Friday, October 18, 2013

Dark Emotions - Am I a Stranger to Myself?

Dark emotions

I'm reading Healing Through the Dark Emotions by Miriam Greenspan, for me a fiercely compelling book, because it's so evident that my troubles with addiction find their roots in not allowing the dark emotions of grief, fear, and despair into my life since early childhood. The author, a psychotherapist, believes that these three emotions (grief, fear, and despair) are the mother emotions (my term), the emotions at the bottom of the heap, under anger, under depression, under actions such as addiction, suicide, and aggression.

We are taught, she says, by our family and culture to suffer in silence, or to deny suffering exists at all, taught to suppress the dark emotions, especially in public, in any but the most intimate personal relationships, taught to compose ourselves, taught that display of authentic sorrow is bad form, a sign of emotional weakness. We feel guilty and abnormal, criticizing ourselves as "over-sensitive" for expressing the dark emotions, even for fleeting moments. These teachings carry on generation to generation. My mother, learning from her family not to cry, taught it to me by ignoring me whenever I cried, or discounting my grief by telling me to stop crying because everything was going to be OK. If I had any children, doubtless I would have taught them the same lessons, because until now, I did not know that I could heal my grief and despair by feeling it, by crying, by allowing it a legitimate place in my being.

Am I a stranger to myself, not even aware of my fears, grief, and despair, numbing myself with food, playing solitaire on my computer, and compulsively working? What can I remember from childhood about the teachings I received? How have I suppressed dark emotions in the past few days? I believe these are important questions to consider, important enough to spend time painting the answers with words.

Childhood teachings

Sadness, grief, and despair were certainly not approved. I know this because I was always told by my mother and grandmother "don't cry." I recall my grandmother making waffles, allowing me to fill all the holes with maple syrup, wait until the syrup seeped into the waffle, and then fill them again. "See," she'd say, "now it's all better." Fill the holes with sugar. Don't cry. Eat and be merry. I lived with my grandmother from age 5 to 7, two years of learning how to grieve my father's death and my mother's absence with food, especially sugar, to not talk about Daddy or Mommy, to stifle my angst, my sadness, my fears and despair.

From my mother, it was a slightly different teaching, although she also practiced self-medication with sugar, never crying, never voicing her own grief and despair about her husband's death, about her mother's death, about the cold war, about anything. Her primary method of dealing with any of my expressed dark emotions was to ignore me. I'd go in my room, wailing, in torment about being slighted by a neighborhood kid, flopping over my bed, suffering loudly, wanting her to come to me, hold me, rock me, comfort me. But she would not come. And when I finally composed myself enough to rejoin the family, it was as if nothing had happened at all. Grief and despair were thus discounted, as being unworthy of parental attention or discussion. I don't blame my mother. When Mom was only 11 years old, her mother died. She too was not allowed by her father or paternal grandmother to grieve.

Fear? I'm not sure about fear. I do not recall voicing fears during childhood at all, although I do remember having them. For example, being tall, the tallest girl in all my grade school classes, taller than most boys, when we had nuclear attack drills, not fitting under the desk, my legs sticking out, unprotected, I feared when the bombs dropped, my legs would be ripped off. I'd become a cripple, unable to walk. I'm certain I never voiced that fear to anybody.

More importantly, back when I was 5 and 6, I'm sure I was afraid my mother would never return to "rescue" me from my grandmother. I don't recall asking anybody if she would return. Maybe I did. Maybe my grandmother discounted my fear by telling me, "Don't be a silly old goose... of course she'll come," thus teaching me that expressing fears means I am a silly goose, definitely not OK.


Fear might be the mother dark emotion for me. If I express it at all, it's as an instant flash of hot, viscous anger, striking out verbally, especially at those close to me, like my husband in recent years, like my brother, like my parents when I was a teenager. In the moment of expression, I'm not aware, even in the slightest, that my anger is fear-based. It takes a lot of working though my angry emotions and actions to find the under-lying fear.

