Feelings Rookie: Step One, Demolition

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When I was maybe 7 years old, I sat by the backstop behind home plate at my older sister’s softball game and willed myself to sob. Sitting in the dirt, my child-brain was tired of always feeling overwhelmed, feeling like most any badness or evil or sadness in the world made me cry or hurt my heart.

Plus, my parents, who were wrangling five daughters all within 12 years of age, didn’t have much time for emotional coaching. If I was crying, I would be taken less seriously; babies cry, and they’re babies, you know?

I decided right then at the softball game that I would cry out all my tears. That, I figured, was the only solution: Open the floodgates for the last time, and surf that wave into what I believed would be a tearless, tougher-hided future.

My mom asked me why I was crying then, and I told her. I don’t remember what she said in response.

I was always a sensitive, anxious kid, terrified the evils of the world would somehow find my sisters or my parents and there would be nothing I could do about it. Worries of kidnappers plagued me, and my mom would hold my lanky kid-body and rock me, telling me that all the worry only makes the bad guys win, all we can do it take it a day at a time and be safe.

Looking back, this story shows how big and tender my heart was then, and how closed off it has now become. In my later teens and early 20s, as I started to understand my lack of interest in my high school boyfriends had nothing to do with them, not really. I learned quickly and painfully to compartmentalize, to put away the new, big feelings that threatened to overwhelm me. It was as natural as breathing to start building those walls, to start protecting myself the only way I could.

My first two years in college were a big experiment in finding out what I could and couldn’t handle. I was calm, cool and proactive when a friend told me she was cutting, or another told me she’d been raped, but I heard tornado warnings in my head when I realized my romantic feelings for other women weren’t going away. Eventually, like many of you, I had to turn to face the storm sometime. Coming out was painful — it’s a future topic to be discussed at length— and my defensive response was to shut down, clam up, and not feel.

While necessary at the time, that particular emotional evolution stuck around for longer than 10 years, and I paid it devotional attention. Building walls and sealing cracks was easier than letting people in to see and poke at my soft spots, my vulnerabilities. At the time it was great – probably saved my life, frankly – but once those external pressures faded and my life settled into a calmer, more honest space, I realized that thick, hard-candy shell I’d developed wasn’t going anywhere unless I actively dismantled it.

Mind you, this realization only came about after four years with the same therapist, setting up emotional scenarios and knocking them down, one by one, day by day. We worked to a place that felt like I was finally able to get a bird’s eye view of my maze of emotional masonry, and the extent of it all. I could realize I was only allowing a tiny stream of emotions through a crack in my walls, one that I could control and shut down any time. But the fullest feeling I could get was only the size of that tiny trickle, and this included the good, big ones like love, happiness, or joy.

Which brings us here. My therapist told me, not unkindly, that I am a feelings rookie and gave me a paper list of emotions, because I have a blind spot when it comes to identifying what I’m actually feeling until that feeling is at a *Level 10 Alert*. My job now is to take this list and think about how I feel, and what that means, really. There are many ways to go about this, of course, but one mechanism that works for me is exploring through writing and discourse, connecting dots I didn’t know were there.

Yes, this is one of the ways children learn about feelings, and yes, there was some shame about this process, like I was somehow less than for not being able to understand what others seem to handle without much thought, that the only way to better myself is to use methods used on kids. I felt demoralized for a while, ashamed of my shortcomings, but then I thought about that a little bit, and realized that taking on this process with intention is the most adult thing I can do.

But since I hate them for pushing my comfort zone, I don’t call it discovering feelings or celebrating feelings. This is Dealing with Feelings, the shiny bare bones of learning, naming, and surviving emotions. I’m going to chronicle my discoveries and frustrations and tears and hopefully joy that I stumble upon in this journey into feelings, and hopefully also connect with you on yours.

For many of us, shutting down and building up walls was an essential coping skill — if our home lives as gay kids were tough, that armor kept us safe and alive. But those walls don’t just break down when you stop needing them, and suddenly what was keeping you safe is now hindering personal development. It blows. It’s a whole process of demolition and rebuilding and relearning what all these feelings are, and it is awful and glorious in equal turns.

I want to make feelings accessible, because for so long they weren’t for me. Because at the core of it all, I believe many of us who struggle with this do it under the heavy weight of the assumption we are alone, we are the only ones who can’t get it together. But that’s not true – we don’t have to sit behind softball field backstops trying to pull from ourselves the best and worst parts of being human.

