Feelings Machines

I grew up in a family dominated by boys, a group as macho and male-centric as you can get. As the youngest of five, I held a particularly dismissed position, made worse by my gravitation toward music and literature. All my life, I’ve been told that having feelings is bad. Showing emotion is a sign of weakness. Vulnerability. Even outside my family, this is the prevailing message: a premium is placed on “stiff upper lip” and stoicism, something I’ve learned to feign effectively.

My mother was an artist and a musician, my father an avid reader and self-taught musicologist, my sister a fine artist. Art and music and literature were everywhere in our house, and yet the prevailing attitude was that feelings were meant to be feared or avoided, and certainly not discussed.

But I’ve learned in therapy that our bodies — all of our bodies, not just women, not just writers and musicians — are feelings machines. Our five senses provide input to our brains about the world. The senses provide data that we then have to interpret. Feelings are what happen when our brains interpret that data. It’s how we deal with that interpretation that defines who we are.FeelingsMachine

Some of us are “sensitive” people, and some have learned to lock away the process of interpreting this data so it doesn’t show. But all of us do it. Sensitive people may have a more finely honed lens through which we see; things are brighter or sharper, and the input is intense. When we express those impressions to other people, we’re told we are strange or weird. That the world couldn’t possibly look that way. I’ve heard that message my whole life.

Well, until I moved to Portland. Here, I’m rather tame.

Some of us learn to hide away those feelings, bury them until they become caustic and threaten an internal — and ultimately external — explosion. Some learn to control the feelings, only letting them out in the safety of relationships with healthy, loving others. Some wallow in feelings, overwhelmed and confused by the power of these feelings.

But feelings don’t just go away when we don’t want to deal with them, or because we think they’re bad. They get bigger and more chaotic when we ignore them, like Gremlins in water.

Some of us are compelled to put those feelings into music, art, words, photographs, dance, sculpture — where other, less-feeling-aware people can see them and marvel at our talent. Art teaches us to see the human spirit and art lovers bask in its beauty and ability to make us feel.

To make us feel.

Tell me again feelings are bad?

Shouldn’t we be celebrating our body’s ability to reveal the world to us? Shouldn’t we be teaching our children, instead of hiding feelings in shame, to understand what the feelings are telling us? Joy, wonder, frustration,– anger! Anger tells us something is wrong, yet we are told to quell that anger and be calm.

And certainly not to talk about it. Oh heavens no.

In denying the feeling, we’re denying the right to explore life on our own terms and in our own observation of the world. Feelings are clues to help us understand the experience of being alive. We ignore and squash and deny them to our peril.

When we recognize the feelings, when we take the time to know ourselves and listen to what our feelings are telling us, we have the opportunity to be really alive, to live honestly. This isn’t to say we must revel impulsively in every feeling that crops up, but to become aware, to take time to analyze what’s going on so we understand and can make informed decisions.

This process has, for me, improved my relationships. When I understand the feelings that occur when I interact with the world, I am more considerate of other people, more aware of how my behavior changes, and how I affect other people. I’m more aware, too, of the variability of the feelings of people around me, and want to ensure that people I work and live with feel comfortable and safe with me. Increasing my awareness of myself has sent ripples out into my little world, and I am happier because of it.

Our systems are designed to take in this input, process it, and use it to guide our path. When we refuse to process it, it piles up and gets unmanageable. But we have tools: meditation or prayer, exercise, yoga, playing or listening to music, producing art, writing, sitting quietly and watching the sun rise or set.

My tools, the activities I use for what we call “self-care”, are gardening, being in nature, singing, and writing. I spend some time every week doing all of these. Tim has other tools, including playing the guitar. Each of us has different tools to help us quiet the mind, to get us into a place of understanding feelings.

We celebrate artists for what they remind us about ourselves, but we can also investigate our own impulses and instincts, dig down to find out how *we* see the world, and share our own unique perspective on this experience.

We are feelings machines, built to take in and process all that life has to offer. It’s a beautiful kaleidoscope.

Healthy Choice

Someone I love very much is going through a mental health crisis. I won’t name him, or tell you her gender, or in any way identify this person, because it’s not my place to tell that story. As she starts moving out of the center of chaos and toward stability, I’ve been thinking a lot about the task of making one’s self healthy, and about the many choices we have in front of us for putting together a life that works for us.

Since moving here, Tim and I have made a lot of changes to how we live. In addition to the major change from living in the Midwest, we’ve added things to our routines that help us maintain day-to-day stability, and removed some things that were dragging on our tenuous balance. Some of the things we have selected fall into the category of “self care”, healthy rituals or activities we do to nurture our bodies and minds.

We’d never even *heard* of self care until we moved out here, and now it’s one of our guiding principles. In addition to regulating our bedtimes and diets and our regular snuggle time (“Monkey Love“), we each have an assortment of things we do to take care of ourselves.

Tim took a six week course on meditating last winter, and now he meditates regularly, every day if he can manage it. Playing the guitar is another choice he’s made for himself, an activity that helps him focus his mind for an allotted time, and something that soothes his heart. It makes him lighter, gives him some minutes of peace.

I find that being outside soothes me, and exercise. I discovered yoga this summer, and have found a regular class that gives me those same minutes of peace that Tim has in playing guitar. Writing is another self-care activity for me, both in these blogs and in the fiction I write.

Our visit to the Cougar Hot Springs last weekend was another joint effort at self care. For the time it took us to drive into the mountains, pay our five bucks to the forest ranger, and slip into the heated pools on the side of the mountain, we were out of our lives and into another world. Being surrounded by icy trees, submerged in water coming from deep in the ground was a profoundly quieting experience for both of us. Even Tim, a former hockey player who has long preferred his water frozen, found the same peaceful reverence that I did. We will definitely be doing this again.

My mother called these things “re-creating”, or putting yourself back together after the world has taken you apart.

It didn’t occur to me, though, until I started pondering the life of the person who is in crisis, that the biggest decision I made for my own mental health was moving out of the Chicago suburbs and into Oregon. All I knew for sure was that I wanted to live somewhere beautiful, to see something beautiful in nature every day. I didn’t know at the time how much the environment I was living in had corroded me, but I’ve been working to repair a lot of damage; from dealing with extreme weather conditions, and being surrounded by concrete every moment, from keeping my adventurous, free-thinking identity hidden in the conformity of suburbia, and from being in close proximity to family that was the source of so much rejection and heartache.

Being in Oregon has been healthy for Tim and me. Having distance from the combined ugliness of our families has bonded us in a completely new way. Living in this place that is dominated by nature has opened something in me, something untainted by painful history or societal expectations. I have found a place where I can simply be.

While my loved one weighs out his options for her future, I will support and encourage him to seek out the things she will put on her self-care list. What is it that makes you calm? What fills you with moments of happiness? What soothes you when you’re sad?

IMG_20151116_104703800So many people I know post their workout stats, both as a way to stay accountable to their own well being and as an encouragement to others to keep  or start making healthy choices for our bodies. I’ve decided that I’m going to post my mental health self-care “workouts” here. It will, I hope, have the same effect; it will keep me accountable for my own well being, and, I hope, encourage other people to consider starting their own self-care routines. Mental health and physical health are inextricably linked, but only physical workouts are applauded publicly, while mental-health workouts are still considered unnecessary unless you’re in crisis.

But just like you can prevent heart attacks with regular exercise, you can prevent a mental health crisis with regular self care.

So tell me: what are you doing to take care of yourself today?