The Mind and Heart Should Get Married (Not Divorced)

The Western world has an unfortunate habit of splitting things into opposing dichotomies: the mind/body, masculine/feminine, rational/emotional, etc.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the source of wisdom and a similarly ineffective dichotomy between whether people believe that external education or intuition reigns.

In general, I tend to find the favor towards external information residing in the rational camp. Atheists, scientists, and people who value masculine-ish traits often express a value for that which comes from outside oneself. Decisions are made from logical criteria. Knowledge consists of what is testable and provable.

On the other hand, the emotional camp tends to value intuition. This is where I tend to find the spiritual, some types of philosophical/psychological thinkers, and those who value feminine-ish traits expressing appreciation for knowledge coming from within. Decisions are made based on gut instincts. Knowledge consists of introspection and is often individual and ambiguous.

As a typical Gemini, I find myself gravitating to a certain extent to both sides but chafing at the idea of having to choose one. I have come to trust my intuition. I’ve made some of my most important life decisions based on intuitive knowledge. Yet, I see the importance of gathering information, weighing the pros and cons, and seeking evidence.

I don’t necessarily think being a Gemini makes me unique in using both my intuition and my intellect as a source of wisdom. I just think perhaps I’m more likely to recognize that I use both and value both.

In fact, they have to work together to be strongest.

Babette Rothschild was the first person who planted this seed in my head with her book The Body Remembers. At one point, she mentioned that there is evidence to suggest that people can’t think rationally without emotions. The thought struck a deep chord within me.

Fred Kofman writes a fairly simple explanation of how this works over here, explaining that without the emotional undertones, people have a hard time developing enough of a preference or emotional charge to actually make their choices. Looking at the pros and cons, even as a “rational” model of decision-making, is endless and worthless without emotional input.

On a similar level, I would suggest that if a person divorces their own emotions and intuition from the decision-making process, they have no internal compass. Part of the ways that I’ve come to understand how cults work—how they can convince people to do unhealthy, bizarre, or illegal things—comes from the way they divorce the individual from what Robert Lifton deems their “reality testing” abilities through methods such as confusion, emotional manipulation, loading the language, etc (check out his book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism for more information about this).

On the emotional/intuitive end, a similar thing is true. As Kofman points out in the article linked above, strong emotions can overwhelm to the point of losing reason. We’re all probably familiar with a person who has made a horrible decision because of their emotions clouding out their ability to think.

But on a deeper level, it’s important to recognize that intuition is as much experience-based as it is biological or subconscious. Without input from the outside world, the inner world is devoid. An intuitive choice is heavily influenced by experience from the past, knowledge acquired previously, and current input that one may not be entirely conscious of at the moment.

In other words, intuition is only as strong as the experiences and knowledge that have built it up. I can trust my intuition about whether I would be happy and successful in a job (even though the pros/cons list might seem in favor of a different choice) because I’ve had enough previous experience to know what a bad fit feels like and have gathered enough conscious and subconscious information about the current option.

I’ve also taken the time to get to know my intuition and what my pitfalls might be. I know that I’m more likely to trust people I shouldn’t trust if I make a connection with them when I’m tipsy. I know that even well-intentioned people can set off my internal alarm if they touch my arm without permission.

But my intuition is still growing. It grows the more that I exercise it. It grows when I make a mistake and learn through failure. It grows when I gather new intellectual information and practice allowing it to work with my left brain.

I have come to believe that the true key to wisdom is recognizing that both emotions and logic have an important role to play—that gathering external information and testing hypotheses is just as important as listening to your own internal guidance and learning from introspection.

Too much rationality, and you get someone devoid of making a healthy decision because they either can’t gauge their own relationship with the choice or can’t understand the impact it might have on others. The loss of empathy is often also a loss of connection to one’s own emotions.

Too much emotionality, on the other hand, and you get a person buffeted about by whims and impulses of the moment, unable to think long-term, or overwhelmed beyond reason.

