Emotional Heavy Lifting

“Your feelings are like your muscles Karen, they want to be used.” 

A brilliant piece of advice from my dear friend and former roommate Tiffany, sometime circa 2009. I don’t remember the context, or exactly which type of “negative” emotion I was trying to suppress at the time, but her words have stayed with me over the years. I’d come home some weeks before her comment with a life changing concept from my Pilates Instructor (and now dear friend) Michael. I’m sure I was complaining about some exercise hurting or being hard, and he told me that my muscles want to be used. That this is why they exist, to be used.

For some reason this reframe totally blew my mind, and I shared it with Tiffany when I got home that night. So she was in a perfect position to use a similar analogy weeks later when I was trying to gloss over or suppress some sadness or fear I was feeling at the time. She’s right, of course, and our emotions exist for exactly this reason, to be felt. They exist to be felt, to tell us whatever it is they are trying to tell us, and then to move on.

I’ve come a long way over the years, but the temptation to ignore what I’m feeling is still a strong one. Yes, even though a big part of my job is to help other people sit with and process their own emotions, I still often struggle to do the same myself. Actually giving space to our feelings is so necessary because a) they don’t move on unless we give them expression, and b) suppressing them actually requires an enormous amount of psychic energy.

We don’t want to go there for whatever reason, maybe we’re afraid that if we start crying we might never stop, or that if we let ourselves feel the fear or the anger we’ll discover that it’s bottomless. Or it’s inconvenient because we just put makeup on and now it’s going to be a whole thing. So we avoid, delay, or numb ourselves with distractions, which works for a while.

The problem is that our emotions don’t actually leave us when we do this, they just go underground and fester until we can’t take it anymore and have a completely over-the-top reaction to something completely benign. Avoiding what we are feeling is also extremely costly energetically, and it leaves us depleted (and depressed) if we do this for too long.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because it seems like everyone I talk to right now is running on empty. I wrote about exhaustion last month, and encouraged people to give themselves the rest they need. Now I’m beginning to wonder how much of our exhaustion stems from all of the energy costs of keeping the “negative” emotions at bay.

I keep using quotations around “negative” because there isn’t actually anything inherently bad about what we consider to be negative emotions. They are uncomfortable, I’ll give them that. Sadness sucks, fear is uncomfortable, loneliness is downright unbearable at times. But these emotions themselves are not actually harmful. They’re simply information, a form of communication from our bodies that is asking to be heard.

It’s been a pretty crazy year, and I think most of us have a lot of unprocessed grief and fear and anger just sort of lurking around and waiting to be released. Waiting to be felt.

So, with that in mind, here are a few things that made me feel this month:

Folklore – The Long Pond Studio Sessions – I’ve always appreciated Taylor Swift as a writer/storyteller, and it makes me so happy to see her going back to her roots with this album. In this documentary, she performs each song from the album and talks with her co-creators about the meaning of each song, and the unique experience of recording an entire album remotely. I specifically found the song “This is me trying” and the conversation they have about mental illness and addiction to be very powerful. In fact, it gave me a much needed ugly cry, and I felt about 10 pounds lighter afterward.

Expecting Amy – This 3 part HBO documentary follows Amy Schumer as she prepares to film her latest standup special, all while being pregnant and extremely ill with hyperemesis. I felt awe at how resilient she was in the face of seemingly constant suffering, and also a vicarious pride at how damn powerful she is as a woman at the top of her game and using her voice in the world. I also felt absolute rage at how poorly understood hyperemesis has been historically, and how long women’s suffering has been ignored or invalidated by the medical community (spoiler alert: they used to blame women for having the condition and accuse them of “attention seeking”).

The Weight of Gold – Michael Phelps narrates this documentary about mental illness among Olympic athletes, and opens up about his own struggles with depression, and how the Olympic Committee fails to support its athletes in this way. The film features other household names and highly successful Olympians, all of whom open up about the extreme isolation and emptiness that comes with their unique lifestyle, and the mental health challenges they’ve faced as a result. It was extremely moving to watch people who are held up as the pinnacles of achievement and strength admit to deep depression, thoughts of suicide, and their own sense of powerlessness in protecting their fellow athletes from an epidemic of mental illness. A must-watch and a powerful call to action in the continued fight to destigmatize mental health issues.

I hope something here gives you the space and the permission to feel whatever it is you’re feeling. The cool part is, just like after a dreaded workout, you’ll find you can breathe easier.

Until next time,