When I quit smoking over thirty years ago, I felt a lot of anger. I thought it was because I missed cigarettes so much, part of the “grieving process.” But in truth, I started smoking because I was already angry. Cigarettes were my best friend. When I inhaled, my toxic feelings melted away when the toxic nicotine hit my brain. Cigarettes worked well at medicating any unwanted emotions, fear, guilt, sorrow, and loss. Later, I had to address other addictions one by one, and without my vices, I didn’t know how to regulate myself emotionally. I felt crazy at times. I was crazy at times.
Allowing my emotions to surface felt like emotional vomiting. I hated it. So, I would stuff them. It was like trying to put my finger over a running water spigot — they’d spew out all over the place, the very thing I tried so hard to avoid. Goodbye self-esteem, good-bye friends, good-bye favorite places.
Recovery didn’t help much when it came to the feeling department. I got the message (whether intended or not) that spirituality meant no anger, no self-pity, think but don’t feel, and no excuses for feeling hurt. When people violated me (a characteristic of someone raised in an addictive family), I thought I didn’t have the right to be angry, so I’d stay jammed up trying to sort things out – “analysis paralysis.” Sometimes, I’d just shut down and go emotionally numb.
It took a while to access emotions that were buried deep inside. I vividly recall being in my therapist’s office feeling so anxious about feeling vulnerable that I thought I’d disintegrate. It took over a year to talk about the roots of my anger, and then it was like letting air out of a giant balloon. Underneath the anger were oceans of pain. I cried and cried.
Therapy helped to regulate my emotions better, but then I had to learn to sit with my feelings until they were neutral before expressing myself. Sometimes I’d slip, but fortunately, the 12-Step programs, spirituality, and therapy concepts are a process, not a one-time solution. We keep “drudging along” on the happy road to freedom.
We are human beings, and for those of us who weren’t taught how to voice our emotions in healthy ways as children, it’s unnatural. It’s not supposed to be that way; youngsters cry when they’re sad and promptly dispel their anger when mad. They get hugs when the tears flow and are taught how to put words to their anger instead of acting it out physically or verbally.
Emotions aren’t good or bad – they’re part of being alive. But if you don’t accept them and allow yourself to feel them, they are bad for you. They can make you depressed or physically ill. When I’m upset, I quickly get to a quiet place and be with whatever crazies are going on inside me. It’s usually about the past, but I need internal spiritual guidance sometimes. After a few minutes, I feel better and go about the day. This simple exercise has provided more peace than anything else.
If I have a conflict with someone, I wait until I feel neutral before discussing it. This is more challenging than spewing anger but hundreds of times more rewarding. Sometimes, I don’t need to discuss anything because the matter is internally resolved – like when I’m suspicious of someone because an imaginary resemblance triggers my past. Once I sit with the feelings, I realize I’m reliving something that isn’t happening now, and it’s hitting an old wound that still needs to heal.
If I feel jammed up about a decision, I wait until it feels right to proceed – or not. I call this a green light or red light experience.
I refuse to be a victim. I apologize if I screw up and say or do the wrong thing, though not always – progress, not perfection.
Emotional sobriety doesn’t mean living on a pink cloud or having the doldrums. It means being in touch with feelings and knowing what to do with them in healthy ways. Loving yourself means accepting your humanity and to keep growing.
There’s no escaping being human. We can medicate, shut down, or spew our emotions, but they don’t go away, and we remain trapped in an emotional prison. Learning to love ourselves means learning how to feel and express ourselves in healthy ways—no more arms-length relationships. We can provide the safety we need to be ourselves and allow others to be intimate with us. Then its; hello self-esteem, problem-solving, and friends.
It’s never too late to have a happy adulthood. Be the parent you never had. No one will love you more than you love yourself.
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Dr. Donna Marks has been an author, consultant, public speaker, and psychotherapist for over thirty years. She was licensed as a Mental Health Counselor in 1987 and then certified in Addiction, Gestalt Therapy, Hypnosis, Sex Therapy, and Psychoanalysis. She currently has a concierge psychotherapy practice in Palm Beach, Florida.
She has appeared on numerous podcasts and local television. She is the author of two books, Learn Grow Forgive – A Path to Spiritual Success, and Exit the Maze: One Addiction, One Cause, One Solution (revised), and winner of multiple book awards. Her next book, The Healing Moment: Seven Keys to Turn Messes into Miracles, will be released in 2023.
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