Tears well up; corners of the mouth quiver; chin trembles and cheeks flush: an inner battle between allowing feelings to be felt and pushing them away. This is no small conflict. We learned well long ago that being tough, strong, independent, and “fine” is the way to survive in this world. No room for emotions or being vulnerable. But life without emotions is dull, or depressing, or packed full of addictions, distractions and to-do’s.
I remember my father reading Huckleberry Finn and The Hobbit to me when I was a boy. I was enthralled with the adventures and the epic journeys of Huckleberry Finn and Bilbo Baggins, inspired by their daring and courage. I saw myself setting off to explore new lands, overcome great odds, conquer beasts and foes, outsmart adversaries and return home a triumphant hero. Never would I have thought that my epic adventures would come from embracing my emotions, my fear, my grieving, my longing, my pain, my rage, my loneliness, my helplessness, and from supporting others to do the same.
When I started practicing Nonviolent Communication, I was excited to learn the process because I thought that I’d improve my relationships by listening for the feelings and needs of others and by expressing observations instead of judgements, feelings instead of thoughts, needs instead of strategies, and requests instead of demands. Listening and speaking in those ways sometimes helped and sometimes didn’t. There is a critical third part of the NVC practice that I was only dabbling with, a part that has endless depths to explore: Self-connection: Inward connection to the sensations, feelings, needs and truths in all parts of the body.
It’s no surprise that I was only dabbling with self-connection. Most of us weren’t raised in environments that supported us to connect to our feelings and needs and truths. Therefore, the brain wiring for embracing, regulating, and expressing emotions gracefully, the neural networks between the middle prefrontal cortex and the amygdala in the right hemisphere of the brain, didn’t develop as well as they could have, or much at all. This leaves us cut off from emotions or lost in them or lashing out or focusing on keeping others happy or trying to look “fine,” upbeat, and strong all the time. Fortunately, we can continue developing neural networks throughout our lives. The more we develop our self-connection neural networks, the more deeply we know and feel ourselves and discover truths that lie below the surface.
Not long ago I gave an introductory presentation on Nonviolent Communication and Interpersonal Neurobiology. Afterwards a gentleman came up to me and told me he found the information very interesting but didn’t need any support because he was pretty much fine all the time. I felt doubtful about that but simply congratulated him and wished him well.
Next time someone tells me he’s fine all the time, I might ask him if he is able to really grieve when there is loss or be very present and empathic for someone else who is grieving, afraid, or upset. I’ll ask if there are times when he feels the driving pulse of passion and inspiration, times when he moves towards fear, times when he is in utter awe and wonder, times when he can consciously step into the fire of fury, times when his gratitude and joy extend to the edges of the universe. Or, did he learn to cope from not having support for his stronger emotions by looking “fine”.
In The Hobbit Bilbo Baggins was tempted by the power of a ring that made the wearer invisible. My work is to help people come out from hiding and be more visible to themselves and others, to feel the feelings that are difficult to feel and express their deeper, often more vulnerable truth. It may seem very vulnerable to feel and express emotions and admit that we need and are affected by others. But I believe it is more vulnerable to build a fortress of “fine” around ourselves because we lose the opportunity to know ourselves more fully, to feel the fullness of what it means to be alive and human, and to be more deeply connected to others and to life.
Will you help me drop through a lifetime of illusions?
With fear and desire we step to the edge and then we’re diving in,
Where the water meets the ashes and shadows turn into clay.