Learning how to uncomplicated emotions
There was a time, in the last decade, when I was doing EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) therapy. We started with some simple drawing of my feelings, my inner picture of myself. We quickly realized that my perceptions of many feelings were seriously skewed.
The therapist came up with pages of emotion words. She gave me 5 colored crayons. Red for Angry, Yellow for Positive, Black for Negative, Blue for Scared, and Purple for anything else. I was to underline each emotion word with the feeling it provoked in me.
So, I did my very best. I thought about each word, and what it provoked inside me. I was surprised I could identify and acknowledge the Angry words. Happy was a tiny tentative list. Beyond that, the problem quickly became clear. Most of the words didn’t exactly fit into any of the categories. Purple was getting bigger and bigger.
We talked and did some more drawings. Then, I tackled the list again. This time, I could use as many colors as I felt for each word. Now I started accessing my genuine emotions. Most of the words that, technically, are positive held a strong helping of shame or guilt for me. Words like agreeable, honest, comforting, honorable, devoted, empathetic, and moral. Similar words also made me angry.
After journaling and drawing on my own and weeks of processing during our sessions, it all made sense. The superlative characteristics that I had identified as shameful (and there were over a page of them) were part of the persona I had created to keep me safe. I did not, could not, believe any of that goodness really belonged to me.
That was a problem. One of my core issues, and it needed to be resolved. That perfect little girl had always felt like a deception. It was a costume that I put on.
Because I had pieced that construct together with bits and pieces of the people I knew and wished I could be like, I understood it on the outside. I could copy the things they did. But I had no access to how it felt inside. I believed everyone else was naturally so much better than I was.
I didn’t see their struggles or doubts. It was all so hard for me. No one ever explained it has hard for them, too. Until I met Elizabeth.
Elizabeth was a woman from church. She nurtured and cared about me. More than anything, she let me in. We would go visiting with three other sisters from church every month. It was a lot of driving. Which gave Elizabeth and me plenty of time to talk.
Elizabeth was the woman most women in the church wanted to be. She was good, and kind, and always available if someone needed her. She was such an exemplary mother to her 4 very normal, engaging, and all-around exceptional children.
In our conversations, she shared just how hard that could be, sometimes. She pulled back the curtain, so to speak, and allowed me to see that on the inside she had all the insecurities, doubts, annoyances, and even pettiness that I did.
It was a decision. It was work. Just like for me. Could it be that I really wasn’t a total enigma? Was it possible that happiness might be possible for me, too?
Once I understood the contortions, the hoops I had forced my little girl emotions through, I could feel the emotions in a more normalized way. Finally, I was ready to try the EMDR again.
The whole point of EMDR is that it lowers the emotional intensity of your memories. That way, you can process any trauma without re-traumatizing yourself. It isn’t necessary to talk through it.
We worked hard to bring out the memories about my father. Then my therapist told me she was leaving for a new position. She was leaving in 4 weeks.
It was a feverish dash for me. I was determined that for our least session, I would let go of the pain that my father had gifted me. I was scared. But I was ready.
But my therapist broke her foot. Her supervisor called me to tell me there would be no last session. I was crushed, though I didn’t tell anyone. Not even Joan (my primary therapist, who I had continued to see on alternating weeks throughout my time there).
At first, I thought she would call me to say goodbye. I had made a photo book for her, dog pictures I thought would remind her of our time together. Perhaps Joan could bring it to her.
But the time never came. I was deeply hurt. Too hurt to tell anyone. That book sat on my passenger side floor, getting covered with food bits and dirty, until, ultimately, it got wet when I left the window open.
It unceremoniously got dumped. Rather like me.
I wish we had had more time together. There were other memories I could have explored. Just reducing the heightened emotional response around my father’s behaviors was huge. It opened the door to other memories, in a much safer way.