It is in the balance of the two that you find wisdom and true knowledge.

Losing Access to One Emotion Causes the Whole System to Malfunction

I just saw Disney’s newest Pixar film, Inside Out, a movie which I had been waiting to see for months. If you’ve followed my series on reclaiming negative emotions, I’m sure you can understand why I was psyched out of my mind. If you’re familiar with the way that society tends to demonize shadow emotions, you’ll also understand why I was slightly apprehensive.

Spoiler Alert, by the way, for this post. I’m going to be discussing the significance of the plot.

I knew from the previews that Joy gets lost, and I suspected that it would be a movie about depression, where Sadness takes over running things because Joy is missing. I was equal parts hoping for some positive representations of what sadness does for people but also prepared for it to be all about having to find one’s joy again.

To my surprise and delight, that’s not the way that plot goes.

Joy does get lost, but she gets lost with Sadness after the two of them have a fight in head-quarters about whether Sadness can produce a core memory shortly after Riley has to move away from her home and friends.

Nobody likes Sadness, especially not Joy. Joy tolerates Anger, Disgust, and Fear because she recognizes they have a valuable job to do (yay that they weren’t demonized!). But she doesn’t see the point of Sadness. When they get lost together, she’s even willing at one point to leave Sadness behind in order to get herself back to headquarters because she sees herself as the most important emotion for Riley to have.

Meanwhile, back at headquarters, Anger, Fear, and Disgust are trying desperately to cover up the fact that two of the emotions have gotten lost, but it’s not their jobs to be either joyful or sad, so they mess it up. Big time. They end up planting an idea in her head that sets Riley off on a destructive and dangerous course.

The longer Joy and Sadness are gone, the more things fall apart inside Riley until the emotional control panel in her head begins to shut down and turn gray. With horror, Anger, Fear, and Disgust realize that they can’t make her feel anything anymore.

Eventually, it becomes apparent that Sadness has a really important role to play for Riley. Only Sadness can turn the control panel back on. Riley needs to grieve for her friends back in her former home and the fact that she feels completely lost in this new place.

Once Sadness is permitted to do her job, the other emotions are able to start doing their jobs again.

I was crying so hard at the end of the movie, not just because it was a tear-jerker. I was crying because it felt like someone finally understood the importance of emotions and had codified it so well in this children’s movie. All of the emotions are vital. But when we try to distance ourselves from one, we distance ourselves from all. When we try to cover up one with another (Anger is great at covering up sadness), we only make it worse. If we try to operate without one entirely, the whole system eventually begins shutting down.

Book Review: The Program by Suzanne Young

Trigger warning: discussion of suicide and suppressed memories

In a future that isn’t too different from our present, suicide has been declared an all-out epidemic among teens. In a desperate attempt to “cure” them, the nation has developed a treatment program that involves the involuntary confinement of anyone “at risk” of suicide (including those who know someone who committed suicide). The treatment involves altering the brain to remove painful, traumatic memories . . . or as Sloane learns, any memories associated with “dangerous topics.”

After Sloane’s brother commits suicide, Sloane and her boyfriend James (who was also her brother’s best friend) do their best to hide their grief in order to avoid being flagged. Unfortunately, their plan doesn’t work. Shortly after her boyfriend is taken into the Program, Sloane is deemed at risk and taken too. She emerges with her memory wiped of her brother’s suicide and of her entire relationship with James.

However, unlike what the Program promised, she’s not given a fresh start and a happier life now that her memories are gone. Instead, she finds herself overwhelmed with emotions that she doesn’t understand, a grief that seems to have no place, a love that seems to have no object. Her body remembers what her mind can’t, and it tortures her as she struggles to put the pieces together.

This is an intense book—so intense that I had to take multiple breaks from reading it. Not five-minute breaks. More like month-long breaks.

But it’s fantastic. I almost think it should be required reading.

Despite being set in the future, I feel like Suzanne Young was referencing more reality than speculation through most of the book.

