I have found that once I dial emotions down to something more like average, it’s easier to figure out what they are.
That might not be the best place to start.
What I mean is emotions that are very intense, for whatever reason, are really difficult to make sense of. Once I get to the point of being able to actually feel them–I mean as sensations–and not just observable thoughts or behaviours, I still find them hard to even recognize. Partly because they just feel like torture. When I can get them a little more regulated, they start to feel more recognizably like the emotions I know how to name: anger or sadness or whatever.
I got something to dial down today and that happened. I began to see it as a combination of loneliness and shyness. I could see how I might feel that. It was prompted by something in the present, but I could see how it connected to a very young feeling, an infant feeling, that related to how it was to be within my family. A family where I needed to appeal to my parents for help and yet they were as unpredictable as strangers. For sure that’s fear, but there is something slightly different about it than, say, how I might react to a snake or a lion. Something social. I don’t know why I think that, but there is something about the clenching in my stomach, the thing that once it calms down begins to feel like butterflies that is more like giving a speech than it is like fleeing an attacker.
So there is a loneliness and a longing coupled with anxiety and trepidation about reaching out. I feel this when I think about any kind of contact with C that’s sort of unknown or uncertain: I want to buy her something and I don’t know if she’ll like it, I call and I don’t know who will answer. She was online yesterday, and I wonder if she’ll be online today.
One of the things I have been thinking is that we all have the same basic emotions. It might be in the context of a different situation or different in the level of intensity, but fear is fear, anger is anger. So the feelings I had as a child connect to how I feel now, because that’s all I have. It’s not as though I only felt anger below the age of 13, and now I have kind of outgrown it, like acne or wetting the bed. These emotions connect my experiences.
As social creatures, we have the same range of perceptions about how people might behave. Someone cares, someone is betraying me, someone wants to hurt me. People didn’t stop wanting to hurt me when I became an adult. They still do. It doesn’t happen as often, because I don’t have as many impulsive, dysregulated people as ongoing parts of my day who act out their aggressions on me, but my students, for example, get angry. They specifically do things to hurt me when they are angry sometimes. They may or may not be successful in that, but as a social being, I can perceive that. I can see, this person is intentionally trying to hurt me.
It’s not the past repeating, but there are only so many emotions we are wired to have, there are only so many ways of relating.
Going back to that pair of emotions–loneliness and shyness–it’s still sinking in that my childhood was like that. I lived with people who felt as unknown and unpredictable as strangers to me, and I depended on them for everything.
I had these odd experiences lately: C’s boyfriend chatting with me and pretending to be C last Sunday, and C pretending to be her sister. What struck me about it was how clear her voice is to me. She has these recognizable parts, and there is something the same about parts across different people. A different kid’s pouty toddler sounds a lot like C’s pouty toddler, but it still feels to me that there is some sort of essence to C that is consistent across parts.
When her boyfriend chatted with me, and I thought it was C, it was terribly disturbing. Where did she go? It was a frightening feeling. Later, of course, I realized, well, it wasn’t her. And when C impersonates her sister, the way she chats still sounds like C. Her sister sounds different. Even if I only feel sure of her identity when specifics start to surface.
I don’t think I had a sense of my parents as having a consistent voice across experiences. I don’t think I could “feel” them as being recognizably themselves. And I think that’s why I experienced shyness with them. They were people I couldn’t really know.