We all know it’s a bad idea to stuff your feelings, especially if you then pile food or alcohol on top of them.
Here’s an example. My father was dying, and had only days to live. We all knew it. My mother, who didn’t drive, asked me to take her shopping for something to wear at his funeral. “Do you mind if I don’t wear black?” she asked. “If you don’t mind that I do,” I replied.
It was my first encounter with a close family death, and I had to get through this awful, wrenching shopping trip. I had to keep my composure so that my mother could keep her composure. I had to steer her away from a flowered dress, which would have been fine for church, to a navy suit and a lighter blue top, which would be suitable for a funeral but not so somber that she couldn’t wear it for anything else. All while my father lay in the hospital, dying painfully of bone cancer.
My feelings were complicated and I absolutely could not afford to feel them at that time. I had to stuff them in a box and close the lid on them until my mother’s needs had been met. Then I could let them out, in a time and place where it was safe to, in the presence of a person I could trust with those feelings.
When such circumstances arise – and they will, in one form or another – I recommend using a box, one in which the feelings will be out of sight for a while. A box is small; only a few feelings will fit in it. If you think the feelings are going to leak out, you can sit on the lid. Then, when it has served its purpose, you can rip the box open (or gently lift the lid) and feel the feelings. Cry. Rage. Grieve. That’s the important part.
You have to experience the grief or fear or even the crushing weight of guilt in order to come through it and heal.
But why put feelings in a box instead of something stronger? Who wants to feel those negative emotions anyway? Aren’t we better off without them? Shouldn’t you just build a wall around them to keep them from breaking out?
We’ve all tried it. It works for a while. But a couple of consequences go with the practice. First, all of your feelings get trapped behind that wall – the good as well as the bad. When you find yourself disconnected from all your feelings, life is a gray blur. In your depression or anxiety or fear or rage, you may not have had many good feelings. But when you build that wall, you cut off even the possibility of having them.
Second, you’re only postponing the pain. The wall will leak sometimes; your unpleasant feelings will come out some way – in your dreams, around your eyes, in sudden spurts, or trickling back into your everyday life. Worse, the wall may shatter – fail altogether, releasing all those feelings in an unstoppable torrent, only stronger and more concentrated from having been confined. They overwhelm both you and anyone in the vicinity. It’s not pretty. And it’s destructive – to you, your mental health, your healing, your employment, your relationships – to every aspect of your life.
If feelings are behind a wall, you may be able to tell yourself they don’t exist. But if you stuff them in a handy box, you can choose the time and place to open it – and yourself – back up.