One of the most potent prescriptions for healing intrusive thoughts and anxiety from the root is to allow ourselves to live in whole-hearted, full-bodied expression. This means taking the lid off of our joy just as much as our pain, and learning to spiral out of head-realm and down into body-realm where the heart taps out its song to the rhythm of our emotional lives. And yet when so many people struggle with allowing themselves a daily or weekly cry – and bump up against the ceiling of their joy – it’s important to delve further into this essential realm of Self.
A cry signals our arrival into the world. When a baby is born, we await with bated breath for the first cry, and its sound is cause for rejoicing and relief. Sadly, tragically even, for some babies that may be the last time their cries are received with celebration. We live in a culture that equates a “good baby” with one who doesn’t cry a lot, and that prescription for “good” carries on through the rest of our lives. The good child is the one who doesn’t make a fuss, who doesn’t express her frustration, disappointment, fear, or any other less-than-pleasant emotion. In fact, the good child is also one who doesn’t express any emotion with too much exuberance; we can be shamed for our wild joy just as much as our full expressions of despair. The good adult is someone who rides the punches of life without complaint, who lives in a narrow realm that is applauded as being “even keel”.
Neither of my kids were considered “good” babies. They cried loudly (and still do). They screamed to let us know when they were violently opposed to something. And their laughter was (and still is) like church bells on a clear day. We’ve welcomed every emotion as it presented itself, meeting each with as much acceptance as we could. Sometimes I’ll be on the phone with my friend Carrie when my six year old falls apart and she’ll marvel not only at the intensity of his feelings but his ability to put words to them. Being devotees of soul, she and I share a reverence for unbridled expression, knowing that it’s one of the keys to keeping the inner channels clear and the well full.
Sometimes, when one of my kids has been crying full tilt, I’ll have a moment of zooming out into the place of objective perspective (as opposed to the variable emotional responses I typically have as their mother), and I’ll rest in quiet awe at their ability to allow the feelings to move through without inhibition. I’ll listen to the volume of their cry (loud) and watch their tears (big and round, wetting their entire faces) and hold their bodies (shaking and moving), and I’ll wonder, “When does this stop? When does this natural, beautiful expression of pain become tempered, and possibly even halt altogether?”
My answer is simple: When Shame and Fear enter the picture. When shame pricks the heart, the heart shuts down. And when fear takes over, usually with the corresponding belief that the feelings are too big to handle, the cries cease to emerge. As we are meant to feel our feelings fully, our inner systems go awry at this point. We need emotional release in order for the whole miraculous operating system of Self to function fluidly. For it’s often when we shut down emotionally that the energy has nowhere else to go and travels up into mind, where it coalesces as anxiety and intrusive thoughts.
There are many reasons why we become stunted in our ability to express emotions freely. The first, and most powerful, is that we received the message – either explicitly (“Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!” or, from peers, “You’re such a crybaby!”) or implicitly (via caregivers who didn’t express vulnerable feelings) – that crying isn’t okay. Under the rubric of crying we also include other feelings that the culture would like us to sweep under the rug, like shame, jealousy, disappointment, frustration, and fear – and even self-confidence. When we cried as infants for prolonged periods of time and weren’t picked up, something inside shut down. When those undesirable feelings erupted as children and we received the literal or metaphoric slap in the face, we silenced. If we cried alone, which many highly sensitive children will do as the feelings cannot and will not be contained, the only comfort was a thick blanket of shame. And sometimes the cries were so big that it felt like we were going to die. On the heels of these experiences we may have formed the following beliefs around crying:
1. It’s not okay.
2. It’s shameful.
3. It’s not safe.
4. If I let myself cry fully, something bad is going to happen.
5. Crying is weak.
6. Crying is for sissies.
7. Crying makes it worse, so what’s the point?
Clients and course members will often say to me, “I feel the tears there, stuck in my throat or in my eyes, but they won’t come out. How do make myself cry if the tears are stuck?” You can’t exactly “make” yourself cry, but you can certainty encourage an environment where you’ll feel safe enough to let the pain come out in physical form. First and foremost, you can address any of the beliefs that you may be carrying about crying (listed above). Secondly, anytime the tears emerge, you can say to yourself, “You’re safe. I’ve got you. It’s okay to cry.” Thirdly, you can encourage the grief to emerge by watching films or videos that touch your heart. Many of my clients have a go-to film they watch when they’re needing to access their grief but are having trouble getting there spontaneously.
As I’ve written in many posts, grief is like a shy animal hiding in a dark corner, one that requires the most loving and safe conditions in order to emerge into the light of day. The pace of our life doesn’t allow for grief; we’re simply moving too quickly for the animal of our vulnerable heart to make itself known. It’s especially important during the holiday and post-holiday season, when the culture frantically pushes us to move, spend, and plan and then drops us like a sack of potatoes back into liminal January, that we need to proactively make time to slow down, and then come to a full stop. It’s especially important when society jingles away sadness, disappointment, and loneliness in favor of pushing the image of living a Hallmark card that you allow yourself to curl into yourself, wrap yourself in your favorite fuzzy blanket, and listen to the whispers inside that need your attention. One of those whispers may be a cry. You don’t need to know why (it’s the ego that attaches to needing the story). You don’t have to understand it. You simply need to turn your attention inward and ask what’s needed.
We arrive on the song of tears. We don’t arrive laughing. We don’t arrive angry. We arrive crying, the signal that means that we are fully alive. If the cry is met with celebration in the first moments of life, isn’t that an indication that it’s something deeply important to our well-being? I would say so.
Note: While it’s essential to allow ourselves to drop into our pain, it’s equally essential to know when the pain has become indulgent and, thus, unhealthy. I’ll be writing about this in depth next week.