This week I was asked for advice on how to share one’s feelings. Many reading this will wonder if the person seeking this counsel thought he was speaking to another Kevin Little, one in a parallel universe, a man in touch with his feelings. I recall one elective course I took in seminary, the professor was trying to get me to say “I feel…” but all I could muster was “I think…” She was not impressed. As a father this is clearly my biggest weakness, the lack of modelling how to publicly weave one’s feelings into one’s decision making, one’s way of being. I “feel” I am better at expressing feelings than people realize, but these expressions are largely private.
Expressing feelings is hard for me. It wasn’t as a child, I recall being very expressive with my feelings, the full range; tears, anger, belly laughs, deep emotional connections. I didn’t hug then either but I was more transparently emotive, no one had any difficulty figuring out my emotional offering. Now almost universally people get my emotional temperature wrong, they think I am angry when I am sad, they think I am sad when I am tired, they think I am tired when I am angry, they think I am happy when I am anxious, etc… Almost always people assume I am feeling what they are feeling, what they would be feeling if they were me at that moment. And THAT is the problem. What emotional responses do to people’s brains has been a source of confusion and dismay for me for years. Thus I began to filter my emotions through a lens of being self-aware, what was going on around me.
I just got tired of trying to understand why people became so poor at insight, awareness, and fairness in the deep end of emotional waters. I did not want to be like them. It was like talking to a drunk person or someone on drugs, I could not understand where the judgment had been left behind, why people who seemed so balanced and fair and kind could be so mean, so unfair and so unaware of their own behavior, when they were being very emotional. And before anyone assumed otherwise I am speaking of both genders, all age groups and all ethnicities, everyone. I have NEVER noticed any demographic tilt in the emotional Olympics. I have known just as many men who behave this way as women. In fact in more recent years all of the emotional people I have struggled to relate to have been men.
I value awareness, fairness, balance, listening to both sides, understanding the nuances of the situation, making sure the various conflicts are examined in some detail. Some friends refer to me as the ultimate Libra (see scales). Emotional responses tend to make this effort more problematic.
Still I realize God gave us emotions and they are part of a healthy mindset. One cannot shove one’s emotions down, it is not spiritual to deny one’s emotions, one misses the highs, the intimacy, the deep connections, if one leaves one’s emotions at arm’s length. If you love others, and I do, you need to express this with deep emotion, and any loss, be the loss of life, the loss of relationship, is profoundly painful, which brings me to grief. I always tell families that playing it “tough” in the midst of death is a fool’s quest, it will always come back and bite you if you are not honest with your feelings and let them out. Crying, the cathartic expression of pain and loss, the heartache, are all healthy.
I try my very best not to allow any of the deep emotions that arise from my most profound relationships to be buried. If I am proud or sad or overwhelmed with joy or moved by love, I never try to hide or cover this. BUT what I don’t do is allow these deeply human feelings to become an excuse to behave badly with others, to mask meanness or selfishness or interfere with my responsibility to discern truth in the moment. Telling one’s self, “I can suspend fairness and compassion for the other, I can pretend I am not a hypocrite, I can say or do whatever I want because I am in the midst of an emotional episode” is an easy way to walk away from our covenant to “love our neighbour as we love ourselves”. And those who practice this kind of blanket excusing of bad behavior are often the very people who hold on to a litany of “hurts” that they themselves have inflicted in this state of “It’s not my fault, I was having a really bad day.”
I believe it is possible to be emotional, to feel one’s pain, to feel the pain of others, to let the emotions well up and be real and express all of same with authentic tears and laughter and hugs and at the same time not allow this to become a weapon we can inflict on innocent third parties or even the target of our unhappiness. If in fact we are called to “treat others as we would like to be treated” then whether we are in an emotional state or not we need to attend to some form of self-awareness, awareness of the other, and what is truly going on, not just the grievance that is welling up inside.
Human emotions are very, very good, Narcissism, in all its forms, is not.