Skip links

Feelings Aren’t The Problem

Trigger warning: death of a family member

Photo by Abigail Keenan

Most of my clearest childhood memories are of moments when I lost control. The time I wept in gym because a kid called me Scarface. My tears of shame when my gym teacher caught me stealing some extra hot chocolate. Even into the seventh grade, I was still unable to restrain my tear ducts when a strong emotion hit.

Over the years, I became paranoid. Repeatedly hearing phrases like, “it’s not a big deal” or “you’re just being sensitive” from well-meaning friends and family, I made it my mission to wrangle my feelings. To be silent when something troubled me, rather than confront it right then. And without fully realizing it, I learned not to trust myself.

Photo by Kristina Flour

Our society often teaches us showing feelings is a problem. We learn being strong means hiding emotions like sadness and fear. We learn that to be emotional is to be irrational, to overreact to things. Children are taught to put politeness and obedience above honesty and openness, learning to keep quiet no matter how adults make them feel. And for some, hiding feelings even becomes a matter of survival.

I truly began to realize how foolish these societal teachings are in 2016, the year I lost my mother to cancer.

2016: The Year the Dam Broke

I began 2016 by sending a letter to my best friend of thirteen years. I told her I could no longer deal with how she treated our friendship and gave her an ultimatum, saying that if she were willing to make a change, I’d stick by her. It wasn’t the most delicately written letter and in hindsight, I can clearly see the mistakes that I made–both in the letter and during our friendship. But it proved to be a crucial choice. I never heard back from her.

Barely a week later, I called up the man I had lost my virginity to and told him we needn’t be friends anymore. He had promised to remain my friend after that drunken night and reckless decision, reassuring me he’d be there for me. All too often, it had seemed those words only mattered when it was convenient for him. The tipping point, however, came in the form of a mutual friend confirming I was far from alone in having my trust betrayed.

In the months that followed, I was angrier for longer than I’d ever been in my life. I raged aloud to my friends repeatedly. I gave people the finger (though not to their faces). I stared down my work computer stonily each day. It might not have been pleasant, but in a way it was therapeutic. Then I got a new job and moved to a new town.

A week later, my mother died.

I had leaned on my mother all of my life. There was no one I trusted more with my fears and thoughts. Losing her left me awash in guilt at not having provided her the support she had always provided me, sadness and bitterness at losing her too soon, and a strange, hollow emptiness, among other things.  Losing her forced me to reconcile with my feelings, something I’ve grappled with ever since. It also made me recognize the damage done by holding them back.

The Value of Feelings

For years, my best friend angered and hurt me with her words and actions. Her tendency to mock me with our other friends. Her jealous behavior when I spent time with other people. Her efforts to guilt me into things I didn’t want. I see now that being more honest with her from an early age and consistently asserting the validity of my own feelings could have saved both of us a lot of pain. Either we would have grown apart sooner or we could have grown together in a way that might have lasted beyond our thirteenth year.

In the months following the loss of my virginity, I constantly doubted myself as my friend wavered between making obvious excuses to not see me (or simply not showing up) and calling me late at night to talk about his new crush or assuage his own feelings of guilt. No matter how many small details felt off, I assumed my emotions were getting the better of me. Embarrassed, I tried to limit how often I bothered him with them. I dismissed every sign til the truth finally slapped me in the face. So great was my fear of trusting my feelings that I ignored logic and common sense as well.

And finally, I recognize how important my feelings were to my bond with my mother. There was no one I was closer to and no one I was more open about my feelings with. That is not a coincidence. That openness and vulnerability on my part and her response to it is what made us so close. It was what I cherished about her. Yes, losing her still causes me pain. But when I look back on my life, I will always remember the love and the happiness she gave me as far greater.

How honest you are with your feelings is a yardstick of trust. It may not be easy, but I believe that if we all learned to use that yardstick more freely, we would know each other better, resolve conflicts more quickly, and form more close bonds. Feelings aren’t the problem. We just haven’t been using them right.

Katie Clarke

A few words about me

Katie is a gentle soul with a snarky side who loves curries, traveling, and cats, is deeply afraid of losing all her friends and/or being lost at sea, and thinks cake is dreadfully overrated as a food item. She aspires to be as good a human being as she can be and to leave the world a little better than how she found it.