Memory wipes, for instance, are already in the making. A couple of years ago, one of my psych teachers showed the class a video discussing the new “hoped for” treatment for PTSD that involved preventing traumatic memories from forming and blocking already formed memories. They had already even had a few test subjects.

I’m not sure if Suzanne Young based The Program off of this developing “treatment,” but she definitely understands the drawbacks to which the developers seemed to be blind. Memory isn’t just held in the brain. Muscles hold memories too. Even now, I can sit down and play songs on my violin that I can’t consciously remember the notes to because my fingers remember the way the movement feels.

And yes, my body remembers my abuse even when I can’t consciously recall the details. It’s terrifying and confusing to have my body react to something that I can’t see or even fully remember. My vagina doesn’t care if I can pull up an exact image of my sexual abuse or not. It spasms just the same. My bottom doesn’t care if I can recall how many times a belt was drawn across my bare backside; the muscles clench anyway when I’m exposed to triggers.

For someone who has spent over twenty years with patchy memories, the most terrifying thing I can imagine is a treatment that removes my memories. If I were to imagine hell, hell would be knowing something bad happened but not being able to remember it. People live that hell every day, yet science thinks they are offering a solution to pain by offering to put people in that hell.

But memory isn’t what drives The Program (It may be what drives the sequel, but I’ll have to wait to find out where she takes that).

Rather, the main thrust of the book seems to be about the way society responds to depression and suicide. Perhaps it’s exaggerated a little, but not a lot. Even today suicide risk is one of the things for which a therapist is required to break confidentiality. Friends and family members are encouraged to report if they believe someone is contemplating killing themselves.

And the response? The same! Lock you up; take away your autonomy.

Now if that isn’t a recipe for desperation and isolation, I don’t know what is.

In the book, Sloane and James are afraid to even cry in genuine grief. They have no one to confide in about their feelings except each other, and even then they have to be careful about where they confide to each other for fear that someone will notice them looking “sad” and report them. They have a school therapist, but the therapist is all but useless because…how can they trust someone who has the power and responsibility to flag them for what they are feeling?

The bottled up emotions don’t dissipate. They become stronger until even normal emotions seem overwhelming. They are drowning in their emotions, but it’s the only choice they have because the alternative is to lose themselves entirely.

The Program directors try to make themselves look good on the television and to parents, but amongst the teens it’s pretty well understood that the Program isn’t a cure. It’s an erasure. The “epidemic” of suicide grows because teens would rather die than be taken into the Program.

I felt as though Suzanne Young were pulling back the veil on our own societal stigma around suicide—a topic so taboo that most people can’t bring themselves to talk about struggling with it, leaving them to flounder in their emotions alone.

Those who do talk are given medication that may not erase memories but certainly deadens their emotional response. They’re shamed and treated like they have a horrible disease, often hospitalized whether they want to be or not.

And perhaps because we view depression as an illness that needs to be cured rather than something that should be worked through, we encourage people to assume that once “infected,” they can’t think rationally. They start to act as though they can’t think through their feelings, and it all becomes a rather tragic self-fulfilling prophesy (or group-fulfilling prophecy).

Ultimately, despite the lives that are saved by drugs and bed restraints, I don’t think our solution is any more effective than the Program is. We make suicide the problem rather than the symptom. We treat those who struggle with the desire to kill themselves as though they are broken rather than autonomous, rational individuals who are in pain.

In essence, we create a war against those we are trying to save. 

I think Suzanne Young wanted to make us think about what it would be like if, instead of punishing and shaming those who feel depressed and suicidal, we supported—genuinely supported—them with resources that empowered them to navigate their own emotions and thoughts constructively rather than locking them into a destructive pattern of fear and reaction.

