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Renowned Psychotherapist and author of A New Approach to Women and Therapy (bio)
Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair
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Chapter Eight - We Live in the World and the World Lives in Us
Ruth was a participant in one of my workshops on befriending the dark emotions. She was a twenty-five-year-old woman who had been raised in an orthodox Lutheran family that was very involved with the church. Solemn and devout as a young child, she had felt secure in her large and close-knit family. But by the time she was ten years old, for reasons she couldn’t name, she’d become estranged from her family.
When I asked participants to visualize a dark emotion that they wanted to work with for the day, Ruth reported being flooded with intense feelings of sorrow and fear. She saw herself as an eight-year-old, at the moment she first heard about the atomic bomb.
Describing her experience to the group, she said: “I couldn’t put God as I had learned about Him together with the bomb. I needed to talk about it with my parents, and I even brought it up at church. But no one would talk to me. They sang hymns instead. From that time on, I stopped feeling. I became emotionally frozen.”
Driven by an urgent need to know why human beings would make and use weapons of mass destruction, Ruth needed immediate attention, but her questions and emotions were ignored. She was traumatized twice: once by the news of the bomb and then again by the silence of her family and faith community. Their hymn singing, once spiritually uplifting, became a denial of the demons she was facing. In the community’s silence, Ruth’s emotions froze, and stayed frozen for the next seventeen years.
Instead of learning to honor her sorrow and fear for the world, Ruth grew up believing that she was “too sensitive.” In the workshop, she was able, finally, to cry the tears she’d stopped crying as a child and to be respected for her “sensitivity.” In being heard by a community of validating listeners, Ruth began to thaw from her long emotional freeze.
What do we make of this story? If Ruth’s mother or father had been emotionally or physically abusive, we’d have no trouble attributing Ruth’s long-held sorrow and fear, as well as her emotional numbing, to childhood trauma and bad parenting. But nuclear terror and community silence? Could these really be causes of Ruth’s family estrangement and emotional deep freeze?
Many experts in psychology would have their doubts. Their training would lead them to search Ruth’s past for some more personal, familial drama that was the real cause of her problems. Therapists don’t generally ask questions like: What did you feel when you first heard about the atomic bomb? How do you feel about the state of the planet? When you think about the world your children will inherit, what are your fears? They ask questions like: What was it like being the youngest child? How do you feel about your mother? How did you feel when your parents divorced? We are not trained, nor do we think it makes sense, nor in most cases would we feel comfortable, to ask the former questions, which assume that our dark emotions are fundamentally connected to the world in which we live. Bound within the confines of our narrow psychological paradigm, we don’t hear answers to questions we don’t ask.
We think of emotions as existing “inside” us, in a realm that is removed from the world “outside.” This way of thinking about feelings goes along with our culture’s favored way of thinking about the self: as an atomistic ego, enclosed within its “boundaries,” formed in the crucible of the nuclear family. Grief, fear, and despair, in this way of thinking, are remnants of a dim, familial past that haunts the present, rather than responses to the here-and-now life we live in this world. For more than one hundred years of Freudian and post-Freudian psychodynamic psychology, we have been deeply embedded in these ways of thinking about feelings—ways that are at best partial and at worst dangerously outmoded.
“In psychology,” says Theodore Roszak, “theories are best seen as commitments to understanding people in certain ways.”1
My commitment is to seeing individuals in a way that doesn’t neglect to take the world into account. In this respect, I look for a different story about the dark emotions than the one our culture tells: a story not restricted to an inner child of the past but one that extends out to the connections between personal suffering and its larger context. I call this larger context “emotional ecology.”
From the standpoint of emotional ecology, the individualist lens through which psychology sees its subject has made us myopic—unable to see beyond our own noses. By the microscopic norms of conventional psychological theory and practice, clinicians are accustomed to thinking about individual wounds that are inflicted in one’s family of origin and transmitted in family legacies of pain. What we don’t think about very well, if at all, is how these legacies are related to the historical, cultural, and environmental contexts in which they occur.
As much as it has taught us about our feelings, conventional psychology bears a large share of responsibility for what keeps the dark emotions pathologized, privatized, and disempowered. With the increasing popularization of a post-Freudian view of the psyche, the “inner child” whose sorrow, fear, and despair can be cured psychiatrically has become an accepted idea in the culture. Emotional pain is increasingly seen as a disorder that can and should be treated, if not through individual “talk therapy,” then by swallowing a pill. This orientation has made it difficult, if not impossible, to see how the dark emotions we feel are shared throughout the human family, what they tell us about our relationship with the world, and how to heal ourselves through more collective means.
Like Ruth, when we are grieving, afraid, or in despair, we feel alone. We may think that we must nurse our wounds in private because they are in some sense secret, and should remain so. Often, the only person we permit ourselves to burden with these private dark emotions is a stranger, to whom we pay the going rate for a listening ear. But the loneliness of the dark emotions is not intrinsic; nor is it necessary. It is an “add-on” imposed by our social-emotional conditioning. What Ruth needed as a child was to be heard in community. She needed to know that she was not alone in her fear. We all experience fear in an endangered world and, like Ruth, we need to be accompanied in our dark emotions. Ruth didn’t get this. Most of us don’t.
Copyright 2003 by Miriam Greenspan