Permission to feel

I have a question, or three, for you to answer – not for me, but for yourself.

What are you not giving yourself permission to feel right now?

What is it costing you at this moment, not to feel it?

What would happen if you let it out?

We humans often lock up one or more emotions in a box – maybe to protect ourselves, maybe to protect others, maybe a little of both. Tucking painful feelings away can serve a purpose at times, increasing our control, allowing us to put our most presentable selves front and center. Speaking for myself, I know I’ve boxed up feelings in this way in the past and I’m sure I will do it again.

Most of my life I’ve had little trouble containing negative emotions, when I had them, which wasn't all that often. I’m highly tolerant, it’s the way I was born. If you have heard me say I didn’t care what we did, where we went, what we ate, how difficult something was, how annoying someone was being, how much time something took – I meant it. I wasn’t trying to shame more sensitive people by being thick-skinned. I just didn’t know any other way to be.

Cancer changed that – sort of. To be honest I found myself wishing for more carpe diem than I got. I guess I expected the trauma of cancer treatment to release me completely from self-imposed obligation and inspire me to spend every waking moment exactly how I wanted. As my recovery progressed, however, my tolerance level crept back. Partway. I got better at insisting on self-care like down time and daily exercise, and these are good things. But the shift wasn’t what you would call radical.

Then Frank died and it ripped right through my thick skin. For me, it took losing my brother for the pressure of sequestered emotion to become unbearable, and only at the point of unbearable pressure did everything come out. It’s still coming out. For me it has to, every day, or the cost is too high.

When I don’t let my emotions out I am compromised – I struggle to concentrate, my heart races, sometimes I end up in physical pain. The other day the pain I often feel in my face started in the morning and would not let go. I went from writing work e-mails to making lunch to putting the laundry in the dryer and back to work, hoping it would go away. It didn’t. Mid-afternoon found me alone in my car and one of my favorite Ben Folds songs came on. I turned it way, way up (if you heard the tunes blasting from the minivan on Wyoming Avenue, that was me) and shouted every word of the lyrics. Then before the last note sounded I hit the button on my steering wheel to go back to the beginning of the song. Over and over I hit the button, playing the song several times through. Shouting, crying, driving.

Then I went home, made dinner for everyone but myself, and went upstairs. I lit a candle and practiced some random collection of yoga for half an hour, intermittently staring out the window through the branches of the big tree in my yard, toward the glow emanating from Manhattan.

Then, and only then, I felt calm and realized I was no longer in pain. I came downstairs and ate something. I spent time with my children. I got back in my car for the next errand, turned the key in the ignition, heard the Ben Folds song come on mid-tune – and instinctively forwarded to the next song. I didn’t need it anymore that night. Everything had been let out – for the moment.

I keep thinking of the story of Pandora’s Box. Zeus created Pandora to tempt Epimetheus, as a tricky punishment for the theft of fire that Epimetheus and Prometheus had pulled off. Epimetheus married Pandora, and as a wedding gift Zeus gave them a box with instructions never to open it. Not able to resist, Pandora opened it and out flew every imaginable pain and evil, set free to plague humankind ever after. But at the bottom of the box, underneath all of the despair and unhappiness, lay Hope. Some versions of the myth say that Hope was trapped inside, and some say Hope flew out to help the world cope with the ills that had escaped.

I prefer the latter version. I think Hope came out. Last. Only after everything else was let out. Because I can only feel hope when I let all of the horrible ugly stuff out, feel it completely, and let it go where it goes. Hope comes after, and because. Only after, and only because.

Louis CK talks about what happens if you dare to fully experience sadness, in this interview with Conan O'Brien. Feeling suddenly and tremendously sad one day while driving, he pulled over by the side of the road and decided to just feel it, let it hit him “like a truck.” Then, as he says, happiness came in to meet the sadness. He had to open the box and let everything out to get to the Hope.

What are you not letting yourself feel?

What would happen if you opened the box?

What Hope might lie waiting for you under everything else crammed in there?

Of course it’s not always convenient or wise to let your darkest feelings run rampant – in some situations they can hurt others, or hurt you. But I feel sure that if you rely on your inner wisdom, you will figure out how and when to let it out. For most of my life I didn't open the box very often, and that served me just fine, then. Now, in one way or another, I open the box every day because it’s the only way I can find any measure of peace. It is what I have to do to survive, and it is helping me survive.

Your heart is your own Pandora's box. Listen to your heart to know what you need to do to survive. If you can open it when you need to, no matter whether the contents seem shameful, negative, angry, embarrassing, extreme, or just plain wrong, perhaps you will find Hope underneath. When the Hope that lives in your heart can fly free, who knows where it may carry you.

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