Killing the Messenger: A Closer Look at Anger

Last week in talking about forgiveness, anger and violence frequently came up. Even though I normally would do something lighter after such a heavy topic, I feel I need to cover my position on anger to try to clear up the misunderstandings. To be honest, I’m not even sure how much of this is original to me or to another psychotherapist because it’s a topic that we’ve covered in depth several times. Then again, how much of an idea is ever original to anyone? All ideas are formed based on our interactions with others. Therefore, here is my spin on what I’ve come to understand about anger through the exchange of ideas with very wise others.

I suppose if you weren’t shocked about my previous post, you won’t be shocked to learn that I’ve come to see anger as healthy. I lost count of how many times I said that last week. Anger really is the most demonized shadow emotion, and it’s unfortunate because anger can be such a powerful tool.

I think the aversion to anger lies in this myth that anger is the same as malice, violence, and abuse.

It’s not.

First, malice is an intent—wishing someone harm. While I could argue a relativistic approach about the neutrality of a “wish,” I do not believe that intending someone harm is either good or healthy. But anger doesn’t have to come accompanied with intent. I can be (and am) angry at my abusers without wanting to see them harmed.

Second, violence and abuse are behaviors—a certain way of expressing various attitudes and emotions. Anger can be part of that mix, but it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes violence and abuse can be about control, entitlement, sadistic pleasure or prejudice without anger ever entering the picture. Even if anger were always part of violence and abuse, it would be fallacious to assume that one is equal to the other. In order for anger to become violence, there must also be a script.

And by “script” I mean exactly what it sounds like. Shakespeare wasn’t too far off when he likened the world to a stage. Life is filled with little scripts that tell us what to do and say in various situations. Think about the majority of your interactions and how rote they can be in the beginning and end. There might be some variation, but for the most part we all follow a basic model of interaction.

Scripts aren’t instinctual from birth. They’re conditioned and taught through culture and, as a result, often vary from culture to culture. If someone tried to kiss me in greeting, I might duck and run, but if I grew up in Europe, that would not be an awkward way of saying hello.

Whereas our scripts are conditioned, emotions are universal across humanity—the one language that can be understood across cultures—and shared with other species. We tend to downplay the importance of emotion in science, but the fact is emotions serve a pretty significant evolutionary function. Our species could not survive without them. They’re one of the oldest surviving aspects of the mind because they are essential to group interaction.

As an emotion, anger has a purpose. It’s the warning light that goes off when something is wrong. By itself, that warning is neither good nor bad . . . actually, I could argue that it’s good because without that warning light we’d have a hard time knowing when something crossed an important boundary. But for the sake of simplicity, we’ll call it neutral.

We are taught how we’re supposed to react to that warning, and that is where we get into problems. When we think of anger, the scripts that most often come to mind are suppression or rage—neither of which are healthy. In many ways, I also see them as the same response. Anger out of control is anger that can no longer be suppressed. And suppressed anger will eventually become out of control.

Let’s use the analogy of urination. It’s not something we consider all that pleasant, but it is a natural bodily function that we all have. If you can’t pee, there’s something wrong with your body. If you try to suppress your body’s need for too long, sooner or later you’re going to pee uncontrollably all over yourself. If you suppress your body’s need consistently over time, you’ll cause permanent damage.

Similarly, when anger is considered something we need to suppress or drive away from ourselves, the only time it ever finds its way out is when we get to the point that we can’t suppress it any longer. Then, yes, we’re going to get unhealthy and unwanted expressions.

If we consistently fail to give ourselves a healthy outlet for our natural emotions, it will also cause all of those nasty little health problems that everyone associates with “negative emotions.” And if the pee analogy isn’t enough to convince you that the health problems are a result of an unhealthy expression of anger, consider adrenaline. It’s common knowledge by now that too much adrenaline in the body can cause pretty significant damage, especially if adrenaline levels are kept elevated over time (aka stress). But no doctor would argue from that knowledge that we shouldn’t have an adrenaline response. We’re advanced enough in our understanding to recognize that adrenaline serves an important function in the fight/flight response. It gets our body ready to deal with an emergency. We need that ability. But if our adrenaline response is repeatedly triggered and our body isn’t given the proper outlet for releasing that energy, it causes problems.

