Monday, June 14, 2021

Emotional Language

This week isn't really about death and dying, although that's part of what started me thinking about this week's topic. The topic is actually emotions in general and the way that we talk about what we are feeling...or what we are certain others are feeling. 

One of the problems that we have when it comes to our emotions is that our language about what we're feeling is terrible. We have boiled our emotional realities down to just a few basic words, and we try to fit everything into the boxes that we are the most comfortable with - sad, angry, happy, and afraid. Those are the basic four.

And by far, the most overused of afraid. Fear. 

We live in a world that has us afraid of everything. If we're actually nervous, they tell us we're afraid. If we're full of anticipation, that, too, is 'fear.' If we disagree with something or don't like something, the world calls us 'phobic' - afraid - of that thing. If we're uncertain, it must be fear. If we are ambivalent, it must be fear. Just right there, just off the top of my head, I have named five other things we might be feeling, but the world calls them all 'fear.' Then it asks us why we're afraid of everything. 

We're not really afraid as often as we think that we are. Nor are we as afraid as the world says we must be. What is actually happening is that we are having a dynamic range of human experiences and reactions to those human experiences, and we have not been taught very well how to describe them, let alone manage them. 

There's something in us that understands that we are not really afraid in a lot of these cases, but we don't know what else to say about it. For example, I'm not afraid of spiders. I don't like them. It startles me when I find them in the bathroom. I am disgusted by their presence in my house; I wish they were not indoors. In fact, I have a rule - if you want to be a bug, be a bug outside, and I will leave you entirely alone. I'm not afraid of spiders; I just don't like them. I feel three or four other things about spiders, depending on the context. But the world simply says I'm 'afraid,' even though fear is not one of the things that I actually feel about them.

I was speaking fairly recently with someone who told me that she has a 'very strange' reaction to things that she is afraid of. She said that when she comes near to something she's afraid of - like heights - her whole body starts to tingle and her breathing changes. Her whole body, she said, responds to her fear. I told her this sounds like anxiety, not fear, but she refused to believe that. She's been told her whole life this is fear and that it is a 'very strange' reaction to fear, indeed, and that this indicates that her fear is very severe and very different than everyone else's fear on the entire planet and so she has to be very careful about things she is afraid of because she might pass out. 

Anyone listening to her description would immediately recognize anxiety, especially any one of the millions of persons who deal with the same anxiety reactions (many of whom have also been told they are the only ones who react that way), but this woman could not even consider the possibility because she 'doesn't have anxiety.' She has 'fear.' 

And I just wondered how much easier her life would be to manage if she could name things for what they really are. 

See, this whole idea of fear - it keeps us focused on the threat. Or the perceived threat. That's what fear is - it is a response to a perceived threat. And our fear keeps us on our toes against whatever it is that we're sure is dangerous. If you are afraid of falling off a tall cliff, the only thing you'll ever know is how close you are to the edge - and no matter how far away you are, it will still feel too close. 

But what if you're just nervous about the edge and not actually afraid of it? Nervousness invites us to step toward things because we know it's not the threat; it's our reaction to it. What if you're just full of anticipation for the incredible view that awaits you if you can just look out instead of down? What if you just know that it's going to take your breath away? All of a sudden, it's not fear that makes you unable to breathe. And when you realize it's not fear, you can step into it instead of running away. 

We have a thousand emotions that are not fear, anger, happiness, or sadness, and yet, we buy into the idea that these are the only things that we feel, even when we know that's not true. We're not truly afraid of the vast majority of things that the world tells us we're afraid of; it's not fear. I'm not afraid of spiders, but that's the only word the culture permits me to use about my aversion to and dislike of spiders in my home.

And I'm not afraid of death or dying. 

We'll return to this idea tomorrow. 

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