Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Feeling What You Feel, At Any Age

Courtesy of Disney Pixar

When we think of children, it's common to think of positive feelings. After all, they have it pretty easy, right? No bills to pay or job to go to every day. They're naive enough to believe in Tooth Fairies and fat white guys who drop off gifts once a year just because they were "good" little boys and girls. We refer to them as bundles of joy since before they take their first breath. But, are we doing them a dis-service by associating only positive feelings to their childhood paths?

As adults, we experience a gamut of emotions - in my case, I experience elation to frustration to extreme sadness, sometimes within an hour. Yet, when kids cry, our first reaction is to say something like, "Aw, don't cry. It's OK." When we see an adult cry, we tend to say something like, "That's OK, you have to let it out." Those are hugely different messages and I think we need to flip the script. 

As a writer, one of the hardest things for me to write is emotion. I can write anger pretty easily, but anger isn't in itself an emotion, it's a reaction of an emotion, more of a by-product. It stems from something like hurt, deception, neglect, etc. Those are the emotions that need to be dealt with in order to manage the anger. Those are also the emotions that need to develop in my characters so that my readers understand the anger. Many of my writer friends say the same thing about writing emotions - that it's tough. The sheer number of writing blogs and articles on the subject are testament to the fact that it's difficult to write true feelings, much less flush them out so they are clear and easily identified. I have a few theories on why that is.

Theory #1: We're not encouraged to express or explore feelings as children.
Many of us were told not to cry, asked if we wanted a reason to cry, or were made to feel stupid when tears rolled down our cheeks. My friends recall stories of being told, "I'll give you a reason to cry" when they were kids, and how they all had different ways of swallowing their emotions so they wouldn't have to face la chancla for crying. We exchange these stories with humor and laughter, but at its core, there's nothing funny about being afraid to cry, to show that level of hurt, frustration, sadness, or anger. Feeling like you can only show one emotion - joy, is unhealthy in many ways. One of which is that it prohibits us from truly understanding our emotions. We learn to wear masks that show one side of us, our happy side. That isn't sustainable because we're human. We were exquisitely made to feel a complex array of emotions. That is how we process the world. Sometimes those emotions are ugly and they bring out the worst in us. That's also human and normal. But, the affects of limited emotional acceptance leaves us feeling that there's something wrong with us for feeling disappointed, jealous, insecure or overwhelmed. We were never taught how to properly assess those feelings and cope with them in healthy ways. That results in repression, denial and shame for feelings that were hard-wired into our being. How we react when we're feeling these negative feelings is what shapes our character. 

Too often as children we were distracted by fear of reprimand, or shamed with words like, "That's no reason to cry," or tickled and bribed into drying up those tears. As a parent, I get it. Nothing grates on my nerves more than crying, especially loud crying coming from a child old enough to use words. I have found myself saying all of the above, minus the chancla threat. I don't want my child to cry, whether for what I deem a silly reason, or one that comes from a place of deep hurt. I try not to let my daughter see me cry for fear that she'll be scared, or think I'm too fragile to care for her and protect her. I constantly battle with myself to understand the core of the crying, to ask why she cries with a genuine interest in listening, not in making the tears go away. Not to say there haven't been times when I tell her to go cry in her room, but more often than not, I want to understand her feelings because it was something I wish I had when I was growing up. Perhaps if I did, I would have an easier time illustrating feelings in my writing. 

Theory #2: We don't respect all feelings as equals.
Selling happiness is a billion-dollar industry. Terms like "happy pills" make us believe that any emotion other than joy can be zapped away with a pill and sip of water. There are seminars, books, retreats, Podcasts, and endless Pinterest boards dedicated to finding your bliss. Smiling faces bombard us at every corner from ads selling vaginal itch creams (I have yet to meet a woman elated about vaginal itch as the women in those ads), to sales people who want us to believe that buying the latest gadget or new car will make us the happiest person on earth. Happiness reigns supreme all around us. It makes us believe that it is a superior emotion. Yet, why is it any more valid than terror? Why do we only want others to see that one side of us? Why do we feel so ashamed to show another?

We don't validate other feelings. When was the last time you were encouraged to get in touch with any other feeling? Unless you are in the privacy of a therapist's office, or a support group of some kind, chances are you aren't encouraged to acknowledge and nurture any emotion other than positive ones. We try the childhood methods of distraction when it comes to our negative feelings. That's why drugs, alcohol, food and other addictions are so rampant. They act like bandages to our emotions, and later become our crutch in place of true admittance and action. Dulling and hiding our pain becomes the norm and when someone is brave enough to write about their dark times and how they made it through, we treat them as though they are an anomaly, heroes who did something extraordinary when deep down we know they did the same thing we all do on a daily basis - they just had the courage to make it public.

If we treated all emotions as valid, if we trusted them all to be a necessary part of life, we would be free of the misconception that some emotions are good, and some are bad. Emotions are what they are. They are our way of coping. The situations that influence emotions are good and bad, not the emotions themselves. 

I am not a psychologist, nor do I claim to be one. I loved my Psyche 101 class, but it hardly qualifies me as an expert. I am not trying to be one. Life has dealt me enough experiences that have elicited a broad range of emotions - as it does everyone. My circumstances may be different, but they do not warrant any more understanding of my emotions than anyone else's. When looking at how I react to what life offers me, I have to be brave enough to accept the ugly parts of emotion in order to write with authenticity. If I can't tap into what sparks tears or rage, then how can my reader understand why my character cries or punches a wall? 

Writing emotions from a genuine place will always be a challenge for me. When my agent says she wants to better understand why a character is prone to violence, or why she can't cry, I cringe because I know that those revisions require me to tap into places I have been taught to avoid, hide and be ashamed of. It means I have to go to a place of darkness that should remain unseen, untapped and therefore unaccepted. It takes me longer to dig into that aspect of my character, but I have to in order to know what drives him or her. If I write a scene, I have to provide my readers with the understanding of actions that set that scene in motion. Without the sentiments behind the action, my character is flat and unappealing to readers, especially young readers who are dealing with stifled emotions on a daily basis. As a writer, I can't short-change my readers by avoiding the core of what  makes my characters tick. It's not fair to them, and it wouldn't make a believable story. I want my readers to trust me and with that comes the responsibility of respecting all feelings as equal and valid, because they are.

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