And then distract ourselves to cope
Presence and self-awareness are hard. Understanding what I want and feel both in the moment and the long-term requires the skill set to understand what I want and feel in general. Self awareness requires, well, self-awareness. Working on the skill requires we have it, and it’s built only with patience and chicken-and-egg.
This exercise is hard for me. It feels strained, like trying to speak in a second language you’ve only known for a few weeks. I need long spans of several seconds to even formulate an answer sometimes — what do I want right now? where do I want to eat? what do I want to do?— because my knee jerk response is “whatever, I don’t care!” And that’s the automatic response most of us settle for, but lately I’ve been challenging myself to actually answer. And it’s not always easy.
Especially in the present, let alone the future.
So I try another approach: childhood. How did I feel? What did I want?
When asked to think back on myself as a child, prompted with questions like “what was she like? what’s she like now?” my immediate answer is a cheerful reassurance: “she’s fine!” 🙂
But I hear this as I say it and even I’m a bit skeptical. Because, I mean, is she?
“Fine” is our carefully choreographed response, dutifully chirped like a game of social Marco Polo. “How are you?” We ask each other without interest. “Fine!” We answer back without thought.
Fine. Always fine. And my child self probably is fine, but maybe only because I, like so many others, leaned into the “fineness” as my identity.
When I prod a little deeper on my feelings as a child, as I am prompted to do, the overwhelming sensation is “space” and “silence.” Everything is at arm’s length and there is no sound — a subtle, buzzy feeling of detachment, like watching a TV in a bar with the sound off.
I was withdrawn. Not scared or even shy, necessarily, but “still.” I turned my attention inward and then toward creative work: coloring, drawing, reading, creating elaborate worlds — for toy horses, for made-up characters by way of short stories, for myself, by pretending I was all kinds of animals.
For about a year when I was very young, any time I was home I pretended to be the family dog — watching TV from the carpet, crawling, and barking in response to questions.
And I only just realized, as I was writing this, that this habit very well could have simply been a coping mechanism —because, my mother loves dogs — and if that’s the case, maybe all of it was.
But whatever — the reason why doesn’t matter here. This isn’t supposed to be an exercise on logic, especially since that’s my tendency, my “security blanket,” my “safe space.” It’s just supposed to be an exercise on feelings.
I go back to childhood, still trying. I see myself mentally and then physically removing myself from the room, the house, any space I’m in. When riding in vehicles, I imagine myself running on the sidewalks and shoulders alongside it, leaping over obstacles with total grace. And somehow always keeping up.
I still do all of this today. Even the car thing, as a passenger.
But still, I only get these wispy sensations and scenes, and no substantial feeling.
So I fall to sensation, almost as a cheap shot shortcut, and it’s here where my richest “emotion” memories most readily rise.
Pleasure: the feeling of humidity when visiting my grandma down in Texas and Florida. The pool she had at both homes. The breakfasts she made. The feel of her nails when she tucked my hair behind my ear.
Displeasure: the unbearable coldness of a leather couch in an over-air-conditioned house; in fact, the entire, oppressive chill of a house kept too cold year-round, regardless of season.
Pleasure: Sitting on top of the floor register as a small child, making a tent around myself with the damp towel after my shower. The sensation of sitting outside the house in the summer, sometimes unable to soak up enough heat. The sheer delight of getting into a hot car interior —folding yourself into those hot leather seats — on a summer day.
The quiet panic of autumn, especially at twilight; the time of year suspended between sources of warmth, outside or in, when no heat could be recuperated anywhere.
And somewhere in here I suddenly realize:
There’s a difference between coping mechanisms and happiness.
The problem with saying “what we like,” “what’s fun,” “what we feel” is that we’re not that simple. We project and load everything up with abstracted, layered complexities that don’t belong there.
I know my favorite food was broccoli and today it’s (probably) vegetables, but beyond that I can’t talk about food with any kind of certainty, because food is something we all pack with emotions. My mother has baggage around red velvet cake, because her mother would only bake it for her colleagues, never the kids. Both women, like many moms, showed their “love” by feeding us, doting on “good eaters” and encouraging us, in a convoluted self-serving fashion, to “clean our plate.” Many of us abuse food, trying to suppress anxiety but actually indulging it by over or under eating.
