Wednesday, April 01, 2009

inside an emotion

I don't think there is someone we could call the "typical man", because every man is so different from the next, so I am careful about making any generalizations based on gender. Having said that, I recognize that in relation to women, men do share common traits and one of them is not knowing well their emotions (I can hear the women readers saying: Yes! while drawing a clenched fist down to the side).

OK, women have more practice than men in being in touch and communicating through their emotions. They have a headstart because they learn this from a very early age. On this count, I have to admit that I have a lot of work to do with my emotions. For a long time, I had little connection to my feelings. It is not that I didn't feel anything; rather, I lacked the language to describe what I was feeling. So, when I felt down and out, I could not tell if it was boredom, sadness, depression, loss, anger, disappointment, grief, hunger or just plain tiredness.

Not understanding what I feel, nor knowing what to do about it, is like driving a car without a dashboard, and without any gages or indicators to tell me how much fuel or oil the engine has, or how fast or slow I am driving. And I can go on for a while without any gages, that is, until I run our of gas, or blow out the engine for lack of oil, or … you get the picture.

In a way, that is what happened to me. The past decade in my life has been full of lessons about my emotions. During these years I have experienced deep losses and have been compelled to really look at and understand my emotions in a way that I had never done before.

One of the lessons I learned is that emotions are very important in life. The emotions I experience and the emotions I raise in those around me can make or break my life. Another lesson is that I must learn to master my emotions, not to control or repress them, but to master them. I know now that control is about bringing something not rational under the power of reason. The “stiff-upper-lip” culture is a good example of control: bring the irrational explosions of emotion under the dominion of the reason. To master an emotion I must be able to understand it, acknowledge its presence and internalize its message.

Now, I treat feelings very seriously. I see them as an integral part of communication, of relating to life.

I know that I cannot relate to Jan if I am not aware of my and her emotions. Part of her brain injury affected the area where raw emotions are filtered and the choice of appropriate responses happens. I realize that she does not filter raw emotions nor can she always “take perspective”. Any small irritation like a loud sound, a “tone” of voice she dislikes, or a gesture, will trigger a raw emotion in her that will come out magnified. She seems to be aware of her responses all the time, however, sometimes she cannot keep things into perspective and will react disproportionately.

My emotional reactions have been tested to the limit many times. Sometimes I get hooked, and take things personally, I lose perspective and end up having unnecessary conflict with Jan. She feels hurt, I feel treated unfairly and the day is lost in distance, silence and recrimination.

I am working hard to expand that space between what she says or does that I may interpret as hurtful, and my reaction to it. V. Frankel called this space freedom: the distance between any input and my reaction. Some days I am truly free in my relation with Jan, when my emotions connect with hers. Other days, I am a prisoner in the solitary cell that my unchecked emotions build.

Jan too is learning that she can master her emotions. That she does not need to heed all emotions her amygdala produces. She is learning to keep things in perspective. In the meantime, when the emotional going gets rough, we both suffer together.