We’ve a curious relationship with emotions. At least in the post-industrial, productivity obsessed rat-race we call the developed world.
It’s as if they’re an affliction. A mild inconvenience. Vague, distracting – emotions are to be endured, yet largely suppressed. Like trapped wind or a hang-nail.
I don’t know about you, but darker parts of me judge folk who go overboard on emotion – as irrational, false, volatile, gushing or oversharing.
There’s something about all this emotional stuff scares me a bit too. They can escalate without warning. Choice and control rarely come into it. They can mug us off.
How about you?
Perhaps it’s for these reasons that some of us feel neutral or nothing in particular a lot of the time, when it comes to matters of the heart.
I see this often when I coach people navigating midlife – it’s difficult to explore how we really feel or what that even means.
Feeling the feels
Neglecting our emotional inner world seems like a loss to me. A missed opportunity that I’ve lamented acutely through adulthood.
For a while, I experimented with what I called ‘emotional literacy’ – like there was a language I wasn’t very good at speaking. Then I coined a new term: ‘emotional fluency’ – like there was some way to get good at my emotional experiments.
I read books on compassion and scrutinised emotion word-clouds to grasp their mechanics. I listened to sad songs to make me cry – to see what it felt like.
None of this really helped.
I still felt unmoved, much of the time. Just neutral. Not uncaring. Just ‘meh.’ Yet something inside, I suspected, was perpetually errant, lacking or wrong.
Apathy, it turns out, is an emotion too. Hooray! I thought. I’m human after all. I feel something (even if it’s nothing). That’s progress, right?
I discovered that apathy is a kind of emotional constipation. A sort of muted, dulled aliveness that’s probably designed to protect us from feeling those inconvenient (dreaded?) feels.
For whatever reason – trauma, schooling, people like us learned restraint, towards baser emotional impulses like anger, fear and shame. So they don’t get a chance to emerge, more fully expressed. Instead they remain awkward and uncomfortable feelings our egos would rather avoid.
Yet if you cancel one emotion, you cancel them all. Hence this universal ‘meh’ feeling people like us can experience, about most things in life (even stuff that OUGHT to move us).
We’re not broken. What if we just got stuck?
Our meaty bone sacks are built for safety rather than happiness, apparently. Which means our neutral feeling is a sort of safety from pain, which makes perfect sense, from an evolutionary perspective.
What helped me shift beyond neutral/meh is the premise that you and I, all of us, have an innate emotional life. Sometimes though, we just fall out of practice. Our emotional muscles can atrophy a bit, for want of a good stretch.
All this is very human, by the way.
This is where things get edgy
If you follow my Instagram, you might have seen some gingerly shared stories from the front-line of a harrowing marital separation I recently survived.
Well, this particular big change shook me out of feeling neutral, or nothing in particular.
I’m not advocating anyone puts a thermonuclear bomb under their life, as a speedy route to feeling more feels. However, what I am curious about is how change – especially the profound, painful and disruptive sort – can rapidly transform our emotional experience of life.
When the heart breaks, it breaks open
Humans respond and adapt REALLY FUCKING WELL to new, uncertain situations. I say that feeling both delighted surprise, and extra side-surprise that this still surprises me.
When big change comes (expected or otherwise), when we move towards what’s deeply comfortable, it’s like we wake up. All our systems come back online, including the heart.
Like a reboot.
Since things blew (fell?) apart in life, my spectrum of emotions broadened. Here, have some learns:
- We fear feelings not things: imagine the thing you fear most happens; your response – that’s what we’re really scared of, feeling that pain, rather than the thing itself having happened.
- Your literacy/fluency is innate: maybe there’s nothing to learn here, only deepen your understanding of. What if all emotions are already waiting in the wings for a cue?
- Emotions are signals: we got ‘em for a reason, so what if it was just another sort of intelligence, an extra advisor or source counsel, like your trusty creativity or analysis? As opposed to a true story…
- They are gassy: one emotion bleeds into another, often at the same time, even opposing ones. Like a buffet of mixed farts. No one tells us this. Maybe that’s what’s so tricky and shifts us to neutral?
- Labelling isn’t much help: sad, mad, glad, bad… What do you need more or less of? What is this sensation pulling you towards or pushing you away from?
- They come in waves: by degrees rather than simply full on or off. The only way out is through – sure they knock us over, but it’s just like paddling in choppy water, you can ride it out until the storm passes.
- Feelings change and always pass: no matter how awful, they will relent and mutate into something else, even disappear, they are never forever. When was the last time you felt different to now? See.
This is a lifetime’s work
I’ve realised there’s no such thing as ‘getting better’ or ‘doing it right’ when it comes to emotional stuff. The templates we need to navigate life are already in there. And feeling neutral or nothing in particular, like we do from time-to-time, is just another kind of emotional experience.
You got this far – may I presume you’re inquisitive, wary even, of what’s going on beneath your surface?
Perhaps you too feel frustrated, wary or confused too (also emotions!). Like neutral-ness is wrong or bad in some way. Like there should be more, or you’re impatient to discover some message wrapped up in all of this, but you don’t know what.
Big change in some facet of your life, like the kind that’s catalysed my experience, might not be for you. But I suspect that if you sense change is coming, or you’ve a hunger for it, or even if it mugs you by surprise – that might be one way to explore your emotional curiosity, and experiment with what it is to be human. 8