I can think of many examples of this. Here's an incident that happened more than 10 years ago, one that I didn't realize was fear-based until just this moment.

My parents had moved into an assisted living facility. The eldest of my brothers and I had flown to St. Paul to help prepare their house to sell, to facilitate a garage sale of their down-sized belongings, and to dispose of what couldn't be sold or given away. Tensions grew between the two of us, until a few days after arriving I blew up at him, starting an ugly verbal fight that ended with us not speaking to each other for the remainder of our stay. He was this; he was that; he did this; he did that; he was one bad dude, and my anger was justified, even after it diminished and we returned to our "get along sibling" mode. That's what I thought until just now.

What was under all that fault, blame, anger, and isolation? Fear! It was my fear about my parents. Were they going to die soon? Did moving to assisted living spell their imminent demise? Would I be abandoned again? Would I ever see them again? I was afraid. And my poor brother suffered the consequences. Maybe he was afraid too. Most men, taught early in childhood how it's not OK to be a "scaredy-cat," deny their fears entirely. Maybe his fear manifests in anger too. When we could have supported and comforted each other, instead we had an enormously damaging fight, all because we didn't even realize we were simply afraid.

I could, and probably should, write about many such events in my life, shouting and cursing in anger, not aware that it's really fear I am feeling. Can I change? Can I think "fear," allowing myself to feel fear before I throw flames of anger? I have a lot of shame around my outbursts of anger. Wouldn't it be wonderful to have less shame and anger?!


Dictionary definition: deep or intense sorrow or distress, especially at the death of someone.

I've tried to acknowledge and work through the grief I must have felt when my father died (when I was just turning 5 years old), and the abandonment by my mother when she immediately returned to college, leaving my brother and me with our paternal grandparents. I've journaled, written poems, and made artwork (see below). Have I finished feeling my grief? I don't know.

Not one to cry, as you already know, I have to look for other ways to express my grief. When my step father (whom I loved dearly) died, I made spirit dolls from his neckties for each member of the family. When my mother died, I made a collage with pieces of the vests she wore. Journaling visually with bead embroidery, I celebrate the beauty in each of them, and our shared love (here/Mom and here/Dad).

But losing my parents as an adult, I hardly spoke out loud about my sadness, not to anyone, and I only cried once. People sent me cards, and I looked at them like a stranger. To whom were they offering condolences? Does that mean I aborted the grieving process? Silly old goose, won't get caught with tears in her eyes. Years later, am I numbing grief by eating and playing cards? Is there any way to restart grief, to go through it rather than avoid it? I hope reading about the dark emotions will help me.


Dictionary definition: to be overcome by a sense of futility or defeat - complete loss of hope.

I recognize despair, and feel it knowingly more than I feel fear or grief. I feel it when I read or listen to the news, when I think about politics, when I am greedy myself or see it in others, when somebody discounts me because I am a woman, or old, or fat. I used to feel it quite painfully when I went to a dance. I felt despair in my marriage. I feel despair almost daily, when I am unable to stick to my food plan, when my weight keeps creeping up again.

Talking about despairing feelings is easier than talking about grief or fear, since somehow it was more acceptable in my family to despair, especially about politics, world population growth, violence, and human-caused harm to nature. Still, I wonder if I don't try to numb myself to it most of the time?

This is good

It feels really good to be writing this, to be facing the dark emotions, not yet fully embracing them, not yet understanding their healing powers, but ready to become less of a stranger to myself.

Last weekend, I attended 16 wonderful documentary films at a local film festival, some of them very sad, some full of despair and fear, some of them offering spirituality and hope, some not. Swallowing hard, a big lump in my throat, shutting my eyes, thinking about what I would eat between films, I managed not to cry, just barely. I did not allow myself to speak to anybody about Luna (The Whale), because I knew I could not utter one word without choking up, without my eyes welling with tears. Silly old goose. Thou shalt not cry.

Isn't it time to allow myself to grieve? It's good to be taking a few baby steps in this direction!