This time last year my aunt died. Two years ago my nan died. It feels strange to write, but these were the first deaths I grieved in a way that feels… healthy.
My uncle died after an unexpected and brutal fight with cancer when I was 13. My girlfriend’s mum died, also from cancer, when I was 17. Across the years, all my grandparents have passed on, plus another uncle. And that’s only family members.
After my uncle’s death, I saw the pain in the eyes of my mum, my dad, my sister and the rest of the family. I wanted to be strong for them, I believed strength was hiding sadness, and my sadness was an unnecessary addition to the collective pain.
When my parents returned home from hospital after my uncle died, we embraced, and I didn’t cry, not fully, not in front of them. I excused myself, ran upstairs, and cried into my pillow, cushioning my tears.
Before my nan died, I never grieved fully. I unconsciously invalidated my grief. I created a chasm between my feelings and my intellect, one created in childhood and expanded each time I ignored or resisted a wave of emotion. I refused to feel.
The Courtroom And The Grief Police
“Hi, this is the Grief Police. We’ve run the numbers and, we’re sorry to say, you’re not allowed to feel what you’re feeling right now.”My Mind
Picture a courtroom with my feelings on trial. In this court, there’s an unforgiving judge who replaces innocent until proven guilty with suppression until proven worthy.
My teenage mind believed I couldn’t grieve my uncle as much as my cousins or my auntie. The magnitude of what I felt was hard to comprehend when my girlfriend’s mum died. But the court decided I had no right to feel. How dare I grieve when I’m witnessing her daughter’s pain, up close, first hand, so raw, so real, so valid?
A Rude Awakening
The distance between thinking and feeling led to a rude awakening. A friend died in a motorcycle accident. I’d experienced loss but this was sudden, untimely, tragic. It was a life-defining moment. I was 21 and in my first year of university. I was depressed and anxious and mostly hiding it.
The shock. Disbelief. Despair. Denial. The courtroom was in overdrive, my head filled with a constant assessment of the evidence, arguments for and against, judgements and evaluations and mockery. In this moment of pure grief, my heart needed attention, but my mind was preoccupied.
This was the case of the century. How close were we? Do I have the right to feel? What about his wife, his children? Do I have to prove how close we were to people that don’t know? Do I downplay what I feel? Will people think I’m unreasonable? Is what I’m feeling an overreaction?
The tension was too great. The chasm became an abyss, the volcano of suppression erupted, and the lava-like contents burst through the surface of my conscious mind. I was confronted with all of it, and all of it became reality, as I lost my grip, of myself, of the world around me.
Giving Permission To Feel
The fragmentation of these parts of myself was a powerful lesson. I had to re-build, re-integrate and confront. I had to recover lost parts of myself, and rebuild trust in feeling. Most importantly, I had to sit down with the judge, and sternly tell him to take an early retirement.
Giving yourself permission to feel requires patience, compassion, emotional intelligence, and courage. We live in an age where we do all we can to avoid suffering, and it’s taken time to develop the skill. The following six steps are a loose structure to help you feel your feelings and process your emotions:
Step One: Stop
There are endless options to avoid confronting feelings with a plethora of distractions at our fingertips. Most of us develop mechanisms for when emotions are present. We opt for food, entertainment, work, escapism, physical exercise. These have their place. But when giving permission, the first step is to pause, breathe, and be present.
Step Two: Label The Feeling
“As I often tell my students, the two most important phrases in therapy, as in yoga, are ‘Notice that’ and ‘What happens next?’ Once you start approaching your body with curiosity rather than with fear, everything shifts.”Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score.
Begin by labelling the emotion. You might be surprised to feel unsure what you actually feel! But that’s okay. Give it your best attempt without judging it or questioning why that emotion is present, be as curious as possible.
Humans are incredibly complex emotional beings. We’re able to experience multiple emotions at a time, and even feel emotions towards emotions. For example, when I was suppressing grief, any wave of sadness created a feeling of anxiety.
Insight around different emotions builds with practice and awareness. You learn how you respond in different situations. I know if I’m irritable or bitter or frustrated or feel like the whole world is against me, there’s likely sadness below the surface.
Step Three: Stop Thinking The Feeling
There is a time and a place to engage the rational mind and work through issues. But a common mechanism is to think our feelings. Rather than being present to the feeling, nurturing it, or soothing it, the energy is transmuted into the intellect. I often ruminate or problem-solve when I refuse to feel.
When emotions are present, the best thing to do is to lean into them. It’s amazing how the mind quietens almost immediately after feeling an emotion fully. It’s as if the energy is misplaced, and once released, the mental loops stop.
Step Four: Spot The Storyline
The major cause of suppression is convincing ourselves we’re not supposed to feel them. A lot of these mechanisms stretch back to childhood. We may have developed ways to hide our true feelings in an attempt to be loved, or learned that certain emotions, such as anger, are wrong.
This gives insight into the depth of work involved. It’s not an easy process, and it takes time. But by spotting the storyline, you gain insight into how your mind minimises your emotions. For example, if you feel anxious about something seemingly small, you might notice a storyline that you’re silly, or oversensitive.
Step Five: Draft A New Storyline
When I notice an unhelpful storyline, I create a new draft. I do this through journaling or in a conversation with a loved one. The purpose of this storyline is to validate. It can help to picture your inner-child when you do this. How would you talk to the younger version of you, if they were experiencing what you were experiencing? How would you reassure them it’s okay to feel?
Step Six: Create Space To Feel
“Expansion means making room for our feelings. If we give unpleasant feelings enough space, they no longer stretch us or strain us.”Russ Harris, The Happiness Trap
The word space reflects a physical, emotional and spiritual component to this step. You need to set aside time to consciously work through emotions — add it to your calendar if you have to! Create a comfortable, nurturing environment. Light incense. Play relaxing music.
Emotional space comes from awareness. Awareness is pure consciousness, the container of all thoughts, feelings, and emotions. One of the most life-changing practices is expanding awareness so that emotions have more “room” to live and breathe.
If you’ve not felt emotions over a long period of time, taking time to be present to them can feel overwhelming. A mindset of compassion, curiosity and acceptance is needed. Can you view your emotions as a child, in need of support? Can you be strong and present to all sensations as they flow through you?
“The wound is where the light enters you.”Rumi
I’ve learned the majority of my suffering is resistance towards suffering. Learning to feel lets go of resistance and creates space for emotions. It removes barriers to the heart. An open heart is receptive to life’s abundance; the joy, the awe, the peace, the compassion, the love.
What about the judge and the courtroom? The judge is relaxed now he’s taken up golf and sipping margaritas in the sun. He respects my space and I know when he’s around. I’ve even given him a role in my psyche.
He’s allowed to explore the evidence when the time is right. He tells me when I’m catastrophizing, assuming worst case scenarios, or getting stuck in my emotions rather than witnessing them. He likes to remind when fear is False Evidence Appearing Real.
I enjoy those reminders. I didn’t know it, but in his own way, he taught me courage. Once I’d developed courage, I was brave enough to feel. Once I started to feel, then the light entered.