Bring it, feelings. Here we go.

Molly Priddy is a writer and editor in Northwest Montana. Follow her on Twitter: @mollypriddy

Molly has written 43 articles for us.

40 Comments

  1. THIS is giving me a lot of feelings. I can really relate to this and I’m excited for this series!!! I’ve built up so many walls to prevent feelings and emotional development in various kinds of relationships in my life. I had to. But now those barriers are well doing what they do best and are keeping me from forming any close bonds with anyone and I’m always questioning my role in people’s life. feels!

  2. Thank you very much for writing this, and sharing your story. I relate to this strongly. While my walls were created for other reasons, I just had a session today with my therapist where I realized the toll that always trying to avoid dealing with overwhelming emotions was taking on me.

  3. This series is so necessary. I shut down a lot around the time I was coming out, partially because gayness went hand in hand with masculinity which went with strength which went with safety. For the first year, it was like being a superhero, invulnerable and lofty and awesome. But as soon as bad stuff started happening in my life, I cracked. I could feel nothing, or I could cry drunk in the shower or punch every tree I saw on my way home from a party. No in between.

    I’ve broken them down since then, but it’s like being a preteen again. I don’t know how to feel just a little bit. Negative stuff is too overwhelming to be productive. I need to learn how to feel just a little anxiety or self-hate or depression and use it as fuel.

  4. LOVE this series already! I’ve been dealing with this for the past year or so, to destroy something that very much kept me alive growing up is one of the hardest things I’ve ever tried to do, and it does feel very embarrassing and isolating at times. It’s really nice to see this talked about in a queer space as well. Thank you so much for this <3 <3

  5. I am so, so excited for this.
    I’ve always been a FEELINGS PERSON, and I’m super aware that growing up with emotional security is a huge privilege. I’m so glad that someone is finally talking about this, and I can’t wait to read the rest of the series!!!

  6. Quite frankly, this was some good shit. I just had a great therapy session today, and only now am I at the point where I can talk about forgiving those who’ve abused me, and forgiving myself for abusing me in order to move on and grow. I built up so many walls with the intention of protecting myself, but I never knew how to tear them down, or that I even needed to. It really does make experiencing the full breadth of human experience challenging and dry.

  7. I feel like I could have written this, minus the therapy. until recently, any emotions were handled with a bottle of whisky, if you joined me I considered you a friend, and emotions weren’t a topic. I’m learning, and it sucks, and I am figuring it out, and it is such a learning curve. I can’t wait for this series

  8. “…because I have a blind spot when it comes to identifying what I’m actually feeling until that feeling is at a *Level 10 Alert*.”

    This is probably the most relatable thing I have ever read. Thank you so much, I’m super looking forward to what’s next. <3

  9. I can’t relate to everything you said because I feel everything all the time, but I certainly can’t put those feelings into words or understand why they’re happening and what I can do about them, so from that perspective I’m very curious to learn more. Maybe you can also share the list your therapist gave you and that kind of thing, if you feel okay with it?

      • I could do with taking a screenshot of this list for daily use.

        I started reading your article casually and was stopped in my tracks. You put into words an experience I can really relate to.

        Before and during therapy, my emotions were usually remote and “dead”, numb. With a rumbling threat of eruption leaving me full of edge and exhaustion. I’ve been finding that now they come as symbols. Luckily, my girlfriend is a sensitive and is happy to hold me while I weep over a sense of ships sitting in a dock or a feeling of an old woman searching for a lost thing. Your list might make the experience less bizarre for her though!

        And yes to memories of being s sensitive and emotional child. I can almost pinpoint the several events that put me into emotional short circuit and led to the building of the shell. I do have a lot of regrets for the life I lead in my twenties, dislocated from my own emotional compass.

        I’m looking forward to the rest of your series.

        • Oh, and I find that the Myers Briggs Type indicator is really helpful in understand the tendency to be great with other’s feelings and struggle with ones own.

          I’m INFJ and the feeling function is extroverted so one can actually “feel” through highly developed empathy the feelings of another. But inwardly be preoccupied by intuitive perception and thinking. It’s only through the discussion with someone else, that the emotions are “fed back” to be processed. Makes the sense of self a little more complicated to grasp.

