Do I Feel My Feelings?

Illustration: OWN Digital

12 of 20
Do I Feel My Feelings?
Maybe you can experience levity enough to laugh, embarrassment enough to blush, irritation enough to bitch. But maybe the sadder, angrier, uglier stuff you drown out or deny. Maybe your life's central trauma, the biggie, the time when you were 17 and a person who was supposed to protect you, whom you loved and still love, hurt you worse than you knew was possible—maybe you lock that up, turn from it. And why not? Those feelings are too big, too loud, unwieldy, undignified. Plus, that was ages ago. Plus, you have a life! And there's no room in it to nurse some old ache. So you tell yourself you're not wounded or enraged—how could you be, everything is okay, don't look over there, nothing is happening over there—and soon all that anger and grief retreat. And opting out is so compelling, a study in clean, anesthetic ease.

But after a while you notice that you sure do watch a lot of TV, and change the subject all the time, and you're always ordering three whiskeys instead of one. You find that even your treasured relationships feel bloodless and rote. You find that you can't bear to be still because then you have to think.

So, though it makes you sweaty with fear, you find yourself a shrewd therapist, and she coldcocks you with this little number: "Nobody gets to block out the bad stuff without also losing the good." And after days of pissy denial, you see that she's right, that not feeling feelings worked too well! You don't have to suffer pain, but you've also lost out on its opposite. You're getting by on a low-fat, Xeroxed, Muzak version of happiness. You see that you've become a liar, saying things like "I'm not hurt," "I'm not mad," "I'm fine." You grasp that these lies make you unknowable, which means no one really knows you, which means you're alone. You realize that when you refuse to feel pain, you wind up feeling it forever; you finance it, setting up an installment plan to buy decades of chronic anguish.

You decide to stop paying. You resolve to feel your feelings, starting with the big ones you've backlogged. (You gather you'll be hanging out with that shrewd therapist a while.) You look a friend in the eye and say an impossible thing like "That hurts my feelings." You marvel when he apologizes, says he's glad you told him, that you always should. You file this away, acclimating to the bracing sensation of telling the truth. You take up a doofy hobby—pure fun, zero nutritional value—to remember what delight feels like. You think about the people you'd take a bullet for, square your shoulders, and tell them you love them, because in all this time you never have.

You fly home and invite the person who hurt you so bad, the person you loved and still love, into your pristine rental car. You don't have a destination in mind, but you want to be driving, holding the wheel, when you say another impossible thing, which is "You nearly broke me in half." And you marvel this time, as well—not because she too apologizes, though that is more than you knew you could hope for. No, you marvel because it doesn't matter what comes out of her mouth, because all that matters is that you have arrived somewhere. What matters is that you are awake and alive, you can see. You see that you still have time, you didn't waste it all. You see that you are strong enough to survive the world and the hurt floating around in it. And you see that ditching an approach that did you no favors—that made you a stranger to yourself, left you only a partial person—feels really good.

—Katie Arnold-Ratliff, O's Articles Editor