When we don’t speak up about what we’re feeling, it comes out in other ways. This is particularly true in any intimate relationship, whether familial or romantic. Things we hide from ourselves will also swim to the surface to bite us in the a$$ and demand our attention, but you can multiply that bite by at least two when we’re talking about the way we relate to others. It’s not surprising that clear communication is so difficult for the majority of us, because we’re taught to edit our feelings from an early age. “Don’t cry”, “Don’t be sad”, “Don’t be scared, “Don’t be angry”–these are like cultural mantras we hear as early as we hit the playground, and often sooner, in our very own homes. Loving parents say these things, so I’m not throwing anyone under the bus, I’m just saying we need to understand when we love people, we have to teach them that it is okay to be sad, scared or angry, it’s what we do about the feelings that matters.
It’s never easy to watch someone we love as he or she grapples with difficult feelings. We know the pain of it from having grappled ourselves. Of course we want to spare those we care for, pain, anguish and discomfort, but these feelings are part of life, and they’re an essential part of knowing ourselves. If we learn to push down the feelings that make those around us feel uncomfortable or inadequate, you can safely bet we will also have no clue about how we feel as we reach adulthood. When we cut ourselves off from what is true and real for us, we also cut ourselves off from our intuition, and that is the surest way to get lost on the path. And when I say “the path”, I don’t mean there’s one path for everyone, I mean the path that will lead any of us to our deepest joy.
Recently, I was talking with good friends of mine who were laughing about a heated game of poker they’d played. Apparently, my friend’s wife and his mother went head-to-head, and his wife wondered if she should go easier on her fairly new mother-in-law, but my friend assured her this made her an official part of his family. Friends of theirs chimed in, and said things also got crazy and competitive in their house when the cards or board games came out. The woman turned to me and said, “You should try playing with THIS heartless prick”, and pointed her thumb at her boyfriend, whom I’d only just met. I knew from our mutual friends that she adores her boyfriend and thinks the world of him. I knew she was just trying to join in on the “heated family games joke”, but the words “heartless” and “prick” came out with a lot of force, and I watched his face change from the happy, social mask we wear when we’re meeting people for the first time, to a closed one that was obviously covering hurt and surprise. She turned to him with her eyes dancing, and saw that her words had landed in a way she didn’t intend, and she immediately apologized. He recovered but they walked away shortly after, and my heart went with them. I knew they were probably in for a difficult conversation at best, and a rough night at worst.
There’s always a little truth in a joke. I don’t think this woman believes her boyfriend is either heartless, or a prick, I think she’s in love with him. But I’d also guess there’s some anger swimming underneath the surface of whatever is happening between them, and it reared its head for an instant. If there’s anger there, it’s coming from some kind of pain. Either she perceives that he’s hurt her or disappointed her in some way, or he actually has. Either way, her pain has not been acknowledged and dealt with in a way that’s satisfying for her (maybe she hasn’t brought it up, doesn’t know it’s there, etc), and so it’s popping up at parties over card games. Isn’t it amazing how these tiny little things can turn into land-mines? Something as innocent as poker can bring up a well of pain neither party sees coming. And now he’s hurt, and probably angry.
Why do we hurt each other? We have pain, and things arise as they always do when two people are close, and we either deal with these things in the moment, or we don’t. When we don’t, it’s because we’re afraid. Maybe we’re afraid of confrontation, rejection, or heartache, but it’s fear of some kind. Our fear causes us to hurt each other. If only we could give one another the benefit of the doubt, if only we could breathe and consider whether someone we love is intentionally hurting us, or whether there’s a chance we’ve misunderstood, taken something to heart that wasn’t intended that way, are dealing with their pain that’s coming to the surface in a way that’s hard to understand, or are bringing some of our history into the present, we’d save ourselves and those who love us a lot of feelings of alienation, frustration, sadness and anger. And we’d save ourselves, as well.
It feels terrible when someone we care for deeply won’t forgive us, or is so ready to doubt our love. That alone feels like a betrayal. I saw it between those two people I barely know—he felt betrayed she’d said something hurtful to strangers in a social situation with zero provocation from him, and she felt betrayed that he would doubt her love over something that was supposed to be funny, but ended up coming out badly. Again, maybe there’s some unresolved pain on both sides there. I have no idea what’s happening inside their relationship. But I’ve seen that moment they had a million times. I’ve been in that moment myself, and I’ve watched it happen between other people more times than I can count, and it’s always the same moment with different words. It’s never about poker, that’s for sure.
The more we learn to acknowledge and deal with our own uncomfortable feelings as they arise, peak and subside, the more we can do that for the people we love. Not every feeling in life is like unicorns or leprechauns or stardust. Some feelings hurt us to the very core. Rage, grief, shame, guilt, fear, loneliness—none of these are easy, but they’re all normal human emotions we are going to deal with at some time or another. Denying that is futile. If you don’t learn to embrace and examine your painful feelings they are not going to magically disappear, they’ll just keep trying to get your attention, because that’s all we want when we’re struggling or suffering. We want someone to say, “I see you, I feel you, I understand why you feel the way you do, I’m so sorry you’re hurting. Hang in there, it won’t always be this way. “ We just want understanding. We want to be seen and held without anyone telling us that what we feel isn’t true. And the sad thing is, we can do this for ourselves, but so many people run from their feelings, or numb them, or deny them, and so pain rules their lives. It doesn’t have to be that way.
One of the main reasons I teach yoga is that it changed my entire life for the better. I was one of those numb-ers and deniers myself. I tried to manage my pain that way for years and I was anxious and depressed a large majority of the time. I kept trying to fix things from the outside. Maybe if I met the right person, or got thinner, or had a perfect job, then I’d be happy. None of these things ever worked. Until I sat down and faced my pain head on, it owned me, and at a certain point I decided I did not want to be owned by pain, I wanted to be owned by love. And then I found out love doesn’t own you, it liberates you. And so I teach, because I think if it worked for me, it could work for anyone. It’s not a magic bullet. Change is hard. It’s a practice, and it has eight limbs, and you have to work every one of them. But it’s doable and beautiful and eventually it’s inspiring and you want to see how much you can open, and what it means to really love and release your grip on the story. Sending love to all of you, Ally Hamilton