The Next Knock at My Door

You’ve probably heard people say your feelings can’t kill you. They’re just feelings, after all.  But I’m here to tell you they can.

Recently, I sat at my dining room table with a dear friend who is a successful, career-oriented woman. She’s also dangerously overweight. “How can such a smart person not be able to figure this out?” she asked me, tears streaming.

My friend admits she uses food to numb unwanted feelings of guilt, sadness, and anger. “Ice cream got me through my divorce,” she says.

Ice cream, cocaine, sex, booze—I completely get it.

The biggest problem with addictions is that they work. For a while, whatever it was you didn’t want to feel, you feel less or not at all. Sooner than you dreamed possible, you’re hooked. What began as a handy escape escalates into a destructive addiction that could someday take your life.

When a person who has been numb for years finally seeks help, the return of emotions can come as quite a shock. In recovery, we sometimes say with a wink to newcomers, “Don’t worry, you’ll feel better soon.” But what we mean is you’ll feel everything better soon—including pain, resentment, anger, boredom, sadness, guilt…

No wonder learning how to feel our feelings is such an important part of recovery (and a good way to help prevent addictions, too).

I don’t know about you, but when painful feelings knock at my door, I tend to respond in one of two ways. One is to fling the door open wide and let my feelings barge in, create chaos, stomp all over me—and eventually, everyone else, too.

The other response is to shove a piano in front of the door, suppressing what I don’t want to feel in hopes it will go away. If it does, I usually find myself depressed. I think that’s because when I refuse to feel sad, I lose the ability to feel happy, too.

Lately, I’ve been trying to practice a middle way, a more intentional approach. It goes something like this: When negative feelings knock, I open the door and stick my head out. “Ah, I see you there,” I say. “I feel you.”

Sometimes, I invite them to stay for a while. I sit down in my favorite chair. I become very still. I might light a candle or pray. I notice what is happening in my body and heart. I give my feelings my full attention. I try not to judge them as “good” or “bad,” “wrong” or “right.”

Instead, I ask, “Why is guilt, anger, or pain visiting me today? What does it want to teach me?” If I feel a need to express strong emotions, I do—even if it means a private mini-tantrum.

And guess what happens next? My feelings don’t hurt nearly as much as I feared they would. You may have heard it said, what you resist—persists. That’s definitely true with feelings—and so is its opposite. As I surrender to hurtful or scary emotions, the monster loses some of its teeth.

I can respond instead of just react. 

I don’t have to eat or drink or do anything to escape or get numb.

I get to experience every second of my awful, wonderful life in all its aching glory.

And who knows? The next knock at my door might be joy.

P.S. After Dave read what I was trying to say here, he pointed me to a poem by the Persian poet, Rumi. I think it’s beautiful and true. You can find it here.

Comments

  1. I never thought about this, the way feelings are described in this blog. I suffered from depression on & off for about 7 years, it was the worst time of my life. But reading these comments made me think of one of the reasons this happened to me. I was a very hot tempered Irish lady and I held back and kept inside if I wanted to get angry, or tell someone off. My daughter, husband and three kids moved in with my husband & me in Oct. 2005 and by Aug. 2006 I was dealing with deep depression. My job was very stressful and there was stress at home with 7 people in one house. I felt like I had no privacy and when things happened, or got broken, anything like that, I just held it in and said to myself, it is only things!!!, and they can be replaced.
    But by holding everything in, I also was unable to feel happiness. I eventually had no interest in anything and could hardly get out of bed! I had many other health problems, unable to sleep, felt angry when my house was a mess, anything could set me off and I still held it all in! On May 13, 2013 I went to see my doctor, I felt something was wrong. I would walk in another room and felt like I had just ran up the cellar stairs. Come to find out, I had multiple Pulmonary Embolisms (blood clots) in my lungs. They kept telling me in the 6 days I was in the hospital, you are lucky to be alive! God had used these 6 days to set me free from the depression I suffered with for 7 years. Several things come to mind: 7 is God’s number of completion, not that He put this on me, but He was able to use this to open my eyes to the good things in my life! I really used these 6 days to get closer to God! I finally was so free, it felt wonderful! I asked God, “why do I feel so different?” “Why do I feel so free?” God reminded me in my spirit about the scripture in James 4:7 Submit youselves therefore to God, resist the devil and he will flee! KJV
    Needless to say, my life has not been as wonderful in many years and the funny thing is, we are all together still in the same house and I am no longer holding everything in!!! Please remember this, if you hold things in long enough, you could snap! The devil really likes it when you snap, then you are easy prey for him to eat your lunch!!

