We all have unwanted emotions leftover from past trauma. We shut away those “monsters” and they accumulate in our “emotional closet” until we shed light on them with love and understanding.
Making Friends with the Monsters in Your Emotional Closet
What do you do with the monsters in your emotional closet? Reason with them? Drown them with your substance of choice when they rattle the broom handles? Ignore them? We all have at least some emotional residue from past trauma. Shame, guilt, despair, fear, sadness, anger – sometimes even joy gets stuck in there.
Unpleasant emotions are a normal part of the human experience and part of our healing journey is to come to terms with them. But as children, when we were not shown a healthy way of dealing with intense feelings as they arose – or worse, made to deny and suppress them – our only recourse was to shove them away, letting them grow and multiply in our inner closet. Eventually they begin to leak out in the form of symptoms. The symptoms begin with “stress” and span the gamut from physical to psychological – skin eruptions, neck and shoulder tension, sleep problems, digestion problems, heart problems, anxiety attacks, depression, etc.
There are lots of ways to release emotional backlog. A high-school friend used to iron when she was upset – over and over, the same blouse or tablecloth. A neighbor I knew baked when she was sad or angry and then gave away the goodies. But not everyone is so creatively addicted. However, many of us turn to self-destructive release valves for the emotional tension that builds. Others are so good at stuffing down that they can forestall addressing their emotional buildup until forced to by some illness or trauma.
Fear of our emotions
Most of us have some awareness that we need to breathe more, slow down, rest more, and in various ways take better care of ourselves. Yet we feel constrained to stay in our cycles and don’t make the changes we know would help us. Why? Because we fear the original emotion, and because we fear change.
The anger you felt when your second-grade teacher accused you unfairly, or the sadness you felt when your beloved pet died – felt unbearably huge when you were seven and getting your first tastes of rage and grief. It might feel easier to stay afraid of your rage-aholic dad than face the complex web of his – and your own – wounding. Purposely journeying inward to liberate yourself is hard; it’s the grist of an epic journey we aren’t sure we are strong enough to make. But make it, we must.
We venture near those deep-held emotions when we read books, watch movies, and play video games. They help us practice feeling fear and triumph and disappointment with a slight remove. What is The Hobbit but an allegory about the journey to meet and overcome one’s deepest, darkest inner demons? Aren’t the internal ones worse than the external ones because you can’t outrun them or shoot flaming arrows at them without collateral damage? The adventure is about overcoming fear, relishing triumph and facing challenging emotion. We want the sensual details. We love to feel the excitement and fear and the triumph right along with our heroes as they fight orcs, giant spiders and powerful wizards. And from this, we see that we, too, can face our fears and triumph, better for the journey.
What’s in your emotional closet?
The next step is to open door to your yucky old feelings, the ones you never wanted in the first place. Invite them to sit at my table. If the idea of examining your emotional baggage scares you, that’s your signal that you have work to do. The only way beyond is inward.
What I’ve learned in 40+ years of accompanying people through the turbulence surrounding the eye of their emotional hurricane is that with firm guidance, the journey through the bumpy parts can be quick and relatively painless. At the eye – where the pure emotion sits, intense and liquid – the experience simply is. Tears flow. Anger rips through you, Laughter ripples out – each according to its nature. But the experience of it is not “bad.” It simply is what it is. The fear of the anger or sadness is far more anguishing than the pure experiencing of it. Harry Potter was wise that his biggest fear was fear.
Fear compounds the drama
Honestly, the fear of your anger or sadness or guilt, shame, lack of forgiveness – can be way worse than the feelings themselves. I remember the doctor telling my 3-yr-old daughter that she would be getting an injection. Her fear of needles was so intense, it took what felt like hours of her wailing, running, cowering, screaming, before she was worn out enough that the nurse simply gave her the injection. When she finally got the shot, I looked at her and said, “Was all that drama worth it?” She stopped crying, shrugged her shoulders and said, “But I was afraid. I thought it was going to be worse.” She calmly walked out of the room, crisis over.
The next time she had to meet a needle, she was afraid, so I reminded her that fear of the shot was worse than the shot itself. She took a couple of deep breaths, counted to five, and it was done. She still doesn’t like needles, but she’s aware that she is strong enough to face her fear of them and doesn’t suffer over her suffering.
Dealing with feelings
Dealing with those emotional monsters is far easier in the long run than spending the energy to stuff them down and suffering the symptoms they cause. We’re pretty tough, we humans, but our bodies are in service to us to let us know, “that’s enough! I’m not going to stoically bear up under all this anymore. Here’s some discomfort to let you know there’s a problem. If that doesn’t work, here’s some pain.” If that doesn’t get your attention, your body will up the ante until you do pay attention.
The cancer patients I have worked with express gratitude for their cancer and all it taught them. They found that healing themselves emotionally – opening up the emotional closet and examining what had been festering there – was a necessary part of healing physically. Forgiveness often sits at the heart of their healing – of others, but most of all of themselves.
Though we may not like it, that’s a blessing in disguise. Physical symptoms are the body’s way of communicating that we have issues to address. The body simply raises the ante until we pay attention. We call early signs of accumulated negative energy “stress” and as it builds it becomes illness or dis-ease. Most of us have some awareness that we need to take better care of ourselves – breathe, rest and exercise more; perhaps eat less. But we resist healing change because that would bring us into our bodies – where our child-like parts still fear that scary emotions are waiting to pounce!
Free the monsters!
We can liberate and transform those traumatic feelings by bringing love and awareness to them. With a hand to hold and a good flashlight we see that the sadness, anger and shame in the closet that scared us so badly when we were little are everyday stuff, badly lit. So too with our emotions. Just get to them before the symptoms take over.
Feelings that were overwhelming as a kid can be quick and relatively painless to deal with now – with help. Whether we face our buried emotions in the bathtub, with a therapist, or with a group, we need someone or something to hold safe space us to feel. The inner 6-year-old who was overwhelmed by a rageaholic dad can help us unravel the complex web of his dad’s– and his own – wounding. We can shine the light for our little one and together we can face a bigger truth: Dad was just another wounded adult, behaving from that wound.
The experience of pure emotion simply IS. Tears flow; anger rips through; laughter ripples out – each according to its nature. But the experience of it is not “bad.” There is no judgment. It simply is what it is. With practice over time, we learn we can feel our emotions as they arise spontaneously, and not die. We then become curious to see what else we feel. With that light, the monsters transform into harmless broomsticks, a broken chair and a leaky football. We can free our emotional monsters with a loving hand to hold and beam of loving insight.
Copyright 2014, By Denise LaBarre Thank you for quoting and citing respectfully.
Learn more about how to shine light into your emotional closet. Read Issues in Your Tissues: Heal Body and Emotion from the Inside Out. Get your copy here.