Why should anger be any different? Go ahead and make note of the unhealthy approaches to anger, but don’t kill the messenger because you don’t know how to make use of the message! Instead, find the positive approaches to anger.

It’s an arousing emotion, meaning it creates energy. Like most people, I used to associate that energy with destruction, in a bad way. It’s true that anger can be destructive, but as a part of creation, destruction can actually be healthy. Sometimes it’s better to end a relationship because it’s toxic. Sometimes it’s better to cut some ties, pull down some walls, demolish some beliefs, and tear up some letters. Anger as a destructive force gives us the energy to bring to an end something that no longer contributes to our health and/or growth.

Kali--goddess of time and change, often a symbol of destruction but also a symbol of creation. My "goddess" of anger.

Kali–goddess of time and change, often a symbol of destruction but also a symbol of creation. My “goddess” of anger.

But, I’ve discovered that anger can also be constructive. Some of my best art has been created during a period of intense anger. It’s been the force behind much of my healing and the impetus that prompted me to create a better life for myself. And I wouldn’t be learning how to build relational boundaries without the anger that tells me when someone has done something that violates my person.

Putting the destruction and construction together, I see anger as the catalyst for change, inspiring activism, social justice, and protests. Civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, child labor laws—all of it involved some sort of anger at the injustice of the situation and a desire to see that change. Hell, the U.S. wouldn’t even be here without anger. Anger is a valuable stressor that pushes a system to make adjustments. Otherwise, the system has no reason to change.

Sometimes anger can just be an extra boost of energy. Some of my best workouts have been fueled by anger. I absolutely love running when I’m pissed. Yoga, with angry girl music blasting, is pure exhilaration. And let’s not forget that rumor about angry sex. I’ve been doing my own little experiments on that. I can’t reveal my results, but the gist of my post could probably tip you off. 😉

I’ve even come to see anger as an expression of love! By allowing myself to experience anger over my abuse, I am showing love to myself. By allowing myself to get angry over the injustice that I see against another, I am loving them enough to get upset at the way they are being treated. And I really can’t bring this point out enough—even Jesus (you know, the love your neighbor as yourself guy) got angry enough to build a freaking whip and overturn the tables of a bunch of swindlers.

So, to wrap up my exhausted ramblings, yes, anger can have significant problems associated with it–as can any emotion or natural function that has been demonized and pushed into the recesses of our psyche. And it’s true that living in a constant state of anger can be problematic . . . but to be fair, no emotion is healthy to experience as a constant state of being (not even happiness). So really, the constant state thing is a moot point.

When we no longer try to dictate to ourselves which emotions we’re allowed to feel, the body has its own way of finding balance. Our job is to listen to it (yes I said that last week, but I think it’s important) and sit with the process. We start by questioning the scripts we’ve been taught about our emotions and giving our emotions space to simply be–without judgment, without expectation. Just be.

Transformative Magic: Embracing my Dark Side

In a previous post, I gave a sneak peak into some of the things I would talk about, including one on how “negative emotions are good.” I’ve had requests from several people for more on that, so I thought now, with the approach of Samhain, would be a good time to approach this topic.

We live in a culture where certain emotions are viewed anywhere from simply “negative” to downright “wrong” or “sinful.” No matter where you go, the general consensus is that these emotions need to be resisted, “released” (one of my favorites of the coercive terms because it sounds so innocent. Right up there with “forgive” or “just get over it”), or not even felt if you’re a “good person.” The taboo on emotions is especially strong surrounding sadness for men and anger for women, but it’s pretty safe to say that, in general, “negative emotions” just aren’t considered good or healthy to experience.

But what if we have it all wrong?

A little fairy once told me, “Changing your perspective gives you the power to change your world.” And as many pagans and witches know, the highest magic comes not with transforming the world around you but with transforming your thoughts.

So let’s try some transformative magic.