  2. lindasclare says:

    I saw this great comment: “Anger is a horrible sponsor. You try to talk to it but it just yells at you and tries to light you on fire.” If depression is anger turned inward, then it stands to reason that our drugs of choice fuel and yet never satisfy that anger. That’s why all the great bad guys of literature were so pathetic. It’s harder and way more complicated to figure out what is making you feel so pissed off and then do something about it. Easier to stay mad and eat, drink, shoot, snort, ingest your way through life. Then you don’t have to cry–but you also can’t laugh. Dangerous stuff, this. ~Linda

  3. Rebecca Sokol says:

    So many thoughts racing through my mind after reading this post. After the tragic death of my love, a friend gave me the book Anam Cara by John O’donohue, and in it he refers to grief as a cloak that is put on us, it is heavy and foreign but we must wear it for a time. This image was so helpful to me, because I did feel at times that the sadness and despair were too heavy for me to carry, my shoulders caving in to protect my already broken heart. One day this cloak did not feel so heavy and dark. I began to visually put it on during dark days and hang out in it. over many months it became familiar to me and even began to feel like a safe place for me to go, but I began to take it off, hang it up, feel real joy again which has shocked me. Not that there wasn’t so much to live for and be grateful for, but when the intensity of feeling passes that you never imagined would, life comes in like never before. This is Grace upon Grace, His unending care for us. Sometimes I even like to put my grief cloak on for a while, to remember and honor what was. It is now a part of who I am, and it looks good on me.

  4. eugeniabelle says:

    “The biggest problem with addictions is that they work. For a while, whatever it was you didn’t want to feel, you feel less or not at all. ”

    In Al-anon we remind ourselves that “feelings are not facts”. They ARE real. But just because I “feel bad” doesn’t mean I am bad. Just because I feel sorrow does not mean I will forever be sorrow filled. I can be outraged but that anger does not mean I must act on the rage in revenge.

    The other thing we talk about is “Move a muscle, change a thought”.

    We have wonderful bodies with endo-morphins and serotonin that we can manipulate in many ways. One easy path to changed feelings of course is the one that we have been using in our addictions. It has been very efficient until it started to kill us or destroy our relationships.

    So now we gotta figure out how to wait the feeling out or to shift it’s power over us.
    -good sleep
    -exercise
    -good diet
    -prayer and meditation
    are all essential.

    But in a pinch a good scream or tantrum does the trick. Or a sobbing followed by a nap.
    Babies are very wise. ChiChi, hugs and fits are how they do it.
    Sometimes I get so embarrassed when my eyes well up. But now I give my self a moment to realize where they come from and I learn new things about what I have been being very brave about.

    Thanks

  5. Wonderful post, Heather. Thank you so much for sharing!

  6. Thanks for your words. Bless you for using your gift.

    Jesus said “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted”. He understands that we will have negative emotions to process.

    “There is a Redeemer, Jesus Christ our Lord………..”

  7. rebeccaqualls says:

    “I think that’s because when I refuse to feel sad, I lose the ability to feel happy, too.” I can so relate to that. Beautifully said!

  8. Thanks Heather. I printed out your words and the poem. I like your approach, said the obese girl!

  9. Jeanette says:

    I related to this in a deep way, Heather. I spent years either allowing my emotions to mow me over or pushing that piano in front of the door (plus a chair and a table, in the emotions happens to have superhuman strength). My “drugs” of choice were self-injury and bouts with anorexia (strange how the rituals attached to that and even the empty feeling brought comfort). The fear of falling back into these behaviors caused me to push emotions away, which, like you, usually led to depression. I’m now learning to let my feelings in and recognize how much more stable I am when I don’t repress so much.

    Lately though, while going through my divorce, I have gotten back into the habit of locking my emotions out for fear of losing my ability to be strong for my sons. This post reminded me to let them in again, knowing that I won’t be any good to anyone if they suddenly find a way to break past the barriar and take me down.

    Thanks so much!

