On listening to inner voices

I had a friend once who would say to me “time to change the channel” when I started talking too much about how I felt about one thing or another. I didn’t much care for this attitude at the time. If I was still talking, I still had something to say. I didn’t think that tuning out emotions would do anything to resolve them.

I still think we have to let ourselves feel what we feel. I never solved anything by getting into a fight with myself over it. That’s for sure. We have to let ourselves feel the bad along with the good. We have to even let ourselves break down to the point where we think we can’t take it anymore. That’s where we learn that we are stronger than we think, and we can take it, and we can get up and brush ourselves off and take steps to make sure that life as we know it improves for us.

Tuning out emotions means we don’t work through them. Not working through them means we let them fester under the surface. Letting them fester means we build up fears and resentments and risk aversions that we carry with us into future situations and future relationships. As I heard it described a few days ago: “We all have baggage. We can’t spend our whole lives running from the bellhop. Sooner or later he catches up.”

That said, there is such a thing as overdoing the emotional processing. I’ve always been a proponent of “it’s not worth doing if it’s not worth overdoing,” but when we’ve lived through experiences that have hurt us, there comes a point where we have to let it go and move on.

With this in mind, I’ve been reading a book this week called The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer, and one big insight I gained from it is the advice to quit listening to myself so much. Singer says that if we had a friend who had given us as much bad advice as we’ve given to ourselves, we would have dropped that friend years ago. We would have labeled him or her as dangerous for us and probably even taken out a restraining order.

So often we are told to just stop and listen to our inner voices, but those inner voices are the same ones that tell us the answer to a stressful day at work is inhaling a whole box of Girl Scout cookies in one sitting. Those inner voices are the ones that tell us other people don’t like us or are mad at us or think we aren’t pretty or don’t want to be around us because we are boring. Those inner voices are the ones that tell us other people are mean and unforgivable and not worth having around. Those inner voices are the ones that tell us it’s okay to charge some new clothes on a credit card because the money will probably be there later. Those inner voices are the ones that tell us not to take a chance on a new opportunity because we probably wouldn’t be successful anyway. Those inner voices are not our friends. They are the craziest parts of us. They are our fears and neuroses. They are our emotional baggage. Baggage should never be allowed to control our decisions. We can’t trust our baggage, and we can’t trust the voices that it speaks to us through. Baggage lies.

I don’t know that it helps to change the channel on emotions while we are in the middle of feeling them, but it does help to find a way to turn off all of the extra stories the voices in our heads are telling us about those emotions. We need to experience our emotions in the present with only the present to account for them. We don’t need to filter them through every bad experience we’ve ever had and every wounded place inside that we are still carrying around. This is a lesson I learned from reading Pema Chodran who advises people to learn to sit still with emotions, to “stay present” for them, without “adding narratives” to them.

So someone said or did something that hurt my feelings today? I’m a sensitive person, and my feelings tend to get hurt from time to time. Okay, maybe that’s an understatement. I’m a highly sensitive person who has panic attacks and mood swings and a history of serious issues with depression. I get my feelings crushed on a regular basis, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Being sensitive also makes me more self-aware, more empathetic, and more patient with others, and those are my superpowers.

It’s okay to be hurt. It’s okay to let myself experience the hurt. Letting myself feel hurt is better than beating myself up with a bunch of narratives about how it’s bad to be sensitive, and I must be a weak person for feeling this way, and I’ve ruined everything because I couldn’t control my feelings, and I must not be a good person if I didn’t see things from the other person’s point of view before I let my feelings get hurt. Letting myself feel hurt is better than reacting out of anger or spite or defensiveness. It’s better than turning those narratives around to say that the other person is just a jerk who doesn’t deserve the time of day from me should I ever see him or her on the street again.

Don’t change the channel on your feelings. Don’t force yourself to feel something you don’t feel. Don’t tell yourself you are bad for feeling what you do feel. But turn the volume down if you are able. If you suddenly realize that the problem is not that you are listening to your emotional channels but that you are running three radios and five TVs all at full volume and all at the same time, maybe you could start turning down the ones that aren’t helpful. Those would be the ones that look like this: guilt, blame, anger, despair, helplessness, shame, resentment, and recriminations. Hurt if you must, but don’t weigh the hurt down with things that will keep it holding you down any longer than necessary. Don’t turn hurt into a battle with yourself and others. These are battles no one wins.

Stay out of the emotional warzone if you are able. Move boldly forward. Live. Love. Laugh. Let go.

For a shy and sensitive girl like me, these have been some tough lessons to learn.

Happiness is remaining open to new experiences and new friendships and new ways of connecting with life itself. Happiness is confidence that I am the best person I know how to be doing the best job I know how to do no matter what anyone else thinks or says or does. Happiness is sitting still with myself, and all of my emotional complexity, without letting my inner critics take charge. Happiness is faith and hope and love. Happiness is regrouping and trying again if life doesn’t hand me what I am looking for the first few dozen times.

Happiness is putting a smile on my face and loving my life and my people and my animals and my surroundings and my opportunities even if I happen in the moment to also feel a little sad. Happiness is recognizing that no one other than me is in charge of my happiness, and nothing anyone else says or does or thinks is capable of robbing me of my friendship with myself.

I once put this in a poem:

The trick to happiness is to know you are right
without caring if anyone else agrees.
This is also the trick to being a jerk.

It’s certainly true that this can be the trick to being a jerk, but I’d like to add a new layer of insight to the concept now. The trick to happiness is trusting yourself to be as right as you are capable of being in any given circumstance and to roll with whatever happens as a result without getting caught up in self-doubt or guilt or shame or recriminations or wondering “what if” or “why” or “if only.”

Too bad that wouldn’t really fit in the poem.

The trick to happiness is to be who you are, do the best you are able, stay open to connections to people and experiences, and let God sort it out from there.

Listen to your emotions. Listen to your heart. Listen to your dreams. Listen to your hopes and desires. But don’t listen to your critics, especially not the ones that come from inside your own head.

And thus concludes my sermon for myself and others today.

Be happy and safe and at peace with yourselves, my friends. You are loved.