If weight loss is the aspect of wellness that is most socially popular (with fitness being a close second), the most socially unpopular aspect has got to be emotional wellness. This is the crap no one wants to talk about despite the fact that it is the crap we all have in common. Emotional wellness is uncomfortable, fraught with shame and embarrassment, and carries a slew of social stigmas. People are far more likely to openly discuss an eating disorder, a disability, or even an addiction than they are to discuss an emotional problem. It’s still taboo to air your dirty laundry if the stains are emotional.
It’s as if we’ve evolved to the point that we can expect a certain degree of forgiveness from the general public for just about anything but an emotional problem; for that there is still automatic disapproval and condescension. Emotional problems are still regarded as weak and pathetic, yet everyone has them. We can talk about the fallout from emotional problems, such as the broken relationships or wrecked lives, but we cannot talk about the problems that caused them.
This morning I dove into Chapter Four of Brene Brown’s new book, Rising Strong. Chapter Four takes a giant bite out of this topic and chews it thoughtfully, forcing some digestion of the collective discomfort we all feel with emotional wellness. Most of us got the message from somewhere very early in our lives that emotions are to be hidden, suppressed, denied, and ignored. Brene argues that until we become curious about our emotions we are doomed to fall victim to the mistakes we later blame on them.
The lashing out, the irrational decisions, the fear-based or anger-based reaction that gets the proverbial snowball rolling, all the damage that we do to our lives and relationships; all self-inflicted because we refuse to embrace our emotions well enough (or long enough) to understand why they influence all those destructive actions. We might be comfortable blaming our emotions for stupid mistakes or bad judgment after we act but we will do just about anything (including screw up) to avoid getting curious about our emotions before we act.
I learned as a teenager that getting emotional is something that Losers do. My father was a hard-nosed authority who very rarely entertained argument with his orders or opinions. On the rare occasions when my father would participate in a discussion it quickly became an argument with a winner and a loser. The Loser was the first person to get emotional. I was a teenager; of course the first person was always me. I can still hear his voice filled with disdain and criticism, admonishing me as he dismissed me, “The moment you start losing the argument you get emotional.” Discussion over.
This taught me that getting emotional was synonymous with losing—with being a Loser. It imprinted the message that getting emotional was the default failure when I was no longer capable of better behavior, such as communicating without emotion. It also taught me that emotions would end my father’s interest in engaging with me intellectually. They would kill off his inclination to continue arguing with me. My takeaway was that emotions push people away. As a teenager already abandoned by one parent, the last thing I needed or wanted was to compel people to shun me further.
I realize now that the emotional problem didn’t begin with my father’s message to me. It began with the message someone gave my father. He considered himself to be winning when he resisted emotion. I was losing when I gave in to feeling emotions. This rationale gave him an excuse to disengage with me when the conversation became too uncomfortable for him. Someone taught him this as a tactic. An argumentative daughter was still an opponent as well as a daughter. His job was to beat the opponent and teach his daughter a lesson while winning. The show of emotions from me not only gave him the winning advantage, it gave him an opportunity to put me down—to downgrade and criticize my behavior—so that he didn’t have to feel responsible or guilty for disengaging with me. He also didn’t have to feel responsible for my emotional discomfort left unresolved because he was teaching me not to be a Loser.
It has taken me over thirty years to reconcile the suspicion that when I got emotional I was getting closer to the truth on my side of the conflict. All these years I’ve been stumbling around getting curious about my emotions I’ve been mucking around in territory too treacherous for most people. My father wasn’t the only one to taunt me. Some have even cruelly diagnosed me, using pseudo-clinical language to make me the Loser with emotional problems. This enabled their wins just like my father’s wins. Making me the Loser made everyone else automatically absolved of their fear and resistance. No matter that it might compromise their wellness, their relationships, or even their very lives; face was saved and those who kept their emotions in perpetual check were superior.
In his defense, my father probably learned this long before he became a father. Let me also confess that this is the first and only time I’ve defended him for that crippling criticism. The reason I still remember his “losing the argument” quote is that I hated and resented it every day of my life. It implied that I was inherently flawed since I obviously couldn’t make my emotions go away or force them to stop surfacing. It also implied that I was a Loser in my father’s eyes, which made me a Loser in my own eyes, which fed a host of other emotional problems.
But Chapter Four flipped a switch today. Now I understand why my stupid emotions wouldn’t go away. For one thing, they weren’t stupid, they were wellness markers. The teenage Me felt plagued by them in terminal Loser-hood but now I’m grateful I never managed to kill them off. Now I understand that emotions surfaced NOT when I was losing but when I was getting closer to discovering the truth of a given emotional reaction. Closer to the truth is closer to understanding, closer to recovery, closer to wisdom, and closer to peace.
Today I shook off thirty years of hate and resentment over a single statement still standing as a battle wound between me and my father. Today I forgive him for the programming that someone programmed into him. I forgive myself for submitting to it in the first place, for abusing the teenage Me over it, and for taking thirty years to figure it out. While I’m at it I might as well also forgive myself for needing help to figure this out. I’m also using this Aha Moment as a springboard into my annual Thirty Days practice observed every November. My longtime readers will remember that I declare November to be Thirty Days of something, with thirty days of ritual and essay to go along with the declared theme. To honor thirty years of resolution finally realized today, I declare my November to be Thirty Days of Forgiveness. More to come on that.
And although part of me wants to declare myself the ultimate Winner today, I’m not going to do it. It was never a contest. It never should have been a battle. If I was not the Loser back then there was no Winner back then either, and there isn’t a Winner now. There is only more understanding. And more gratitude.