“Feeling ALL Our Feelings”

There are popular feelings: joy, happiness, love and affection, to name a few. And then there are unpopular feelings: anger, sadness, grief, hurt, and fear, among others. Most of us tend to hide the unpopular feelings and, instead, only feel and show the popular ones.

If we want integrity and wholeness in our lives, we must embrace all our feelings. Picking and choosing simply won’t work. Believe me, I’ve tried it plenty, and in a bit I’ll tell you what happened to me.

Remember, there are no good or bad feelings. There are just feelings. They make us divinely human and humanly divine. It may not be necessary to express them all with others, but we need to be aware of them within ourselves. Feelings are part of our experience here on Earth. Our feelings don’t define us. As souls in these bodies, we are always more than our feelings. Still, they are vital.

Joyce and I recently remembered a powerful experience I had starting out as a resident in psychiatry. I was especially fixated on only feeling … and showing … the above-mentioned popular feelings. I was able to fool a lot of people by my appearance of unswerving peace and happiness. I was not able to fool two persons in particular. One was Joyce. She always saw what I really felt. She saw right through my false pretense, even when I didn’t. She knew when I was angry, even though I was smiling. She knew when I was sad, even when I had no clue.

The other person I could never fool was Leo Buscaglia, the author of many books on love, and our friend while we lived in Los Angeles during my final two years of medical school. He was not polite with me. If I wasn’t being genuine, he’d get right in my face and say, “Barry, you’re being phony right now!” I actually appreciated his candor, and felt the “tough love” in his honesty. Unfortunately, when we moved up to Portland for my residency training, I hadn’t yet learned how to be genuine with my feelings.

That was about to change. Early on in my psychiatry training, the first-year residents, eleven of us and our spouses, were required to attend a five-day intensive led by Lee Fine, a master-teacher of psychodrama. I should add that the year was 1973, and a significant part of the five days would be better termed “Encounter Group.”

All of the participants became vulnerable, showed their fears, their sadness, their grief over losses in their lives. One resident went over the top in the expression of his vulnerability, and described, through his tears, coming home from school as a child and discovering his father hanging in the garage.

I showed no vulnerability, no fear, no pain. Instead, I presented myself with a smile on my face and peace in my life. Some of the residents were gentle and compassionate in their probing for my depth. Yet my smiling mask never faltered. Looking back at my level of emotional immaturity, it’s embarrassing to me now.

One by one, all the residents came around me and began confronting me. Each, in their own way, asked me to be more genuine and honest with all my feelings.

One resident asked, “How can I feel close to you if you’re pretending to be happy all the time?”

Another said, “It looks like you’re hiding behind a mask.”

And yet another blurted out angrily, “It’s pissing me off how phony you’re being right now!”

Still, I remained frozen in my phony happiness. I just was not able to access my “unpopular” feelings.

So the confrontation escalated. Some of the residents were angry at my apparent resistance. Forget psychodrama. This was pure 1970’s encounter group. I was sitting on the floor while all ten residents stood above me. I felt real compassion coming from some of them.

Finally, something broke inside me. I just wasn’t strong enough to withstand the mixed barrage of love and anger. I started crying … then sobbing. I had flashes of being a little boy and not wanting my tormentors in the tough neighborhood in Brooklyn to know that I was scared and hurt. I learned to show the world how strong I was. I learned that my vulnerability couldn’t be trusted with anyone else. It was me against the world.

In that moment of the workshop, I felt completely vulnerable with ten psychiatry residents. Now they could pounce on me and finish me off. I was defenseless.

But that didn’t happen. When I opened my eyes, I saw the gentlest, most caring faces looking down at me. I saw loving fathers, mothers, siblings and friends. I heard gentle compassion in their words. I felt accepted … and acceptable. It was a moment of coming-out as a sensitive, vulnerable human being.

It was also a turning point in my life. From that moment on, I knew my spiritual and human growth depended on my opening to all my feelings. I have accepted this work as essential. I’m far from perfect at identifying my feelings. It’s hard work. Sometimes, when I need Joyce’s love, I push her away instead. Sometimes, when I feel hurt, I still rationalize and talk myself out of the feeling. But I do recognize that, because I am committed to feeling all my feelings, I am becoming a better counselor, teacher, husband, father … and person.

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