We edit ourselves quite severely. From when we were young, we have learned to cut our language’s cloth in keeping with the economy of our surroundings. So, if we are with people who cannot cope with anger, we soften our speech. If we are with jealous people, we moderate our more showy side. If we are with critical people, we keep quiet about things we don’t want criticised.
This is exhausting. Among other things, I am a professional trainer, and I know what it’s like to spend full days constantly alert and sensitive to how a whole room is feeling. To a certain extent, we all have to deal with self-censorship and prioritising of others’ conversational requirements. It helps us all to get things done.
However, it leaves a residue of unsaid stuff inside ourselves. Once we have finished dealing with professional colleagues, children, people we are caring for… after all that, we may well still have a set of feelings we can’t let out. Usually, the left-over feelings are the ones that the world doesn’t have time for: anger, resentment, worry, uncertainty, bitterness, confusion.
As a psychotherapist, I spend a lot of time making space for the unsaid stuff lurking inside clients. I watch carefully for the thoughts and feelings that the client may want to share and explore, but is hesitant or afraid to disclose. If the client had parents who discouraged certain forms of thinking and feeling, then it can take a long time to feel comfortable letting them out to play. There is a sense that something awful may happen if the client opens up. Perhaps I will not accept these parts of their inner self, and they will be hurt yet again.
A key skill I can show as a therapist is my own ability to hear and speak freely. If I hesitate to approach certain subjects, or seem afraid, then it wouldn’t be surprising if the client picked up on my fear, and became reluctant to let things out. I try to demonstrate that I don’t have a problem with hearing negative feelings – how else will the client feel safe to share their anger, or resentment, or other buried emotions.
This works internally as well. As I have worked on my ability to welcome anything into the room without prejudice, I have become better at welcoming my own varying thoughts and feelings into my awareness without fear. We all have an internal police officer, checking and arresting our thoughts as appropriate. But my meditations, and work with clients, have improved the sensitivity of that police officer. Instead of ‘over-policing myself’, inhibiting myself when near a difficult subject, I let the thoughts breathe. Often, once my mind realises I am not afraid, it relaxes into a comfortable flow.
This non-judgemental fearlessness is a key skill in both psychotherapy and self-development. We are all walking this earth with a set of attachments and aversions. If we are afraid of sharing them, they start to haunt us, and feel uncontrollable. We might fear the daily post, because of a bad past experience receiving a letter. Sharing that fear with someone else, and getting comfortable with it together, is progress. If we can internalise that comfortable feeling, even better. This is why compassionate parents breed peaceful children. The child has a sharing partner for feelings, and eventually becomes their own good sharing partner.
As an exercise, we can try, today, to ‘let some cats out of the bag’. What I mean is, when we notice we are shutting feelings down, or pretending they aren’t there, we can let them out to play a bit more. Yes, we can be diplomatic if the situation demands it. But we can probably afford to be a bit more ‘authentically us’, and a bit less self-stifling.
One note… I specifically don’t mean to say we should blurt out all our hate to others indiscriminately, and then call it healthy honesty. That way lies relational ruin. But we can creatively select ways of behaving which allow our inner emotions to come out and play, to be a bit silly. There are many, many ways to explore negative emotions and remain kind in our approach.
There will be potential, today, to act with a wider sense of who we are, rough and smooth, instead of just playing a narrow, over-censored role that isn’t really us. Let’s see what we can create, in therapy, in our own minds, and in our relationships. By all means, let’s stay diplomatic and kind. But, in the name of happiness, let’s make fear redundant.