In the film Inside Out, when Riley finally takes ownership of her sadness and is no longer in conflict with it, she feels one with her feelings and with herself. As a result she experiences joy and an upsurge of vitality and empowerment. The more we feel emotionally integrated, the more alive we feel. The more at war we are with our feelings, the less alive we feel.
Emotionally integration requires emotional honesty. I can’t integrate a feeling that I refuse to acknowledge. The only reason I resist acknowledging what I feel is because the meaning associated with it is too dangerous and threatening to face. The greatest obstacle to emotional honesty is fear.
For example, Jake’s fiancée abruptly breaks off their engagement. He feels angry, abandoned and empty. This experience unconsciously triggers memories of his father’s abandonment of the family when he was 10. He cannot acknowledge these feelings because he believes they will overwhelm and annihilate him as they did when he was 10. So he turns to the one thing he knows will numb the pain, alcohol. The next day Jake puts on a plastic smile at work, but feels like he’s falling apart, more dead than alive.
A man who has been married for 25 years has been feeling that he no longer loves his wife. He feels alone. He is terrified to admit that he no longer loves his wife because in his mind this leads inevitably to divorce. And the thought of divorce is unthinkable because of the devastating consequences it would have on his standing in the community and on his children. So he tries to pretend he loves her, only feeling more and more trapped and lonely with each passing day.
When we hide from our feelings, we go into pretend mode. We are faking it, living a lie. The longer we deny the truth, the harder it is to pretend. We are at war within ourselves. We lose our vitality and joy in living. “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” The only solution is to acknowledge the truth. Only when we embrace the truth, no matter how painful, can we ever hope to find peace. Playwright Arthur Miller captures this transformative dynamic dramatically:
I tried to die near the end of the war. The same dream returned each night until I dared not to sleep and grew quite ill. I dreamed I had a hideous child and even in the dream I saw it was my life… and I ran away. But it always crept onto my lap again and clutched at my clothes. Until I thought, if I could kiss it, whatever in it was my own, perhaps I could sleep. And I bent to its broken face, and it was horrible but I kissed it. I think one must finally take one’s life in one’s arms. (After the Fall)
A colleague recently shared this insight with me. “When you are no longer afraid of your feelings, then you are no longer afraid of life. And when you are no longer afraid of life, you can leave your therapist’s office and go about the business of living.” Once we can begin to bear the unbearable, we are on the path towards emotional integration.
In Judaism, the process of emotional integration is called achievingshleimut, the Hebrew term for becoming whole. Shleimut comes from the same Hebrew word as shalom, which means peace. As we become more emotionally integrated and whole, we experience greater peace. And a person who feels at peace feels more alive.
Take a moment and ask yourself: am I experiencing feelings in any area of my life such as my marriage, family, work, Judaism, or health that I’m running away from?
If so, stop running and make a decision to take ownership of them. The deeper into the forest we go the harder we make it to find our way out. But if we stop running, we give ourselves a chance to discover a path that will lead us out and back into the light of life.
“How long will this take?” my patients often ask me. I tell them that I can’t answer that question. But one thing I can say is that if we can face the truth together, no matter how long it takes, the journey will have been well worth it.