Some of us have been fortunate enough to be raised in an environment where we were taught that it was acceptable to speak our minds and feel our feelings. When we felt sad we cried, and when we felt upset we let others around us know. Some of you, however, were raised in environments where ‘being nice’ and ‘being good’ trumped ‘being yourself’. If you find yourself in the second category, then you might be a perpetrator of ‘shelving your emotions’.
Let’s compare a whole mess of feelings you experience to a mess in the middle of a room you have to clean up. You’ve got company coming over so you throw things on shelves and in closets as quickly as you can so no one sees your mess (which is really just the reality of your everyday life). In effect, you say “I can’t deal with this now – I’ll just put it away and deal with it later.” We try to ‘put away’ our emotions and show our good face to the world, hoping to deal with our reactions and feelings when it’s safer and easier.
Much of the time this strategy gets us by. We keep ourselves to ourselves. We put things high up on our shelves, way away from most other people. Maybe we’ll show the truth to someone close, a friend or spouse, but for the most part we censor and filter. And if we have a particularly messy day, week, or year we find out that the shelves aren’t as sturdy as we’d like them to be.
Shelved emotions leak out. What happens when you cram a book right in the middle of a completely full shelf? Of course, one (or two or three) fall off the end, right? Maybe one comes down and knocks you right in the head! As much as we want control in our lives, we can’t hold on to absolutely everything by ourselves. If you cram away those potent feelings, they’ll often come back in ways you’re not prepared for. We’ve all had that coworker who completely disagreed with everything his or her boss said but bit their tongue. Sooner or later it comes out whether it’s failed deadlines, coming in late, gossip, or chronic bad attitude. We like to chalk it up to other external circumstances, which might certainly be true – but it’s not the whole truth.
Even if you manage to keep the more noticeable and overt behaviors in check, your true feelings have a way of surfacing in subtle ways – a nervous laugh, a look in your face – Freud called this parapraxis, which refers to a slip of the tongue or small error that reveals a hidden desire or motive. It’s easy to think that we are putting on the face we want to put on. Often though it’s just like listening to your voice on the answering machine, “I never knew I sounded like that!”
Shelves can break. Put enough feelings away in your heart and sooner or later a shelf will break and one of two things could happen. Either it was triggered by another person who then gets trampled by my stored up emotional baggage and is bombarded by major upset in our relationship, or the person who takes the brunt of the emotional avalanche is me! Caution: hard hat area. No one likes a life full of seemingly uncontrollable upswings and downswings in relationships. On the flip side, internalizing your negative feelings is no way to live. Again, we like to think we can just contain ourselves. The truth of the matter, though, is that the more authentically we share ourselves the more authentically we can be ourselves.
Coming soon: “What do we do with feelings?”