  10. That was/is me. I was so busy trying to numb all the bad feelings that I didn’t feel anything good, either. In learning to overcome my depression, I had to learn to feel sadness, and really let it be. I had to learn to let myself cry. And then I felt joy again, too. The numbing hadn’t been protecting me from pain, it had intensified it… feeling nothing meant feeling no joy, no excitement, no happiness, no hope. I couldn’t live with no hope. But I can live with sadness.

  11. This is amazing…and so timely. I’ve often said I’m learning to be a person. Learning to feel is perhaps the hardest part of this…so, thank you. Blessings.

    • Lori, thanks so much. Yes, it really is such a big part of recovery or even just finding peace and joy in life. When you sit back and realize how much of our life is related to what we feel–it’s astonishing. It seems like there should be more classes out there–even for kids–about learning what to do with feelings we don’t like. Wouldn’t that prevent a lot of heartache for people who only know how to react? Thanks for letting me ramble. Clearly, a single post didn’t say all I wanted to–which I why I tend to go on in comments. H

  12. Ahhh. Been working with feeling HOPELESS. It came up yesterday (and I wrote about it http://tawandabee.com/struggling-with-anger/). I have been fighting it back with anger, getting really clear on “how wrong they are.” I said a few choice words that I will not repeat.

    Doing exactly as you outlined, I sat with the feeling (with encouragement from my sponsor) and just let it be. I imagined myself caring for the feeling-holding it gently like a baby- and amazingly it cared for me back. The thought came to me that this situation IS hopeless if I bank all of my happiness and serenity on wishing and waiting for the other person to change. It is totally NOT hopeless if I bank on God and keep walking the path he lays in front of me with faith and courage. I have choices!

    The relief was just as overwhelming as yesterday’s feeling of hopelessness! Thank you for sharing Heather. Our stories connect us to one another, and I am blessed when you share.

    Deborah

  13. Thanks Heather – this is a really important topic for me. Surpressing feelings has led to a lifetime of problems that I am only now understanding through counseling and prayer. Almost 20 years after the loss of my child, I was given permission in counselling to GRIEVE. That might sound insane to some, but at that time, society, family and whoever else limited my grieving to what THEY felt comfortable with, which was approximately 2-4 weeks. I was unable to move on, and stifled that grief to give others comfort in knowing I had “healed” or “moved on” …. such a shame. All those years of practicing hiding/surpressing emotions led to the erosion of my natural abiility to feel joy, sadness, and pretty much every emotion except anger. (and boy, did ANGER ever stay alive and well!!) Praise the Lord for people who teach us better than what we perceived to be true – it’s been such a blessing to have this new knowledge and move forward with my life using
    a new set of skills. <3 God Bless …

    • Tina, grief has to got to be the hardest and also the most important feeling to process fully. So sad that it got cut short for you then–but so glad you can get to it now. And wow, the erosion of your ability to feel… boy do I relate to that. Thanks so much for taking time to respond here! Helpful thoughts for many, I’m sure.

  14. Dear Heather, All of your writings really touch a place in me but today’s very much resonates and has made me ‘feel’. Thank you so much!

  15. This was so meaningful to me. Thank you! I am a huge feeling stuffer,who has become pretty good at numbing those feelings as well I found your comment about when we do not feel the sadness, we lose the ability to be happy. I do such a good job masking pain so that everyone will think I’m good, and strong and able to help them. I’m getting so tired of this and am trying to find better ways You’re words really help and inspire me. Thank you so much! Peace:)

    • Mimi, thanks so much for taking time to respond here. Calling yourself a stuffer is so true–at one point I had a thing in this post talking about how stuffing in a couch is like how we stuff our hearts–to soften the impact. Take out the stuffing and you feel every bump and groove in a couch. I am so glad you’re reading. H

  16. Your timing is incredible. I’m staying home from work today to address some of my feelings where I won’t have any distractions. I’ve found when I don’t acknowledge a bothersome feeling, many times it shows up “sideways”. What was once depression or guilt resurfaces as anger or blame.

    It’s so true. We can’t get away from our feelings, so we might as well throw open our arms and embrace them.

Trackbacks

  1. […] I wrote two other posts  related to this topic of feelings, here and […]

  2. [...] It’s how I feel my feelings.  In the same way I often don’t know what I think until I speak or write, I don’t always know what I feel until I sit still and listen. I wrote a post about this here. [...]

  3. [...] beginning…reading Heather Kopp’s blog post for the day. You can read it on her site here. Today, Heather writes about the power of emotions before/during/after recovery….and [...]

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