June 9, 2010

How do you really feel?

One thing I notice about myself is my inability to sit with pain. When I feel it, physically or emotionally, I want to rid myself of it. I justify distracting myself from pain, by arguing that for the benefit of my emotional health, it should pass quickly and quietly. Not only do I struggle with allowing myself to sit with pain, but I struggle with honestly sharing my pain with those outside of my family.

It is not unheard of that my closest friends will ask me a question, I'll answer, and right after they'll say, "ok, but how to you REALLY feel?" This usually results in a melting of inhibitions and an answer embodied with a deeper and more emotional response. But it takes slightly more of an effort to bring these responses to the surface. Why am I quick to share my joys, but slower to share my sorrows?

If there is an epidemic in this country, it is not the suffering itself, but the sickness of "desperate attempts to avoid suffering." We have become a society that despises pain. If it is physical, we numb it with medicine. If it is mental, we distract it with noise, internet, or tv. If it is emotional, we view it as weakness and therefore repress it in addiction, avoidance, or silence.

When people are going through a hard time and don't cry, we view them as "strong." When people are struggling and look on the bright side, we say "they have so much faith." But is rare that we look in the face of a crying person and say, "this act of crying is a true sign of courage- to feel sadness in the face of another."

Sharon Salzberg, a renowned Buddhist, noticed that as a society, we rarely are capable of expressing our feelings of pain with others. We often don't respond to "how are you?" with an answer of "I'm sad; I'm hurt; I'm suffering; I'm lonely; I am discouraged." Though these sentiments may later express themselves through further prying, often these feeling remain unnamed.

Salzberg noticed that our society has really only come to accept one word as a socially suitable means of expressing any type of suffering: "stressed." If we feel inadequate at work, if a close friend has ill-health, if our family is going through some struggles, if we do not have time to do that which we love--we tell the world, without hesitation, that "we're stressed." And those who listen can share that they too feel stressed. For whatever reason this word is easier to share. Perhaps, we view "being stressed" as more circumstantial, stemming from external sources, and it is therefore easier to admit since it avoids any commentary on an internal state. Perhaps, it's easier to share because it broadly means "I have a lot on my plate," but it is not specific in that no one has to know the true root of our suffering. But regardless for the reasons of its acceptability, it has become the universal word for pain.

Anger too is much more of an acceptable emotion. And not only are we not scared to share it, but we often find it empowering. Even though anger is merely a different manifestation of pain, we embrace. Our expression of anger hides personal suffering by blaming the pain on the act of another, and, therefore, we are not viewed as weak. When we witness acts or words of anger, rarely do we look at the person with a sense of compassion and think, "here, is a person of true suffering." Rather we think, "I wonder (what someone else did) to make this person angry; I wonder what occurrence (outside the person's control) made this person angry?" Similar to stress, the expression of anger frees the person experiencing it from having to delve into his/her true feelings of hurt and pain with others and with themselves.

How can we be better embrace our feelings of sadness? How can we learn to experience it, instead of fighting it? How can we learn to invite it in when it arises as opposed to trying to distract ourselves from it? Perhaps the mere acknowledgment of the pain is where it must start. Perhaps, when it seeps in, we must say, "hello there sadness, here you are." Perhaps we must sit with it and observe how it feels; not trying to fight it, but trying to engage in it-hand in hand. And perhaps when people ask how we are and we feel it, we can have the strength to look people in the eye and share, "right now, I am sad. But that is ok." And perhaps in doing so, this will be a true act of strength. And then, sadness will no longer be a weakness.


  1. ker - continue to love your posts - you make writing seem so effortless. they really speak to me.

  2. thanks linds. that means a lot to me. please let me know if you come to NYC!

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  4. Kerry, I am not stalking you. promise. I just always want to read your posts because they are so real and I encourage and write and express myself in a more tangible way as you do. I loved this post today (probably have read it a few times, but it struck me this AM). "Why am I quick to share my joys, but slower to share my sorrows?" so true and as you say later on.. how can we embrace the feelings (good or bad) that we feel.. because really its okay to have sad, mad etc feelings and why fight them? they are as really as the feelings of joy... you inspire me. thank you!