yourself in this moment. Just let yourself be. There’s nothing else to do right now.