And yet the same people speak with authority on foods they “enjoy.” They also speak with authority on past-times they find “fun,” but it’s hard to understand if “fun” is meant to include things like overspending, overindulging, shirking responsibilities, drinking?
Do we even know what emotional health and happiness look like? Do we even know how we really feel?
I press further, looking for things I know I enjoy.
I like writing. No, I love writing. I can’t not with the writing. And yeah, sure, it can get a little indulgent — masturbatory — but for the most part, I think “writing” and I have a pretty good thing going. We are not antagonistic; I don’t withdraw from it in fear of imperfection, I don’t expect it to serve me or solve my problems, and only on the rare occasion do I think, “ugh — let’s try a new direction.” And then we do.
The bike. The boy.
My body. I like and appreciate my body. I say this with some caution, as I also recognize that I sometimes use her to exert control, or reject control altogether and get sloppy, but she’s a patient companion and for the most part we are not adversaries. We stand facing each other naked before each shower, mentally smiling and kind to each other as though to say, “oh hey, you — it’s me.”
And yet still, with so much of my existence, I’m not sure.
And I find that the bigger the thing, the less certain I am of “how I feel.”
Here’s how “repressing your feelings” looks: dating someone who’s emotionally abusive for two years and truly not recognizing it as emotional abuse. Feeling moderately aware of your own unhappiness, of course, but reminding yourself: there are tons of good times too, and “this is how it goes.”
Here’s how “mismanaging your feelings” looks: Misinterpreting common relationship models as “healthy” and unknowingly dating a codependent, the sort of person who emotionally stands so close that their breath is hot on your face as they repeatedly ask, heart in their hand: “how can I make you happy?” Confusing this for “love.” Interpreting the inevitable “codependent” fallout, with its manipulation and toxic behaviors, as “normal” (I mean, hell, it’s in all the films, music, and sitcoms!) and willingly overlooking them in pursuit of what you think is “long-term happiness” by “making it work.” Truly believing “every couple fights” and “love takes compromise.”
Here’s how “not trusting your feelings” looks: understanding, looking back, that you did this. Accepting your responsibility; your role in what happened. No hate or blame or shame, but definitely an overarching feeling of distrust. In yourself; your judgment. Spending a year after the break-up reading what others have to say about healthy relationships, and then building a new, beautifully-delightful one with an incredible person; feeling a solid, sweet, simple, lighthearted happiness and only very rare pangs of displeasure. (Which is normal, so far as you can tell? Still not sure. Because you had “happy moments” the other times, too. And your “feelings” could be messing it all up again, at this very moment.)
Here, people are quick to romanticize — to also slip away from consciousness but fall in the other direction: just go for it! follow your heart! And to readers thinking that, I’ll just reiterate: getting something that’s actually emotionally fulfilling and fruitful takes more than blind “feels.” Especially when that muscle has atrophied.
I do know I’m happier in this relationship than I was in any of the others — and whatever this has, the others definitely lacked. But at the same time: I thought those were good too, at the time, so who’s to say I’m not still mistaken, just in a newer, more “woke” way? What if I’m only getting better at mismanaging my relationships?
What is love? I may repress feelings, but I still have them, and I’ve messed it up by leaning both in and out. Love is a decision, sure, but where do feelings come into play? If we need feelings to make meaningful decisions, how do they reconcile?
How do we manage and deal with our “feelings?” Ignoring them is obviously not the answer. But neither, presumably, is hitching them up to the front of the wagon in blind, reckless faith.
All of this, I think, is getting ahead of myself. All of this is just fear rising to the surface — all my apprehensions and awareness of my experience with feelings in the past. Which, on the upside, is arguably step one of building my awareness with feelings and emotions in real-time, as it serves my life now.
We can build lives that are better than coping mechanisms; better than “whatever” or “fine.” We can find incredible happiness, if only we first know what we feel, and want, and what it all means for us.