Emotions: The Royal Messengers of the Unconscious
The first step in empowering our ego, the center of our conscious life and identity, is understanding that it is our emotions that connect us directly to the vibrancy of life. Unless we are fully in touch with our emotions and anchored in the heart of who we truly are, our personality is like a tree without roots and does not have access to the deep inner energy that can strengthen and nourish us. In the process of individuation, this inner rootedness becomes the source that revitalizes our permanent journey of growth and transformation. Tapping into and acknowledging these roots of our emotions provide the key to living a life of depth, imagination, and passion.
Emotions are powerful, highly significant forces that can reveal problems, threaten us, paralyze us, and turn us into stone. They can also offer deep experiences of truthfulness, lift us up, animate us, and bring us into love and ecstasy. During major emotional and physical upheavals in my life, I have often been surprised and, at times, even frightened by the flood of feelings erupting in me. “Where do they come from?” I wonder, “And what do they mean? What kind of messengers are they?” As we begin to look at these essential questions, I would like to share a story with you from my book, Sacred Selfishness:
“Several years ago, Gary, a mild-mannered minister, came to see me. Gary was recovering from a heart attack and bypass surgery. I was surprised when he opened our meeting by saying, ʻI want to stop being a spectator of life.ʼ When I asked him if he could explain a little more about what he meant he replied, ʻThe terror of almost dying and being cut open may be the first time Iʼve felt really alive in years. It woke me up. I realized that I think everyone else is living but Iʼve just been watching and going through the motions. For years Iʼve just gotten up and done what needed to be done without thinking too much about it. Love, fear, excitement, enthusiasm, bitterness, illness, pain – those were all things I saw in other peopleʼs lives.ʼ Gary had come to understand that without feelings our lives seem more like a movie weʼre watching than a process weʼre fully involved in.”
Before his surgery, Gary said he had actually considered himself a “feeling” person. He thought he loved the people close to him, cared about his work, and added that sometimes he even cried at movies. He also admitted he had a bit of an anger problem, with occasional outbursts and moments of road rage. He didnʼt really see himself as emotionally inhibited nor did he consider that there might be an accumulation of unconscious anger behind the anger that would sometimes burst into his consciousness. So Gary was surprised when his wife and a couple of people close to him told him that he seemed angry all of the time. They also attested that he often seemed to remain passive in situations when he should have acted on legitimate feelings of anger, and also in situations where he was being put down.
Garyʼs wife, Cynthia, also considered herself a “feeling” person and in touch with her own emotions. But she confessed that she was often uncomfortable or paralyzed by the emotions she regarded as taboo. She shared that when she was growing up, she had been taught there were “good” emotions like joy and sympathy and “bad” emotions like anger, fear, and depression. She was also taught that “bad” emotions were characteristics of a weak or dysfunctional person. So, as a result of her early teachings, she found that it threatened her self-esteem when she would experience or admit to experiencing these “bad” emotions.
Many of us, to a greater or lesser extent, were taught, or indoctrinated, into developing a repressive style like Gary or Cynthia, when facing any of our strong emotions. We were not encouraged to try to understand them, their origins, and their meaning. Being emotionally overwhelmed was often treated as a source of shame and embarrassment. And if it was compounded by tendencies towards being a perfectionist, an accommodator, sensitive, or feeling compelled to be good, then the experience was exacerbated by feelings of losing control, being rejected, and even of being attacked and humiliated, by our own inner critic, if no one else. We found out, early on, that being angry, expressing disappointment, withdrawing in sadness, and other deeply felt expressions were considered childish and immature. So we adapted by attempting to avoid conflict, to keep the peace, and to shun “wasting energy” by being emotional. Because of this adaptation, we often became anesthetized and passive, with a paralysis of consciousness, in a state of defensive, intellectual lethargy.
For the most part, though, we are often so unaware of these defenses against our emotions and our style of repressing them that, like Gary before his heart attack, we donʼt even notice our real feelings or distinguish them from our thoughts. In this pragmatic world we live in, the wisdom of our emotions is usually discounted and we are instructed to avoid our emotions whenever we are making important decisions. Repressing our emotions then causes us to develop an inauthentic, false persona as well as a distorted value system. Being determined to control our emotions and our bodies also diminishes the connection to our heart and isolates us in our heads.
Whether occurring from a recent event, or from our childhood, repressed emotions live on, and it takes more and more energy to keep them under control. There is no timeline in our unconscious; emotions that have been repressed stay as alive as they were when they happened. It is no wonder then, that passion, love, and purpose are not readily available to us, and that somewhere deep inside, our rebellious feelings continue to tell us that we are somehow betraying our true selves.
The way to strengthen our self, our ego, is to learn how to truly experience our emotions. Pursuing self-knowledge and awareness then become the cornerstones for cultivating our relationship with our emotions. The emotions that we have repressed and that have been regarded as dark, irrational, threatening, and undesirable must now be brought into the light of our awareness, and be recognized and accepted for the truthfulness they reveal. Tucked behind these denied feelings are our wounds that need to be healed and our shadows, the parts of ourselves we have exiled, in order to become acceptable and safe. These emotions that are struggling to break into our awareness through many kinds of symptoms are actually messengers telling us that there are aspects of ourselves longing to be found…longing to be recognized and to become active parts of who we are.
It is important to be willing to conscientiously pursue these feelings by reflecting upon our experiences and our emotional history. We must look for the emotions that are trying to become known, the ones we feel in our bodies, the ones in our dreams, and the ones that slip into our minds when we are half asleep, ruminating in our beds. This is the winding path to integrating our true feelings and to learning how they can expand and inform us. The ambiance of our lives and the richness of our relationships as well as our capacity to be passionate, loving, creative, and authentic as we move through life ALL depend upon our ability to listen to and support our emotional wellbeing.
Being able to feel deeply and to know why we actually feel a particular way is our key to understanding how engaged in life we really are. Our feelings help us to gauge how much we like or donʼt like something, how much we value or donʼt value something, whether something is congruent with who we really are, whether something diminishes us or supports and affirms us, and whether something or someone is violating our boundaries, or affirming and respecting our personhood. Listening to and understanding our emotions help us stop mishandling our needs and those of the people we care about. It allows our “feeling function” (a Jungian term), or our emotional intelligence, to provide “messages” so we can pay attention to our relationships and cultivate personal values that emphasize our whole being – head, heart, and hands – not just the pragmatic and conventional aspects. Tremendous energy then becomes available to us – that can daily strengthen and nourish us, and help us feel safely rooted within ourselves.
(Read Part One: The Ground of Individuation)
(Read Part Three: The Groundwork for Becoming Self-Reliant)
(Read Part Four: The Need for Developing a New Value System)
(Read Part Five: Learning the Art and Craft of Loving Ourselves)
Articles by Drs. Bud and Massimilla Harris