You can’t Photoshop feelings

21 May 2019 | Columns

Pull out quote: “The only certainty is uncertainty and yet we are not navigating this frailty successfully or sustainably.”

Justicia Shipena

I came across a man at a workshop I attended and he said to me: "Write what you are feeling. Tell the truth. Write like nobody's reading."

And just like that I was invited to show up authentically to my pain. It was a simple act, but nothing short of a revolution for me. It was this revolution that started in this blank notebook that shaped my life’s work.

The secret, silent correspondence with myself. Like a gymnast I started to move beyond the rigidity of denial into what I have now come to call emotional agility. Life's beauty is inseparable from its fragility. We are young until we are not. We walk down the streets sexy until one day we realise that we are unseen.

We nag our children and one day realise that there is silence where that child once was, who is now making his or her way in the world. We are healthy until diagnosis brings us to our knees. The only certainty is uncertainty and yet we are not navigating this frailty successfully or sustainably.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) tells us that depression is now the single leading cause of disability globally, outstripping cancer and heart disease. At a time of greater complexity and unprecedented technological, political and economic change, we are seeing how, more and more, people are tending to lockdown into rigid responses to their emotions.

On the one hand we might obsessively brood on our feelings - getting stuck inside our heads. Hocked on being right or victimised by our newsfeed. On the other hand we might bottle our emotions, pushing them aside and permitting only those emotions deemed legitimate.

Many of us either judge ourselves for having so-called ‘bad emotions’ like sadness, anger or even grief, or actively try to push aside these feelings. We do this not only to ourselves but also to the people we love; we may inadvertently shame them out of emotions seen as negative, jump to solutions and fail to help them to see these emotions as inherently valuable.

Normal, natural emotions are now seen as good or bad. However, being positive has become a new form of moral correctness. People with cancer are automatically told to just stay positive. Women are told to stop being so angry and the list goes on. It's a tyranny. It's a tyranny of positivity and it's cruel, unkind and ineffective. We do it to ourselves and we do it to others.

If there is one common feature of brooding, bottling or false positivity, it’s this: They are all rigid responses. If there is a single lesson we can learn from the inevitable fall of apartheid, it is that rigid denial doesn’t work.

It’s unsustainable for individuals, family and societies. As we watch the ice caps melt, it is unsustainable for our planet. When emotions are pushed aside or ignored, they get stronger. You might think you’re in control of unwanted emotions when you ignore them, but in fact they control you.

Internal pain always comes out. Always. Who pays the price? We do. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-happiness. I like being happy; I’m a pretty happy person. But when we push aside normal emotions to embrace false positivity, we lose our capacity to develop skills to deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.

I have had many people telling me what they don’t want to feel. They say things like: “I don’t want to try because I don’t want to feel disappointed.” Or: “I just want this feeling to go away.”

“I understand,” I say to them, but you have dead people’s goals. Only dead people never get unwanted or inconvenienced by their feelings. Only dead people never get stressed, never get their hearts broken and never experience the disappointment that comes with failure.

Tough emotions are part of our contract with life. You don’t get to have a meaningful career or raise a family, or leave the world a better place, without stress and discomfort. Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.