Heavy, difficult emotions are important to face & only overwhelming when carried alone
Feeling in community: Letting go of self-regulation & practicing co-regulation
I’ve spent a good part of my life trying to suppress, avoid & run from difficult emotions. Grief, sadness, disappointment, shame/ guilt, resentment, anger, overwhelm, shock, confusion, hurt, jealousy etc. All these heavy, painful, uncomfortable feelings that inevitably sit deep in our body & soul are framed as “bad” & undesirable. But happiness CANNOT exist without sadness. Joy cannot exist without grief just like sunlight cannot exist without dark nights only illuminated by moonlight.
Yet, overwhelming sadness can crush our will to live so if sadness is actually good for us, then why are we decimated by it? Emotions are fundamentally relational, not individual experiences that emerge from within in a vacuum. We cannot truly FEEL anything in isolation. Feelings are the threads that connect us to our ecosystems (other people, beings, the land)- so how can we possibly carry them alone?
Sadness when solely felt in isolation is crushing & hopeless. Grief when carried alone without communal support is paralyzing & unbearably agonizing. The moments when I don’t want to be alive are the moments when I’m most alone. It isn’t the sadness. It’s the loneliness that is crushing. When I truly try to discern what the problem is, I see that grief is not a problem to be solved or a hurdle to be avoided. The problem is the isolation that capitalism inflicts on us. Grief on the other hand is life-giving… if it is processed, navigated & moved through in community. Our emotions are sources of information, critical feedback & pathways of connection that helps us grow, evolve & adapt in community.
When I’m devastated, deeply wounded, crying & wailing on the ground as I’m held by my loved ones, I’m more than okay. I’m hurting, scared, suffering, confused & uncertain. But I want this. I want to move thru the pain, learn the lessons that inevitably come from it & find the hope that is only to be felt alongside it. The tears even begin to feel… good. Cathartic. Necessary. Sacred. Everyone took a piece of the boulder to carry with them so I don’t have to do it alone. My back doesn’t have to break. My chest doesn’t have to cave in & I can breathe even if I’m sad. I can even laugh as I’m mourning. I can show up for others even as I’m hurting. All these possibilities only become clear to me in community. But when I’m curled up in a corner trapped in my anguish, I don’t know WHAT to do. That’s when I realize, the only thing I can try to do is reach out into my ecosystem which is merely an extension of me.
Here’s a few life-changing things I’ve learned about emotions:
Self-discipline, self-regulation, self-help, self-reliance, self-optimization, self-care — THIS is how capitalism encourages isolation & conformity
The concept of emotional self-regulation is part of hustle & grind culture. The popularized mental health & “self-help” wave has glorified independence and reliance on the self as the ultimate indicator of success, maturity & wellness. From mindfulness & manifestation podcasts to the endless garbage self-help & self-care influencers- we’re convinced that we are the problem, not the brutal system or our isolation & disconnection from community. To achieve & succeed, we have to turn our lives into an eternal self-improvement, self-optimization journey. I thought I was hurting because I was a failure who didn’t have enough self-discipline. So I tried to regulate, manage, cure, control, push, exploit, overwork myself until I collapsed. Today, I realize I was manipulated into forcing myself to conform to these violent systems. I was doing their work for them.
Self-regulation is defined as ‘the ability to modify or control your thoughts, behavior, emotions, actions, and words in pursuit of long-term goals’. We are told to individually practice & master this skill. I get that it’s important to be aware of, understand, identify & process our emotions in healthy, transformative ways. I get that it’s not cool to lash out in anger or project our jealousy & resentment onto others in unjust ways or act without thinking & reflection. But if you think about HOW we can do that— it’s through practice & co-regulation in community and THAT is the piece that is missing in the framework of individualistic, depoliticized, mainstream mental health.
I feel similarly disillusioned about the concept of self-regulation as I do about self-care which I’ve written about before:
I don’t think we’re meant to carry or regulate our emotions by ourselves- the self isn’t enough. It really isn’t. & even taking a walk in the park to be amongst the wildflowers, bees, birds & weeds is a form of co-regulation if you honor the integral contribution of other beings. We’re more than capable of feeling deeply & processing our emotions in a healthy manner when we know we’re supported by the soil beneath us & the people around us.
I don’t want us to dissociate & numb ourselves into detachment. I don’t want us to run from the sorrow that comes with living under oppression. We can only experience contentment, serenity & joy when we carry them together alongside sorrow, regret & despair. All of it is important. I want us to carry the boulders & the flowers together because that is always how our communities were meant to live. I want us to give each other the communal safety net that allows us to feel deeply. I want us to mourn the suffering around us… together. I want us to grieve for the land beneath us because she is hurting. I want us to ache because none of us can float in endless bliss while the rest of us are suffering. These so-called “negative” emotions are a sign that our soul is intact & affected by our environment. I don’t want us to escape our sadness because that means we’re not fully alive at all. Creating room for our sadness expands our ability to experience happiness.
Growing up, most of us aren’t taught how to navigate emotions. Emotional maturity & vulnerability takes intentional practice in relationships.
The pursuit of happiness is glorified in our society. But we’re not given specific details or guidance on how we can get there or are misled and misdirected. We’re told that achieving certain milestones (degrees, career, power, wealth, the nuclear family) is the recipe to happiness. So it’s not just sadness, we’re not taught how to truly be happy either. & all of it can feel terrifying. We conflate familiarity with safety and even some amount of liberation (like feeling our feelings in community, even the messy ones) can feel unsafe, merely because it is unfamiliar, not because it is truly dangerous.