Clean and Serene (an Emotional Time Bomb in Disguise)
What happens when feelings such as anger, grief or dissatisfaction are ignored, denied or covered up for long periods of time? Just turn on the evening news to find out! High school shootings, child abuse, pilots navigating a plane full of passengers into the sea, workplace massacres… Ever hear of the expression “going postal”?
Or, the opposite may happen. If strong feelings are not released out in acts of violence, they may be released in as self-destructive behavior, sometimes resulting in suicide.
The good news is that violence, suicide or drinking oneself silly do not have to be the only options! Competent therapists exist. There is help available, and there are constructive ways of dealing with strong emotions. Emotions do not kill. Emotions denied may. Writing, talking, screaming (in a non-destructive way), crying, art and music are all ways of expressing strong emotions constructively.
Why do people stuff their emotions? Because everything in our society encourages and rewards emotional control. Men are socialized to stuff their tender feelings (otherwise they are seen as weak sissies), women are socialized to temper their anger (otherwise they are seen as bitches). What a disservice this is to our natural human development! It does not matter which end of the continuum emotions are clipped, there is a price paid to be paid in either case. When anger is denied, rage starts to build up inside. The Avon woman who is “always” nice is actually seething with rage on the inside. The construction worker who is a real tough guy is actually a frightened little boy on the inside. Why? Because by nature, humans are whole. Extreme outer projections of toughness, “niceness”, purity, etc. frequently mask the opposite internal condition. We’ve all heard of those righteous and holy ministers who are closet child molesters…
Another reason that people hide their emotions (or their true selves) is to avoid shame, humiliation and ridicule. This is why talking to a (good) therapist has a therapeutic effect. Difficult emotions can be released without shame, ridicule or judgement. People go to great lengths to avoid shame or peer disapproval, frequently compromising their own personal integrity in the process. Adopting the false protective persona seems the lesser of two evils at the time, but the spiritual stress of living as a phony builds up, and substances are needed to soothe the dissonance between the inner truth and the outer projection. A few common examples will show that people are more likely to want to drink when they have to pretend to be something other than what they are:
Like getting home from a hard days work at a job that is disliked. One where a corporate mask must be worn and great pretense is required to get by.
Like spending the holidays with family that you don’t really like, but whose company you must “pretend” to enjoy, because it’s the polite thing to do.
Like having to report to a parent, boss or sponsor who demands honesty, but offers very clearly defined negative consequences for honesty which is not the desired response. For example: punishment, threat of termination or shaming.
Like having to hide one’s true sexual orientation because it is not the popular choice in one’s society.
Like having to pretend to be cool to impress someone when the inner feeling is that of fear of rejection or fear of inadequacy.
Part of mastering life is the development of communication skills which will allow us to be as honest as we can be in a given situation, (honoring our emotions), to avoid building up the spiritual stress of living as a phony or people pleaser.
In many cases, for adults, it is socially challenging to be emotionally honest. But this is not so with young children. If you’ve ever watched babies, you will have noticed that they are fully emotive creatures. Any inconvenience, a late feeding, a toy she can’t reach, a tiny bump of the head results in shrieking cries and full remorseless expression. Once the emotions are let out, the event is forgotten fairly quickly. By crying and expressing herself, the child has realigned herself emotionally and psychologically. The incident is forgotten and the baby returns to its natural, happy state.
Babies don’t need drugs or drink to feel alive. They feel alive because they fully experience and express their emotions. While I am not suggesting that people wail like infants over food arriving late at a restaurant, I am suggesting that a full emotional life where feelings are honored and expressed constructively is the goal to work toward. Newly recovering alcoholics and addicts rarely know how to handle their emotions properly. There is a need to find the balance between social acceptability (not being a danger to self and others) while at the same time, honoring emotions rather than denying them, even if those emotions are profound. Infantile expression and utter repression are both extremes for which there is a high cost.
For emotion stuffers, AA does not set out to awaken their emotional worlds. Far from it! Instant “Serenity” is set forth as the immediate emotional goal for all members… serenity being an emotional state devoid of notable highs or lows! Members are taught to avoid strong emotions! Unfortunately, before one can even think about serenity, long repressed deep emotions such as anger, rage and grief must be dealt with. These feelings cannot be “candy coated” with any hope of long-term success. Sadly, when members do experience strong emotions they may be shamed for having an emotional relapse, or labeled dry drunks. The state of Serenity, which is presented as emotional flatness, is unhealthy by standards of modern psychology. A broad range of deep emotions, appropriately used is what emotional health is all about! This is what makes life colorful, rich and worthwhile. It is unrealistic to expect to go through life without strong emotions. Life brings joy as well as tragedy. Such is the nature of living.
Because members try to maintain the precarious state of Serenity, but at the same time, are often hiding deep emotional pain, they are frequently living life as emotional time bombs. This is why expression of deep emotions is often discouraged in meetings. Members are to “work the program” on their strong feelings, so they don’t feel them with intensity, and most importantly, so they don’t express them. The fear is that one person’s “time-bomb” (the expression of strong emotion in a meeting)… will detonate the entire mine field.
Instead of working toward the goal of finally opening the Pandora’s box of repressed emotions which has been neglected by years of drinking, then fully experiencing and attaching the proper feelings to past life events, many AA members fail to address these issues at all. Why? For several reasons. Firstly, AA suggests that people “let go” of the past in a wave-of-the-hand type of gesture — to get off the pity pot and focus on the “important” things, like passing on the 12 step “remedy” to others. Also, for many it seems too terrifying to go inside and face the demons of the past! Thus by failing to go back and grieving their own pains and losses, they never develop the emotional sensitivity which is needed to make life pleasurable and which will allow them to be able to empathize with the pain of others. This is why so many sponsors are lack adequate sensitivity. Instead of dealing with the scary past, members often learn to exist in the spiritual fishbowl of AA, riding on religious fluff and an intense social high meanwhile mistakenly attributing their deadened spirit to the “disease” of alcoholism. The intense social high and the rituals of AA keeps the flame from the fuse. Too often, emotions remain buried behind a facade of gratitude for the program and the emotional pretense of serenity.
Surely we can do better than this…