  10. I love this so much. I am strange with emotions– good at other people’s emotions, have A. LOT. of feelings myself, but am not great at figuring out why I am having such strong emotional reactions to certain situations. I have realized that my response to certain emotions is ::Have strong emotion, talk about strong emotion, RUN::

    Looking forward to your journey, and hopefully learning more about myself through it.

  11. This is wonderful! And something I relate to so hard. I’ve just started seeing a therapist to learn how to open up and feel feelings, and it’s mostly been weird and hard but I’m hopeful. I’m super looking forward to future posts.

  12. I’m really glad to see people talking about this. My walls come from being trans rather than gay, but they’re there all the same and getting past my self-trained inability to react to people is really difficult. This is why I write, to approach the feelings and fears that I’m afraid of and to have something that I can point to when I can’t speak. I look forward to seeing the discussion grow around this.

  13. I loved this and I identify HARD. I feel like ages 10-20 for me was comprised of a series of exercises in putting up walls, 20-30 was living on that remote planet and only reaching friends and family from a great distance, until that finally became unbearable, and at 30, I started to try and work on dismantling those walls so that I could be more authentic and connect with my loved ones (and future partners etc.) on many more real levels. IT’S SO HARD! I’m looking forward to the rest of this series.

  14. Ahhh feelings are hard and confusing. I’m only now finally beginning to learn to give myself permission to feel everything (vs. only the “good” feelings) and that although some feelings hurt like hell, if I just keep breathing and feeling I can and WILL come out on the other side. I spent way too long pushing away strong feelings for fear of drowning in them. So eager to read the rest of this series!

  15. Wow. This took me by surprise actually. This really is me. I’ve just reached the point where i know i need to start “dismantling”. Unfortunately i don’t have the support of a therapist. I can’t really afford anything like that. I live in the UK so i have the option of an NHS Councillor, but their idea of therapy is six hour-long sessions and then as long as you’re not about to kill yourself, you’re cut loose. It’s very disheartening. It makes me want to not bother actually. Not bothering has kept me alive for this long. It’s all just so exhausting.

    • Yes, it is absolutely exhausting. I’m sorry it’s been such a struggle – finding a good therapist and maintaining a relationship and being able to afford to go there and back is such a privilege, and I don’t take it on lightly. Do what is good and safe for you, and stick around, maybe we’ll teach each other something.

  16. wow. i constantly tell my therapist that feelings are the worst, and i dislike them. she asked me a question the other day about how i was shutting down around a friend, and she goes “is it because you need other people?” and i said “Eww, i won’t even say the “N” word” Ha.

    but seriously…I am almost 36 years of age, and my most owned and felt feeling is rage. I got that in SPADES. Anything else….not so much, well besides anxiety.

  17. Thank you for this. I relate to it a lot, in the sense that I also just cannot deal with my feelings. However, my problem is that I have so many that they regularly flatten me so completely that I’m barely able to function. It’s like I go straight to level 10 alert, or maybe I just miss the signs for all the levels in between? I’m really not sure. I’m trying to figure it out though.

    We’ll get there, friend. We got this.

  18. This is something I relate to so well. I’ve always been closed off, and I’m still having problems opening up at times. It also reminded me of a story I wrote years ago shortly after coming out of the closet about closing oneself off from the world, but also breaking those walls down. For a couple years I’ve thought of re-working the dialog and submitting that story to the Honors Journal at my university. After reading your article I decided to just submit it as is.

  19. Oh my goodness. I am BEYOND excited for this series!!! At 28, am in the middle of finally learning How to Have Emotions. It truly s a beautiful, terrifying, exhilarating, confusing process. Thank you for writing!

  20. Thank you for writing this! We’re really not taught how to navigate this stuff, and we’re definitely not taught how to seek help. I’ve recently started going to counselling for the first time in my life (for similar issues) and one of the big barriers to starting was not knowing what people really did in therapy – what questions people ask, what conversations looked liked, how you set goals with them, etc. Maybe something you could speak to in this column? Thank you also for sharing the feelings list – really helpful!!

    Feeling hurt, though, by the choice to re-use a trope of a fat character being duped to represent feelings arising from ableist and ageist assumptions about capacity/knowledge/emotional intelligence.

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