It’s easy to recognize how a world of continuous darkness would be bad. Life would die because life cannot function without light. It’s easy to see how a world of continuous rainfall would be bad. I’ve seen the floods and destruction that come with a few too many days of rain. But I rarely question the destruction that would surely follow a world that was always sunny. There are times where there is too much sun; it’s called a drought. But I never think about droughts when thinking about excesses of something!

Growing up, I remember hearing preachers disdain the philosophy that “life’s purpose is happiness.” In their minds, such a wasted life was a life spent pursuing happiness. And as much as I would disagree with the reasons for that statement, I find that I actually agree with the statement itself.

Pursuing happiness is a pursuit doomed to failure.

Does that mean I don’t have the right to be happy? Should I be miserable, as those preachers seemed to want?

No, I think I have every right, even a destiny, to be happy! But I am coming to see life’s purpose as wholeness, not happiness. And there’s a big difference. While wholeness certainly involves happiness, it also involves the ability to feel sadness. While wholeness involves peace, it also involves the ability to feel anger or fear.

They’ve been labeled “negative emotions.” They’re portrayed as something I shouldn’t have, something to avoid, something I must drive out when I feel them. But imagine if you could not feel sadness or anger or fear? I’ve thought of these emotions as out of place, but that’s only because I didn’t recognize their purpose. Something would be terribly wrong with me if I could not feel anger when I saw a child abused. Something would be terribly wrong with me if I could not feel fear when I got too close to danger. Something would be terribly wrong with me if I could not feel sadness when I lost a loved one, or guilt when I hurt someone.

Without them, I would die just as surely as I would die without hope or joy or courage.

A tree requires both sunlight and darkness. Its branches reach for the sky while its roots tunnel into the ground. If the roots are not cared for or fed, if they’re cut off, the top of the tree will quickly die as well. In the same way, I have a shadow side, a side that is buried away from view, that isn’t fun to look at, that doesn’t feel good, that has the potential to make others and myself uncomfortable. But if I don’t embrace that side of myself and accept it as part of myself, I doom it to rot and fester until it destroys that bright side of me too.

Wholeness isn’t about cutting myself off from the shadow side of life. It’s about recognizing the purpose for that shadow side—the purpose for those emotions and experiences—and melding it together with the light side into a single whole. I have so much duality in me. I have light and darkness, reason and intuition, “femininity” and “masculinity”. Heck, my life card is the Sun and my Spirit card is Death. You can’t get much more dual than that. And the amazing thing is, each side, each facet, has a freaking purpose! They all work together to create me! And just as I’ve given up so many other things with fundamentalism, I’ve also given up the idea that there is anything inherently in me that is wrong.

Which means my emotions, by themselves, can’t be wrong.

None of them.

So what is it that makes these shadow emotions seem “bad”? Outside of a general inability to tolerate discomfort and do messy soul work, I think we’ve mistaken the emotions themselves for specific scripts surrounding them. It’s a kind of confirmation bias. When we think of anger, we think of when someone became violent in their anger. We don’t remember the times that anger was constructive or creative or protective. Once you get to the point where you associate the emotion itself with the negative behavior, then you get so busy fighting the emotion that there’s no chance to fight the script that you’ve adopted about it.

As part of my spiritual practice, I’m learning to become comfortable with my dark side. I’m throwing away the scripts I’ve been taught and searching for a new, transformative perspective about the shadow emotions. I’ve come to appreciate this time of year, when the Goddess traditionally takes a journey down into the underworld for a few months until spring, because it reminds me that I also need underworld journeys, as tough as they are. It’s not easy to sit with an emotion. It’s much easier to go back to my scripts. But sitting in discomfort is essential to my emotional transformation as much as it is to my spiritual transformation. The ability to sit with uncertainty and discomfort is, I think, one of the key aspects to true freedom.

And as I take this journey, I smile to myself because I recognize what I never could have from within Christiantiy—that Jesus, too, got angry, felt grief and despair, and considered bailing out from fear.