The Hidden Blessing of Feeling Horrible

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You would think that when you feel horrified, ashamed, and terrified, you would know you are feeling horrified, ashamed, and terrified.

But in my experience, that’s not a given.

Take one twilight, about two years ago. Someone that knows my family well invited me to a Facebook group along with some other people I trust. In the group, he asked about some of the upheaval that my family was experiencing back then. I responded candidly—really candidly. It wasn’t out there on the whole Internet, just on this little group, so I felt comfortable being really honest about the muck and mire.

Except a few hours later, he responded back. “Umm, I changed the settings of this group to ‘secret,’” he said. “I’m guessing you don’t want everyone to see that post.”

“Oh,” I thought. “No.”

I felt a jolt of fear for my carelessness. There was some terrible crap going on that was not appropriate to share in a public forum.

So I deleted the post. That was that, I decided.

What happened next is still a little fuzzy. I remember time passing, and feeling a little out of sorts. I could not remember what I had been doing before I got his message. I could not remember what was on my to-do list, if there were any household tasks that needed doing (like making dinner) with any urgency.

About fifteen minutes later, I realized I had been moving around my house as if in a trance. I kept stopping and looking for something to read—a magazine, the spine of a book, a brochure, a coupon—but I could not focus. I felt as if I had drunk too much caffeine. I also really, really wanted to play a game on my phone or our family tablet, but I couldn’t find either.

After about the fifth aimless circuit around our house, I realized something was wrong with me. I forced myself to stop and take a breath (this was really hard … like swimming upstream.)

Why do I feel so distracted? I asked myself.

An answer surfaced: I am trying to escape something.

What am I trying to escape? I wondered.

All of a sudden, I realized my whole body had gone cold. I had a knot in my stomach. A chartreuse-tinged wave of shame washed over me.

Oh, I thought. I am trying to escape THAT.

Then the darkness took over. My fear and self-loathing became a suffocating blanket over my head. I had screwed up. I had revealed secrets. I had betrayed my family. I was so stupid, so colossally STUPID. Someone could get hurt from my stupidity. Had I no loyalty? No consideration for the harm I could do to other people by telling the truth?

I clutched my kitchen counter and tried to breathe. I started asking myself questions I’d learned through dabbling in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Was it true that I was stupid? Sure, I had made a poor assumption of privacy, but I had done so in good faith. What harm had I actually caused? What were the odds that anyone at all had seen my post?

Also: was mine the only mistake? It probably wasn’t wise for the original poster to ask me about a fraught situation on the Internet. I was not alone in my misjudgment.

After about ten or 15 minutes, my panic and terror abated. I did some stretches to work the stress and tightness out of my body; I wrote down what happened in my journal to get the thoughts out of my head. I breathed.

And all the while, I felt absolutely shocked at how long it had taken me to realize how upset I was. Being upset was not the same thing as knowing I felt upset.

I also marveled at this: just a few years before, I would have found a book to read or a task to complete and plastered over my terror and panic. I would have never actually dealt with the shame. That terror would have stayed in my body like a caged lightning bolt. The buzzing, acrid energy would have given off low-grade shocks for God knows how long.

Sometimes people talk about emotions as if they are out of control, not to be trusted, wild and useless. Be rational, we tell upset people. Calm down.

It’s true that letting emotions rule our lives isn’t ideal. But I would argue that quashing them is just as dangerous. In fact, quashing our negative emotions is just another way of letting them control us. Undealt-with feelings are like shadow dictators; ruling the roost with “rationality” a puppet president. We think we’re choosing, but our bitterness, jealousy, and fear are really calling the shots.

Actually feeling my feelings—letting them wash through my body, noting how they clench my stomach, flutter my heartbeat, warm my cheeks, and tense my shoulders—takes practice. It reminds me of the exercises I did to prepare for birth, staying present with my body even as it shuddered out of my control. Feeling our feelings is not like toddlers having tantrums. It is instead like a marathon runner who has trained herself to move through discomfort in order to enlarge her heart.

Embodying my emotions requires noticing how I distract myself from them. (In my case it’s busyness and reading; in someone else’s case it might be anger or defensiveness or alcohol.) It involves asking questions of myself when I’m out-of-sorts, taking the time to stop and think, and real bravery. It gets easier with practice. And it is saving my life.

For years, I thought emotions were obvious, and thinking was what real adults did. But the longer I notice my thoughts, see them spiral out of control, and recognize that my rational justifications aren’t actually very rational, the more I value my gut. Emotions are invariably honest, even when they don’t make polite conversation. They might not suggest solutions, but they do tell a compelling story. Given half a chance to emerge into daylight, my emotions help me live with integrity and wholeness, one dose of reality at a time.

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Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who loves British murder mysteries, advice columns, and hot breakfasts. She uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, "Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.
Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri

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