When someone comes out of depression, they have to learn how to feel all over again. It isn’t some magical shift, where the depression is replaced by joy and ease. Those positive feelings are there, sure, but the negative feelings have to be felt as well. There is a learning process to feeling sad, scared, mad, and guilty again, and then learning how to use the emotions to create positive experiences.
Somewhere along the way, we grow to believe that “emotional” means “weak”. We say things like “My husband just died, but I can’t let the kids see me cry. I have to be strong” and “I know I was diagnosed with cancer, but I’m not going to be scared. I just have to stay positive.”
We expend exhausting amounts of energy toward avoiding feelings that make us uncomfortable, feelings that are a natural part of the human spectrum. We can’t avoid feeling those feelings any more than we can avoid feeling hungry or tired; we can pretend all we want, but the feelings will come regardless.
The human spectrum of emotions is beautiful and complex. There are the feelings we enjoy, like happiness, gratitude, peace, joy, and security; and then there are the feelings we believe are unhealthy or unpleasant because they bring with them a bit of pain, like sadness, fear, guilt, and anger. When people deny themselves the ability to feel and experience those emotions in healthy ways, they are dumping half of the crayons out of the box, and restricting themselves to the other half of the box. Black just doesn’t work as well without the white to contrast against, and red in only one shade isn’t nearly as beautiful as an entire spectrum of red.
Like physical and spiritual obesity (discussed in previous blogs), emotional obesity sneaks up on you, slowly over time, one pound of emotional weight added at a time. For years, I didn’t let myself feel sad or scared or angry. In fact, I believed it was unhealthy, selfish, even indulgent to waste time on those emotions. I kept a bright smile on my face while I was miserable on the inside.
It took me several years to learn a very fundamental lesson, that pushing away sadness, guilt, anger, and fear didn’t eliminate those emotions or mean that I didn’t feel them; the emotions were still present, pushed deep down where they did damage and caused pain. The only possible response to pushing emotion away is depression. Depression comes in many forms, from moderate to severe to crippling.
There are classic signs of depression: disinterest in pleasurable activities, poor sleep habits, poor nutrition habits, isolation from loved ones, lack of self-esteem, a lack of motivation, a lack of purpose, feelings of shame and worthlessness, and even recurrent thoughts of death and dying. Someone who is mildly depressed may grow to feel that walking through life sad and empty and numb is normal and natural; someone with severe depression may grow to feel that the world would be a better place without them.
My years in the closet were fraught with varying levels of depression. I grew accustomed to feeling sad and empty. I had a wife, a child, a home, a calling in my church, and a successful career, and I felt empty and numb on the inside so regularly that I thought I would never feel anything different. I even grew to believe that that was what God expected of me: to be sad until I died so that I could be happy finally.
I remember a particular time being at Disneyland with my wife, and seeing a gay couple nearby cuddling during the fireworks show. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. They looked so happy. I muttered something about being disgusted that they were being affectionate in public, while on the inside I envied them, knowing deep down that I would never have that, that I would never be able to find something like that. Looking back and realizing that I once saw no happiness in my future, well, that just breaks my heart.
Turns out, depression isn’t a natural state. Emotional obesity is a learned behavior, something we choose to participate in, just like physical obesity. Depression is a real and powerful force, and it literally steals lives away. People sometimes spend their entire lives feeling trapped by their environments and situations. Women stay in codependent relationships for decades, where they are abused or confined, because they convince themselves they can’t be happy outside of it; really, they won’t let themselves feel scared and do something with the fear. Men spend lifetimes lonely and feeling unworthy of love; really, they have never learned how to experience sadness and do something about it.
I had to learn, slowly and steadily over time, that emotions that are perceived as negative are truly beautiful. They are unique, and they are crucial to survival.
I love my sadness now, in all of its powerful forms. I love being able to be blue and lonely, I love grief, for myself and others, the ability to look back on the difficult hand life dealt me, to be able to miss my best friend, to regret the years lost, to feel a bit empty after something I hoped for didn’t turn out like I had hoped. I think my sadness is beautiful and powerful. I listen to it, and I feel it, and I don’t let it overwhelm me. I feel it, then I choose what to do with it.
I love my anger now, in all of its powerful forms. I love being able to be frustrated when I hit the tenth stoplight in a row, the ability to feel and express the full spectrum of annoyed to enraged when injustice happens around me, to clench my fists when someone I love is hurt, to feel steel in my stomach when I experience rejection or betrayal. I think my anger is beautiful and powerful. I listen to it, and I feel it, and I don’t let it overwhelm me. I feel it, then I choose what to do with it.
I love my fear now, in all of its powerful forms. I love listening to my mild fears and discomforts in uncomfortable situations, the ability to embrace nervousness as anticipation or dread and confronting those feelings head on, to feel gooseflesh and heart thumps when I worry about a result or a reaction. I think my fear is beautiful and powerful. I listen to it, and I feel it, and I don’t let it overwhelm me. I feel it, then I choose what to do with it.
I love my guilt now, in all of its powerful forms. I love listening to the unsettling parts of myself that have a lesson to teach me, the parts that regret a bad food choice or a harsh word, the parts that ache over lost years and missed opportunities, the parts the deliver hidden messages from my deepest core and help me to course correct and make authentic choices. I think my guilt is beautiful and powerful. I listen to it, and I feel it, and I don’t let it overwhelm me. I feel it, then I choose what to do with it.
Being emotionally fit means not only listening to my emotional spectrum, it means embracing it. It means opening my arms up to the wind and loving my life in all of its forms. It means putting myself first before seeking to make those around me happy. It means choosing healthy, balanced relationships. It means keeping every crayon in the box, and using all of them often to color the most beautiful pictures possible.
(Final obesity blog coming soon on being Mentally Obese).