For people who feel too much — and those who don’t
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!
Edna St. Vincent Millay, A Few Figs from Thistles
I feel too much, and I feel it too deeply. Even if I didn’t know this instinctively, I would be able to tell by watching people’s responses to my reactions. Some get and appreciate it; often enough they’re horrified, embarrassed for me or have an overwhelming desire to control me over it.
If I can’t stop the way I feel, what makes them think they can do it? I do, however, want to smack them for trying, arrogant beasts that they are. I may not react the way they want me to, but I’m still a grownup, so back off, people. And don’t roll your eyes or exchange pitying looks and think I don’t notice. I do.
Now, my mother ran cool. I saw her devastated a few times – over me, a couple of times – which threw me into a state of confusion. There she was, having convinced me that she didn’t feel much, then weeping heartbrokenly when I told her to just give up on me because clearly I wasn’t worth the effort. Why was she so sad when she was so much a part of why I felt that way? I didn’t understand then that people could have very deep feelings and almost never show them. Or that they could feel deeply about a few things and not much about a whole bunch of other things.
I delude myself that I understand people. I may get quite a lot, but clearly I’ve been chipping at an iceberg with a toothpick.
It runs a gamut with me. From weeping over commercials featuring old dogs (that’s a sure bet with me) to wailing aloud over posts on Facebook on animal abuse, to remembering my sins of parenting, to thinking about the people I’ve lost and the people I’m going to lose – I’m a mess a good part of the time. The people (mostly guys) at my work have learned to just ignore the tears streaming down my face at random moments.
It does confuse people who are either shut off or better able to stand back from (or compartmentalize) their emotions. The day 9-11 happened, they had a television in a conference room at my work, kitty-corner from my desk. There was no getting away from it. Sometimes I stood with everyone, watching in mute horror and anguish, first as one tower fell and then the other, watching the people running and then the chaotic aftermath. I still had to work, and work I did, tears, as expected, streaming down my face.
A friend of mine asked, as I passed her in the hall, “Maya, are you okay? You look so upset!”
“Nancy,” I replied, “thousands of people just died in terror and agony and the world as we know it just ended. How can you not be?”
I looked at her steadily and continued, “It’s okay. I’m strong enough to feel my feelings and not be carted off, straight-jacketed, to a mental hospital.”
And that’s the thing. Yeah, I do feel things deep and hard. When I grieve, it rends me into wailing pieces. It’s right there and it hurts like unanesthetized surgery. When I’m angry, I most sincerely want to harm someone or something. When I’m scared, as happens with great intensity to people with PTSD, I’m terrified almost to death and I’m nearly lost to it. But when I love, I love with everything I am and have. When I’m excited, I’m bouncing off walls like a little kid. And when I’m happy, oh, darlings, I am suffused with joy.
For all of how hard it is when the feelings are difficult, the reward is how glorious it is when the feelings are sweet. I feel lit from within. I feel one with the Divine, afloat on an ocean of Universal Love.
And yes, I’m strong enough to feel my feelings with no more crutches than dark chocolate, chihuahuas and some really awesome hugs. Was I born strong by design because I was sure as hell going to need it? Or did I become strong because not having done so would’ve meant I would have come apart years ago? Or both? Humans like things to be one thing or another, but that’s seldom true – it’s usually lots of things in concert. For example, even when I’m not strong (crying over dog food commercials), I am never weak. If I was, I never would have made it this far.
It also doesn’t mean I’m permanently controlled by my immediate reactions. Sometime down the road, I will be able to stand back and more rationally decide what I am going to do about something, how I’m going to choose to react in the long term. But at first, I will be reacting honestly. To tell me that I’m “choosing” to feel any particular way when the feelings are still new is a rather ugly form of blaming the victim. If someone hurts you, if you are feeling grief or anguish, you’re going to feel that way – give yourself that leeway, please, and cut me some slack while you’re at it.
If you were designed to run cool, more power to you. I both envy you and feel a bit sorry for you. You’ve avoided the level of anguish I feel, and that sounds pretty good to me. But you’re also missing out on the beauty and power of this much joy and this much love.
If you’re like me and feel things powerfully, but have stuffed those feelings away either because people shamed you over them or you’re afraid you can’t handle them – stop. The people who shamed you were probably afraid of the power of your feelings, or were shamed by someone else over their own and they’re passing it on. If it’s you who are afraid, take a deep breath, gird yourself up and let those feelings unfurl. You really are strong enough, and you’re likely to feel for the first time as if you are at last living at 100 percent volume. You may even feel as if you’re able to take a deep breath for the first time ever.
As for me, as hard as its sometimes been, I wouldn’t miss feeling things exactly as much as I do for all the social acceptance in the world. And if you ask the people I love, they’re pretty delighted to be loved the way I do, big hugs, nose smoochies and all.