From the age of eight, I went to school hundreds of miles away from my home. Sometimes I was a whole continent away. As each school term approached, feelings of anxiety – and then dread – would settle on my soul, wrecking the final week of my holiday.
It wasn’t so much that I hated school, although I mostly did. Nor was I failing in any obvious sense. The issue was that I didn’t know how to deal with my emotions. To my young mind, expressing sadness, loneliness, fear and anger would have been a confession of weakness in front of my peers, and was unthinkable. To make matters worse, I felt ashamed that I felt this way. Hopefully it’s easy to see how this state of mind, if it persists, can wreck a life.
I tried running away from my feelings, at least metaphorically, but the more I did, the more they seemed to control me. Anger and anxiety were not only running my life, they were ruining it too. Too often I became someone I didn’t want to be. I was prone to fits of anger followed by retreats into shame. I remember starting a fist-fight at the age of nine with a friend over our place in the toilet queue. I couldn’t tell him that our fight had nothing to do with him or the queue. Around that time, one of our best friends had died in a plane crash. Having been told the news in assembly, the matter was closed. What was I supposed to do with my confusion and my anger?
At the peak of my unhappiness, a benign tumour the size of a golf ball appeared on my left leg. The doctors couldn’t explain it and said it was ‘one of those things’. Looking back, it seemed like a metaphor for my state of mind in those days.
It was years later, well into adulthood, that I began to understand that I held misconceptions about my emotions. The most damaging of these was the idea that I shouldn’t have the feelings that I did. Looking back, it’s obvious that my feelings were entirely normal, even healthy, for a young boy who missed his family. In other words, the issue wasn’t the presence of my emotions but my relationship to them.
My second misconception was the belief I should be bigger than my feelings. But my behaviour told a different story. Too often, when I wanted to speak up, I couldn’t find my voice; and when I wanted to suppress my emotions, they would burst through my fragile defences and cause havoc.
Many of us carry the belief throughout our life that uncomfortable emotions are somehow wrong and should be overpowered or switched off. This is a futile endeavour because emotions are wired into our physiology and have played a central role – possibly the central role – in our development as a social species. Not only did we evolve to feel everything from fear to anger, and sadness to happiness, but we evolved to feel what another person is feeling. The study of mirror neurons proves that empathy is deeply rooted in the most ancient corridors of the human brain.
So, is there any good news when it comes to uncomfortable emotions? The answer is yes, but it starts with the understanding that emotions will always come and go. Through the process of observing them, we have the chance to accept them without being defined by them.
Dame Judi Dench, one of the world’s most revered actresses, has been practising this approach her whole career. Now in her mid-80’s, she claims that the more she acts, the more frightened she becomes. So how has she managed to win one Oscar, two Golden Globes and 10 BAFTA awards? In contrast to aspiring performers who are waiting to overcome their anxiety, Dame Judi sees it as being essential to her success. She understands that the battle to suppress or banish negative feelings simply can’t be won. ‘I have the fear,’ she says. ‘I wouldn’t be without it.’ To her it’s more of an accepted and appreciated companion than an enemy.
My own version of Dench’s story happened in my early twenties. At the most inconvenient moments, I would suffer from crippling embarrassment and my face would turn a shocking shade of red. On this particular occasion, instead of resisting my embarrassment, I said to the surprised young woman in front of me, ‘I’m blushing, but I’m fine. It will go away soon enough.’ My soul delighted in the possibility that I could live with my emotions rather than seeking to get over them, and I discovered a new freedom to be myself.
Dr. Paul Ekman, the world’s leading expert on the study of emotions, describes it this way: ‘In order for us to be able to moderate our emotional behaviour, or to choose what we say or do, we have to be able to know when we have become, or better still, are becoming emotional. When that happens, we will feel more in touch, and better able to regulate our emotional life.’
As the years have passed, I’ve started to appreciate that my thoughts and feelings can be highly paradoxical. It’s perfectly possible to feel thankful and guilty, exasperated and determined, hopeful and discouraged, irritated and anxious – all at the same time. These contrasts are the reality of human experience, whatever our background and walk of life.
Perhaps this is what the poet Mary Oliver meant when she wrote, “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”
When we can observe our darkest feelings, without having to become them, the light of our humanity and self-expression can stream in.
Ekman, P. (2004). Emotions Revealed. W&N.