Feel Your Feelings, Fool
I’ve had two people reach out to me in the last month about posts they’ve read on my blog. It’s been heartening to know that there are folks out there who are engaging with the material, and it also is motivating me to be more intentional when I post. Usually what goes here are unformed thoughts and ideas that I send out without much editing - and often don’t return to what I write. This is good motivation to change that up a little.
Lately, I’ve been focusing on reading and enjoying the work of good writers. The fiction book that’s captured my attention is The Spear Cuts Through Water by Simon Jimenez. It’s probably the best piece of fiction I’ve read this year. The story is unique and the characters are complex in spite of the amount of time that’s dedicated to world building. (Sometimes I find that one gets sacrificed for the other, but not in this case, which is refreshing.)
On the nonfiction side, I’ve been working through The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks. The desire to read this book came when I started transitioning, but the impetus to reading it now happened during a community conflict that had many of us who identified with (or were adjacent to) masculinity commit to reading it together.
For context, a couple of weeks ago, I went on a three-day backpacking trip with a group of queers that reset everything in my nervous system. It’s changed how I engage with times of solitude, how I find solace in nature, and how I remain present. It’s with this clarity that I picked up the book, expecting it to be a relatively “easy” read.
What I wasn’t prepared for was to engage with the patriarchal system in a new way. The book was written in 2004 and it’s very dated with the language - sticking with the binary of men and women. The audience is meant to be those who were raised as men and still identify as such, as well as those who want to love and understand cis men better.
However, much of what bell hooks describes, especially regarding the engagement of emotions, is something I have also identified with - and have heard others, regardless of their gender identity, talk about as well.
Specifically it is the distancing of emotion - not allowing oneself to feel their feelings. hooks talks about this on the binary level: women being taught that anger is an unacceptable emotion (but others are more-or-less fine), men being taught that anger is the only acceptable emotion (and all others are off the table).
After a global pandemic, that is still not over, what hooks calls the “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy” went through some kind of bastardized Pokemon evolution.
The insidiousness of this patriarchal system is hardly a secret anymore, especially after capitalist countries overtly favored the economy over their people during this time, but I am still constantly watching people stuff these feelings down.
To use my cis-woman friend’s phrase: “If it’s a feeling I don’t understand or can’t deal with, I’m putting it in a box, and hoping I forget about it.”
And a lot of us are being presented with feelings we may not (or don’t want to) understand. In many cases, it may be that we don’t have the time to understand them. We’re too busy trying not to drown.
The most common way I see the plethora of emotions being expressed (at least in my friend group) is through exhaustion and lethargy. I spoke of this a little in a previous post, but didn’t do a good job connecting this fatigue with unprocessed, complex emotions.
I know that these feelings, which in my case absolutely were translated out of me via unending exhaustion and a heady depressive episode, eventually combined into the cocktail that led me to leave my full-time job. I had words for it at the time, and even wrote about it on this blog somewhere, but I still went through the process of abstracting it to a place where I could look at it critically with my brain instead of passionately with my heart.
Since then, I’ve spent quite a lot of time with that bone-deep sadness, that anger I had with myself for simultaneously not being able to fit in and wanting to try so hard to fit in. A part of me always prided myself on some lack of conformity, but said lack was also an energy sink. Swimming upstream all the time, each break taken sending you back several meters on a current that never ceased.
Even now, when I’m at a therapy session, I’m told that I’m being too analytical about something I should be experiencing in my body in addition to the heady analysis. It’s a defense mechanism - for me anyway.
But take that defense mechanism and blow it up to a larger scale, and it’s no surprise that something like patriarchy can survive the way it has for so long.
If you teach people that emotions are not necessary and are in fact a burden or unacceptable, then of course no one is going to question it when they experience a little twinge in their chest, a tremor in their limbs when presented with something their instincts are telling them should cause consternation.
They’re going to do what my friend described: they’re going to put it in a box. Then they’re going to move on in an attempt to fit in. hooks describes the male desire to join other men in the throngs of manhood through the cessation of emotion.
I probably don’t even need to quote her since you’ve probably heard the equivalent of young male children being told to “be a man” about something. Usually when they’re crying. That’s how early it starts.
But what if that box gets full? What if you’ve stuffed it too much?
Those raised as men were taught that the way to release this tension in their big box of emotions is to perform acts of violence. I don’t think I need to outline how this plays into the mass shootings we’ve seen, the poisonous tendrils of alt-right propaganda, rape culture, etc.
And besides, that’s not really what I wanted to talk about in this post anyway. It’s discussed ad nauseaum in so many other places.
I think in the case of the general populace facing imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy, the release valve varies, but the symptoms of burnout that indicate the release valve needs to be turned is relatively universal.
What I’m really curious about is how we can get back to feeling our feelings more regularly. How can we start noticing what we feel in our bodies when we see someone we have a crush on or when we hear a song that makes us joyful?
On the flip side, how do we know when we’re feeling something that makes us sad or angry?
What does injustice feel like? We know what it looks like - we’re living in it. Would being able to express the bodily responses to injustice better help us fight it?
Further, how do we know when we’ve been storing a lot of emotions that need release? (I.e., recognize it before we’re too burned out to address it.) And how do we release it constructively, with the least amount of harm?
I think this is probably pretty individualized and the first step in the longer process of then being able to communicate these feelings effectively.
It’s going to be interesting too, because I imagine there are a lot of small things in our individual and collective lives that yield some kind of emotion, whether we notice its presence or not.
I think the first step in all of this is probably to start naming them as they come up.
Naming brings you on the path to knowing yourself better.
LeGuin’s Earthsea cycle had some powerful themes on naming, but I think I will end the post with this one, seeing as it also touches on themes from The Will to Change:
Ged had neither lost nor won but, naming the shadow of his death with his own name, had made himself whole: a man: who, knowing his whole true self, cannot be used or possessed by any power other than himself, and whose life therefore is lived for life’s sake and never in the service of ruin, or pain, or hatred, or the dark.