What Is This Strange Feeling and How Therapy Helps Me
My therapist called me out in last week’s session. It was gentle, yet I knew it wasn’t just curiosity that compelled him—it resembled something closer to concern.
“I’m noticing something today, Mark.”
“Oh, really?” I responded. Though I had an idea what was coming.
“I’m noticing that right after you share something sad or painful, you brush it off with a laugh.”
I chuckled. “Yeah, I know. Weird, huh?” We had talked about this in a previous session, but he noticed it happening several times this particular day.
He didn’t say, “And this is why you do that” or “Why do you think you do that?” He just sat there, looking at me. And I just sat there looking at him, until I couldn’t help but dart my eyes around the Zoom screen, looking for an answer. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to say. Or what I was supposed to feel.
(One of my things is that I want to be a really great client for my therapist—someone he looks forward to seeing, you know, because of my charm, wisdom, charisma, etc. I also want to do therapy “right”—listening, processing, learning, perfecting. I want to get all the answers correct, so I can graduate. Maybe get an award. I often jokingly ask for a list of three things I can do so I’ll be all better. It’s a bummer this isn’t how therapy works!)
Turns out therapy is less about me doing it perfectly, and more about maintaining a willingness to explore areas of my life that I’ve never considered. This can feel very similar to my LASIK surgery where they used a blade to scrape off the outside layer of my eyeball, and then shoved a laser into that newly created hole to magically reshape my cornea. Yes, I smelled eye parts burning, and saw smoke and debris fly around like someone was sawing fresh wood. But my vision is amazing now! This is what therapy can feel like.
As I’m growing in my understanding of what makes me sad (I’m going to choose to keep the details private), I’m learning that I have never given myself permission to feel these feelings. Of being sad. Or mad. Or afraid. And to be very suspect of glad.
My conservative Christian upbringing instructed me that I’m only supposed to focus on God and other people. That anything focusing on myself was to be avoided—selfishness, ambition, heck, even pleasure (!) were all super bad sins.
I was taught that I had to put other people’s feelings before mine. But in actuality, I wasn’t even supposed to have any of my own feelings on the list.
Push ‘em down, push ‘em down, way down!
The question I have lived my life asking is: How can I bring help and hope to somebody else, at any cost to me and my physical or mental well-being? Sounds crazy when you spell it out like that, doesn’t it? But that’s how I’ve lived.
A good friend introduced me to some of the concepts from her 12-Step group. She said, “The two questions we have difficulty answering are ‘What do I want?’ and ‘What do I need?’”
“Yes! Yes! Yes! That’s me!” I answered, thrilled to have words put on my dilemma.
Part of my healing process is giving myself permission to continually ask and attempt to find answers to these two questions.
For example… “What do I need from this relationship?” “What am I feeling right now after that conversation?” “What is the thing I could do right now that would bring me the most joy?” …for starters.
These questions have felt like luxuries to me. Luxuries I didn’t deserve to have. To say I’m feeling sad would be selfish, and must be counteracted with gratitude (another pattern my therapist pointed out—how I use gratitude to counteract real feelings I wasn’t allowing myself to feel.).
What’s the value of feeling our feelings? Good question. I don’t have the textbook answer…yet. But I’m realizing that the more I grow in self-respect, choosing to love myself regardless of what other people think about me, the more I give myself permission to feel these new emotions.
Sure, I’ve been sad before. Debilitatingly sad. But this is a different kind of sad. It’s a sadness that acknowledges the reality of the situation, but also realizes it doesn’t have to define me. I can see the emotion…perhaps like watching a boat sail by from the banks of the river…and not let it have control over me.
By shoving down my feelings, I’ve resorted to blaming myself for not being okay, thinking there’s some kind of utopia where everything and everyone is properly managed and life-giving. And if only I was “okay enough” then I could experience life as God intends.
To you I say, “It’s okay to not be okay.” The pain, the sadness, the anger, is not the end of the story. It’s a part of it, and it’s a part that holds way more value than you’ve probably ever imagined.
The pain reminds me that it’s not supposed to be this way. A worse state would be to feel nothing, a place you might be simply because of never acknowledging how you really feel. It can also be a response to emotional overload like many of us are experiencing just being alive and aware during these crazy days.
Emotions can feel unwieldy and chaotic. Who wants to feel that? But the more we ignore them, the worse they get. And they start creeping out in freaky (and dangerous) ways like anger or addiction.
I grew up thinking I had to have it all together, in order to be a “good witness.” To show people how awesome God was. That my outward perfection would only be a sign of the inward perfection I had been given.
But this isn’t how life works. Or how it seems God works.
My Christian life isn’t about getting all my loose ends tied up. It’s not about removing all the sin from my life (an impossible task!). It’s trusting that in the midst of it all, God is right here with me in it, loving me more than I can possibly imagine.
One of the best gifts I’ve given myself is the permission to be in process. To sit in the peaceful place where I’m at right now, seeing that I’m not like I used to be and knowing I’m not like I’m going to be. That the way I lived in the past isn’t completely bad, and the way I’ll live in the future won’t be completely better.
Learning to feel my feelings, giving myself permission to feel slightly out of control, allows me to be more fully alive and present to the most beautiful moment I have been given—Today.
This is a song about sadness that I wrote with my friend Chris Davis.
If you’re in the Twin Cities please join me this Friday night (9/10) for the opening of my first ever gallery showing of my photography. I’m super excited to share these pieces with you and chat about it all. This show is all artistic portraits taken from my session with Paul, who you first met in my State Fair print.
Come to A-Mill Artist Lofts 315 SE Main St, Mpls. We’ll be in the gallery from 7-10pm. If you can’t make it let me know and I’ll arrange another time for you see the work.