In recent weeks I’ve shared about physical, spiritual and mental needs that I believe we all have. I’ve also touched on how these needs connect to self-care, how they vary over time, and how we can tell if our spiritual needs are going unattended. For today’s #GoddessingSelfCare Sunday, I turn now to examining our emotional needs.
As I’ve spent a few days drawing together ideas about emotional needs, I’ve found myself struggling with my own reasoning on multiple occasions. It is a situation of knowing something in my head and heart but having a very hard time getting my emotional being on-board. I am the kind of person who can suppress my emotional expression at will, turning it off in situations where I deem it is inappropriate, and then letting loose in “safe” places. I don’t recommend this “Jekyll and Hyde” as a way of being in the world; my early life experiences and general makeup forged me into this style and it creates uncomfortable discrepancies. I’ve had many people react with shock when they drive with me for the first time, as this is a “let loose” area where I scream, rant, threaten and swear. I once had a five-minute commute where I cursed people with the “f-word” four or more times, go out of my car to walk into the building, and proceeded, without a hint of irony, to curse several times at the people driving. Side note: any tips on combating road rage are appreciated!
What’s your response to a strong emotion? Do you sink into it and let yourself fully experience it? Do you ignore it and try to change it if it unpleasant? Do you hold onto it and try to keep it going past its natural cycle? We all have a need to recognize and express our feelings. I do not agree with the idea that we are giving “energy” to something negative if we feel all of our feelings to their full extent. They are a powerful source of internal communication and we make them a sacred experience when we draw them into ritual or meditation. From the perspective of theories regarding PTSD and dissociation, discounting or numbing emotions can be a symptom of mental health concerns.
If we conceptualize emotions as messages, then they often dictate or require a reply or action. If you are able to negotiate a response, don’t leave your feelings hanging! I really didn’t get this concept for a long time. I would focus on experiencing my emotions in their raw state, but would then often start cycling through depression or anxiety patterns as I alternately felt overwhelmed and stuck in emotion, or distant and avoidant of it. Now, in my better moments, as soon as I have an intense negative emotion, I name it and sit with it for a bit to see if it naturally dissipates. If it doesn’t, or if I find myself returning to it quickly, I ask myself what my underlying need is and how I can best meet it. Taking at least one concrete action towards resolving the situation from which the emotion rose has really helped me become more able to handle the intensity of my feelings.
It’s not all gloomy! There is very much a place for joy, happiness, and exuberance within Goddess Spirituality. I chose a particular positive emotion each morning on which I want to concentrate each day, in order to expand my mental horizon to also include uplifting emotional experiences. My brain’s default setting is towards the negative and pessimistic, so I have to make a concerted effort to include positive emotions. The broaden-and-build psychological theory suggests that these joyful emotions play a key role in promoting psychological resilience and strength. It suggests that we can have moments of happiness amidst our sorrows, and that in doing so, we are more able to develop solutions to situations we face, which then spurs us on to creative actions and connection with others.
Attuning to Emotional Needs
Have you ever copied a baby’s sad facial expression, only to have it perk up and start laughing? Early in life, emotional mirroring provides us with a template to learn to regulate our inner feeling states. We don’t necessarily go around copying others faces to try to make them feel better as adults, but looking into someone’s eyes and knowing that he or she “gets” you satisfies a deep longing we have to be seen through an empathetic gaze. We need the presence of others in order to heal our inner wounds. We can also experience this healing in a sacred place. One of my most powerful meditations has been with Kuan Yin, the Buddhist Goddess of Compassion, as I experienced her really seeing my suffering.
Despite the fact that others are crucial to meeting our emotional needs, I think a thorny area for many trauma survivors is accessing a feeling of support and care from those around them. There are many complicating factors here. Survivors, myself included, may struggle with trust and hesitate to open up to others. When they do open up, they may not be met with the response they expected. I’ve had people respond with sadness, anger, indifference or even change the subject abruptly when I’ve disclosed my trauma history, and at times when I’ve simply shared how I was feeling.
When Our Emotional Needs Go Unmet
What can we do when we don’t feel like someone is meeting our emotional needs and we’d like a different response? First, I think the initial challenge is to determine if we’ve really made our needs clear and explicit. I think we set ourselves up for unnecessary heartache and loneliness if we expect people in our lives to be able to accurately guess how we are feeling and what we want in response without telling them.
If you know you’ve made yourself clear, then the next step is to decide if it’s worth repeating or if this person simply isn’t able or doesn’t want to meet your particular emotional need. It’s disappointing to realize the emotional limits of a relationship, but I’ve found myself experiencing a huge reduction in how much I am triggered when I come to terms with these boundaries. Letting go of expectations unleashes our ability to respond to our needs.
The final step would be to resource who else in our lives could potentially meet our need, as well as to determine how much we are able to be there for ourselves or to take other actions that might help us emotionally. Perhaps there is another person who is likely to be more supportive, or inner work such as journaling and drawing that would be of assistance. It’s pretty simple to sum these steps up in writing, but I have found myself wandering back through them and learning the same lesson repeatedly in order to grow in my emotional depth as a person.
Another twist to connecting emotionally with others is that sometimes there can be a disconnect between how others are showing up for us on the whole and how we experience that presence. There have been times in my life where there were many people who expressed care and concern for me, but I was in a dark place emotionally and felt like “nobody” cared. At other times, there have been objectively fewer people responding to me, but I felt a sense of connection with them and the world as a whole so it seemed like “somebody” cared. Perhaps even checking in with ourselves and asking if it’s “nobody” or “somebody” who is there for us might give us a sense of how open or closed emotionally we are. This way of thinking can be bitter medicine, as I know I would have argued strongly with myself during my closed times to try to prove how little people were there for me, but, in looking back now, I do see that depression skewed my perception, heightening others’ flaws and cutting short my attention to the ways in which they were reaching out to me. I am curious if my own or other people’s sense of connection with Deity shows the same variation; I suspect there would be a correlation.
Emotions flicker through us like moths to the light, dissipating just as we finally reach out to grasp them. Being able to identify, express and resource our emotional needs acts as a container to help us process the feelings that impact our thoughts and behaviors. With Goddess as our guide, we can then use them to light our way through dark and difficult times, and release them in celebration to the brightness of hopeful days.