The Unconscious Bargain

We all remember from elementary school the kid who was fully emotionally present and whose emotional exuberance got him or her into trouble with the teachers. On the other hand were those good students who protected themselves by being emotionally reserved, who didn’t get into trouble because their way of coping kept their emotions dampened down.

By the time we are adults most of us have made some accommodation with our culture, a sort of unconscious bargain of how we must be in the world to be emotionally safe and gain the approval of our peers and authorities. And most of us, in making that bargain, gave up a good deal. We mixed up experiencing our feelings with expressing them, and because expressing them got us in trouble we internalized a message not to feel them.

Whatever the unconscious bargain, in order to live fully without suffering from depression, anxiety, or various compulsive behaviors, most of us need to reclaim or re-vitalize our emotional way of being in the world.

Some years back, psychological theory made the mistake of referring to our inner emotional guidance system as the “inner child.” This term is unfortunate because it allows the importance of our emotional core to be trivialized and it is an inadequate descriptive label of this crucial part of the psyche.

What does have resonance in this label are the child-like qualities of our emotional core. It is this aspect of our emotional core that allows us to be overly-sensitive and repeatedly wounded. Paradoxically, it is also this aspect of our emotional core that carries us into the experience of feeling loved abundantly so that we are able to love selflessly.

We avoid our feelings by many overt and covert addictive processes – working late hours into the night and weekends, reading obsessively, watching too much television, compulsive shopping or eating, manipulating or attempting to control. We avoid our feelings by trying to get over them – by telling ourselves we shouldn't feel however we feel, or by trying to transcend them by doing something "spiritual" and essentially repressing our feelings.

Many of us live vicarious feeling lives, going to movies and weeping deeply over silver screen characters. We experience their feeling lives because we are afraid to live our own. Their feelings appear real in us because we are out of touch with our own. Many of us avoid our feelings because we are long out of practice at expressing them in positive ways and now we don't want to make a fool out of ourselves. The truth is, as we learn to be in touch with our feelings, we will occasionally look foolish. The great virtue of risking looking foolish is it brings a gentle humility.

Growing into emotional maturity starts with humility. We wish there were short cuts around feelings, or that feelings were simply not that important. But it is only through our anger, depression, and despair that we learn when we are not taking good care of ourselves. It is only in our sadness, grief, and loss we learn what we truly value. And it is only in our serenity, joy, and enthusiasm we learn how to truly love.

Reflection: What are the strategies I employ to avoid my feelings?  Are they worth it?  How can I live more fully from my emotional core?

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