“It’s not fair,” the six-year-old in her wanted to say.
We were mid-session, exploring the frustration and overwhelm she felt with another significant blow to her already tragic life. Her young pet died suddenly from an aggressive cancer.
She associated to her younger self, recalling her mother’s words:
“Life isn’t fair.”
Life isn’t fair, sure, but that’s not the point.
Logical responses do little to quell emotions that stir up inside us when life throws us painful curveballs. My client had already gone through unforeseen challenges that naturally made her encounter heavy emotions: grief through loss after loss after loss. She took her mother’s words as fact and guidance: hide those feelings and get used to them. But what of the exhaustion? What of the times when we’re emotionally overwhelmed and tired of all the challenges? What about when we want a break?
The reality is that life is not fair. We can’t always change our circumstances, so instead, we try to find ways to accept them. A healthy adaptation, and yet, a child’s emotions don’t go away when dismissed, ignored, or rejected. They often go underground. Unheard feelings create a life of shadows, and these emotions seep out in harmful ways like depression, aggression, and addictions.
Logical responses to emotional matters do little to help our process. Together we explored the feelings my client had in reaction to her mother’s words. It was all so logical, though: life isn’t fair. As an adult, my client began to do what was done to her: she shut down her own emotions and learned to buckle through. It worked for a while until it didn’t. Although we’d like to reason away our feelings nevertheless, they seem to persist. Ever have a crush on someone and try to squash it through reasoning? Ever have a life dream and try to talk yourself out of it?
How did it go?
Often matters of the heart need to be responded to with the heart. Topics of the mind do better when we understand how our emotions may be intruding. We must learn the difference when both reason and humanity intersect.
Learning to shut down her feelings didn’t allow my client to explore what was needing expression underneath. I wanted to make space for the unheard six-year-old. What were you trying to convey? I asked.
We found that it was about her frustration, confusion, and sadness. Her inner six-year-old was still speaking; she was never fully heard. Together, we discovered that when she felt “overwhelmed, frustrated, and powerless,” as an adult, she shut herself down by isolating and keeping her pain to herself: she suffered alone. Our work became about feeling her deeper feelings and then finding spaces to share them with others. She was learning to feel, accept, and then share in safe places.
Making room for undiscovered feelings allowed my client to reconnect with her disowned, long-buried parts. She needed to share this overwhelming sadness with someone who would listen. She needed to be heard.
So much of our internal wiring comes indirectly- we adapt to what happens to us from other people. We respond to people’s actions and our life circumstances first by making meaning of them. We believe what our parents say and do until we have reason to think otherwise. Dangerously, we might never question them.
Our youth begs us to grow and expand. Yes, we often lack words to communicate our feelings along this process. Schools don’t teach us about our feelings or how to express them. Most of us picked up our understanding of our feelings and how to act through the people we grew up around. Did your family act out their anxiety and anger with loud outbursts, or were they the secret and silent type? Were only the men allowed to be angry? Were only the women allowed to cry?
The emotional body is a powerful force. Whether it’s a pizza you want but say you shouldn’t have or a fantasy of running away from life’s inevitable problems, we can’t always reason ourselves out of our feelings. Sometimes we need to feel them. We need first to listen.
We need both understanding and a language to convey what’s was going on inside us. Absent both, we act out our emotions instead of communicating them. Attuning to the actual children in our lives requires openness to what is going on behind the scenes. Behaviors are attempts to deliver messages; we’re just often conditioned not to listen.
As adults, we continue to have our inner child, who holds the unexpressed and stuck emotions that often come out in acts like a tantrum or outburst. Road rage is an easy target for unheard anger or misdirected sadness. Hysteria lets us predict (with confidence) there is more going on beneath the surface.
When adults respond to a child’s feelings with logic, it shuts down a necessary conversation towards understanding the inner world. Chronic responses in this manner teach children to shut down their own emotions. On a massive level, we end up with a society of adults who over-intellectualize and become disconnected from their feelings. Is it any wonder we have more depression and addiction than ever before?
Many clients would defend against deeper feelings and immediately say they don’t want to sound like a “victim.” Socialized to be intellectual, many males don’t want to appear weak, whiney, or devoid of taking responsibility. And yet, I can’t help but notice that the child within them is trying to speak.
When we’re defending against playing “a victim” to what happened to us, we reject our inner realities and the feelings that lived underneath. When we uncover and dig beneath the defense of the victimhood, we learn about what emotions we’re avoiding.
We can be victim to our circumstances and our unconscious as much as we are to our traits, race, and heritage. We didn’t choose these things, but they are ours now and ours to navigate and understand. Knowing and understanding the parts of us that are victims to our relational ways of responding to others and ourselves is both: we accept the reality we didn’t choose. And we take responsibility for the feelings we have about our lives. By choosing to take responsibility for what happened to us, we are set on a path to free ourselves.
Victim-mentality is a state of feeling helpless. And there is much to be learned by exploring the authentic feelings that arise when we feel lost and lacking confidence in our ability to navigate life. However, when we reactively shut down on ourselves, we’re defending against understanding ourselves more deeply.
“I think some part of me knows I’m depressed. But another part of me doesn’t want to believe it.” Another client said recently.
In a world that steers us to our minds, logic, and feeling good, we become frightened to see ourselves as victims of our emotions. We shy away from exploring the feelings underneath.
We’d rather not accept the harm caused to us by someone else, so we turn on ourselves instead. We don’t want to feel our raw anger lest we do act on it destructively. We are scared by our grief because it might paralyze us. It’s frightening to believe we might be vulnerable.
Acceptance of what has happened is essential in moving forward with life, but it should not overstep the inevitable and critical emotions that come with the experience.
We relish and welcome our pleasure, like a tasty meal or a crisp drink on a hot day. We don’t need logic or reason that, of course, it tastes good: We enjoy, we accept pleasure readily. We cannot always reason away or sidestep the pain, confusion, and grief that envelopes us. To live a full and authentic life, these feelings must have room to speak.