As Zoe and I sat at breakfast in Chapel Hill yesterday morning before I drove home, she asked me how I was doing. After all, the year before when we dropped her off at college, I had sobbed uncontrollably. This year, I told her, I was relieved to feel much more in control. And then I added that my only worry this year was that, since we’re moving from Louisville soon, she won’t have a home to come to. My voice cracked on the word home. Here came the tears.
I knew if we talked much longer, I’d be done for. I sent her to pay the check, went to the bathroom and pulled myself together. We said our goodbyes, dry-eyed, and I headed out of town.
Whereupon I was listening to music in the car, heard a sad song, and began crying again. Alone at last, I was free to sob all I wanted. And yet I was telling myself, “Pull it together, Fran! You don’t need to cry this time!”
And in that moment, I recalled the mantra of one of my clients: “Feel you feelings!” As a child, she experienced many forms of abuse; in her efforts to cope, she developed obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, and at times, depression. Now an adult, she is starting to heal.
She has told me that she realized now how hard her mind and body worked in the past to push away uncomfortable, fearful feelings, substituting obsessions (if I rearrange the room again, I’ll feel better) and outright panic (my body’s taking over so my mind doesn’t have to). But she said she was learning that if she just let herself “feel my feelings,” they’d soon float away and she could continue with her day. Feeling her feelings was a way of building trust in herself, and she was practicing it for all she was worth.
Obviously this is one of the gifts of doing therapy — most often, and I’m not exaggerating or trying to patronize, the clients are the ones doing the teaching. We therapists witness their hard work, and inevitably, learn from them.
So in the car, the phrase “feel your feelings” came back to me, after hearing it so many times in therapy. I told myself that I could cry. Soon the crying was past. Then it returned. Then it was past again.
My client’s next lesson would be to keep practicing, as the stress of the coming move threatens to overwhelm me at times. My instinct is to berate myself for those freaked out feelings because, hey, it’s not that bad, and really this is an adventure, right?
But they’re my feelings, and they’re going to express themselves one way or another. Best to stand back and let them march past, in all their freaked out glory … and let them keep right on marching until I can’t see them any more.