In a recent New York Times opinion column, Tim Kreider wrote about the “Busy Trap.” (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/30/the-busy-trap/?src=me&ref=general) He described this as a constant self-created rat race of being “too busy” for much of what makes life enjoyable, or human. One of his observations is that we often stay busy in order not to feel what we feel. Boredom. Loneliness. Anger. Frustration.
I think he makes a lot of great points – and the one about not wanting to feel what we feel seems particularly accurate. I see this a lot in my clients who live with chronic illness, or with a loved one who is ill. There are so many complicated feelings. Many of them seem like they would be too much for us if we acknowledged them, or let them out.
In her memoir, Why be Happy When You Could Be Normal, Jeanette Winterson writes of this.
“…I know our feelings can be so unbearable that we employ ingenious strategies – unconscious strategies – to keep those feelings away. We do a feeling-swap, where we avoid feeling sad or lonely or afraid or inadequate, and feel angry instead. It can work the other way, too – sometimes you need to feel angry, not inadequate; sometimes you need to feel love and acceptance, and not the tragic drama of your life.
It takes courage to feel the feeling – and not trade it on the feeling exchange, or even transfer it altogether to another person. ..I understood that feelings were difficult for me although I was overwhelmed by them..” (p. 170)
Ahh, the feeling exchange. That is a way many of us cope with our feeling life. I also know those who practice “no feelings allowed” They translate their feelings into thoughts and refuse to learn the language or become curious about what lies beneath the logical, rational assessments of their life.
But there is not an experience, a physical sensation, or a thought that comes without a feeling attached or embedded in it. Feelings are the currency of life, much as our blood carries everything that sustains us through our bodies. We lose track of this language with its pain and exquisite joy at our peril.
Living with chronic illness means a set of even more intense feelings. Anxiety. Worry. Physical pain. Fear of pain. Anger. Despair. So many feelings crowd the day and night. It may seem safer – and easier – to numb ourselves. Be very very busy. Gloss over what is going in our hearts and nervous systems. Practice a “feeling exchange” where we don’t allow ourselves to know the truth. It is tempting to believe that this state of numbness or not knowing is better than feeling emotional distress.
Yet, over time, the practice of not feeling takes a more insidious toll. We may find our selves isolated, depressed, less able to be in meaningful relationships, and cut off from the energy and joy of our lives. Living without our feelings makes the gift of our life a shallow and sterile existence.
How do we remedy this? As Winterson writes, it takes courage. You are already calling on courage every day. I know what warriors you are to live with your illness. This is the next step, giving you a resource and support that you may not realize exists for you. Our feelings are guides and lifeblood.
The work is opening the door slowly and gently to invite the feelings in and allow them to move through. This can take practice. The question, “what am I feeling?” asked with kindness and curiosity is a good place to start. If you feel this is too difficult, ask for help. There are friends, therapists, religious leaders, self-help books available to help you learn the language.
Your rich and full life is waiting for you to dive in.