Monday, May 28, 2012

The problem of suppressing emotions

One of the biggest problems I have is not being in touch with how I feel. There is a virtue highly regarded by the Chinese culture (and maybe Asian culture in general) that is not even a common concept in the western society. I was trying to figure out its translation, and I found the Falun Gong wiki entry translates this virtue as "forbearance". This virtue included the restraint of acting out as well as the suppression of negative emotions when facing hardship or unreasonable demands from authority and those who are older than you. One of the positive outcomes of this virtue is that when one bears the hardship during tough times, one builds character. My mother even taught me this Chinese saying: "When hardship hits you so hard that your teeth are knocked off, swallow the teeth along with all the blood generated from the impact."

In Chinese it's just seven characters/syllables and this is the first time I translated it into English and boy  does it sounds messed up. Who the hell teaches such a concept to their daughters? And you know what? Not knowing any better, I accepted this concept. I don't know why, but I've always wanted to be the most virtuous person I can be, so I practiced forbearance a lot. I practiced suppressing my feelings, thinking that emotions are totally irrational. Anger is bad. Shyness is bad. It frustrates me that I don't have a good grip on my emotions. That I could suppress my anger towards an action or a person I don't like for awhile, and when my patience runs out, I would explode. I hated that about myself. My family suggested that I don't try hard enough, that I must practice even more restraint to prevent exploding anger. This actually makes me even more unpredictable. Practically anything my family says can make me spazz at them, and it's gotten to so bad that I don't even have to meet my family face to face. The mere thought of my mother and some family members can trigger angry feelings. I feel like I need to check myself into a psychiatry unit.

It wasn't until I started taking yoga classes that I learned that when you suppress a negative feeling, it doesn't just disappear into nothingness. It gets stored as tension somewhere in your body. I don't usually believe a statement like that without any evidence, but I don't know how else to explain the fact that I would tear up in the middle of an asana practice. When this happened, the pose I was holding was usually not especially challenging, nor was I recounting a piece of a sad memory. Supposedly asana practice works out energy channels in the body, relieving physical and emotional tensions (knots) in the body, Deep tissue massage can also achieve similar effects sometimes.

It seems to me that a feeling is not a single thought or a single item. It's a combination of a bunch of stuff happening in my body. The stomach tightens, the heart pumps harder, the skin pores widen, major muscles tighten a little bit. Instead of me being aware of 20 things happening at once in my body, my brain interpretes these 20 events as one single feeling. Combo ABCDEFG = anxiousness; HIJKLMN = fearfulness; OPQRSTU = anger, etc. When I order myself to suppress a feeling, what happens is I'm ordering my conscious brain to ignore all these signals in the body. Well, the body is actually trying to communicate something to the rational mind. Instead of making the feeling go away (which I can't, because it's not one single thing), the brain simply ignores all the signals. The next time an emotional trigger happens, the signals become stronger, but again, I say "suppress these bad feelings", my brain tries to ignore the signals, and I become oblivious to all the change in my pulse, the muscle tensions, the inflammation, etc. Over time my brain learns to ignore all the signals/alarms in my body, which means I become oblivious to my feelings. Then one day the alarms reach above a threshold, bypass the rational brain, and I snap at some innocent person like a bitch.

Step 1 is getting in touch with my feelings. Step 1.1 is to take deeper breaths. I totally thought I'd get this down after 2 years of yoga practice, but it seems like I've still got a lot of work to do to improve my breathing skills!






5 comments:

  1. This is a great post. Bottled emotions are something I've realized I need to deal with as well. I have massages regularly and sometimes, when my therapist is working on a particularly tight muscle, I get depressed or angry feeling. Those feelings are from dealing with a stressful workplace (and so is the muscle tension). Of course, in the workplace, we suppress emotion a lot. I like your understanding of this. It works for me. I agree that forebearance can be very bad for your health!

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    1. Thanks for your comment Chad. I think emotions are partially in the muscles, partially in the brain, partially chemical, partially unknown. It's pretty fascinating to be a human being.

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  2. I have also learnt the hard way that forbearance is very bad for your health. Like you, I am also trying to undo the conditioning embedded in centuries of Chinese "cultural DNA".

    Btw, just to be sure that I have in mind the same Chinese word that you translate as forbearance, isn't there a Chinese saying that can be (badly) translated as "A hundred forbearances can lead to Gold"? Not that I believe this myself, but just wanted to be sure that we have the same word in mind... :-)

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    1. Pardon my poor memory of Chinese sayings, but I can't think of the phrase that matches your translation. The word I'm talking about is 忍: restraint, self-control.

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    2. I just realized your saying... is it 沈默是金?

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