Emotional Growth and Its Function

If we want to know ourselves better on a more meaningful level, we’re going to have to let our emotions reach the surface. That’s the only way to get to know them and let them finish growing up. But dang, we fight this tooth and nail, don’t we? Some of us see our resistance for what it is, and we set about tackling it head on; we’re aware of our clever evasions and our Houdini-like escape tactics. Others of us refuse to look for the opening in our curtain of resistance—we may not even realize there’s a curtain, much less an opening. So let’s take a direct look at this resistance of ours, and see what it’s about.

First, consider that to be in harmony, we have to walk straight in three areas: physically, mentally and emotionally. All three sides of our nature must work together, like two people running a three-legged race, for a human personality to find unity. When everything’s operating smoothly, these three will help each other out. But when we’re out of sync, they will subdue and trip over each other. Having any one area underdeveloped, of course, will also have a crippling effect; it will take the entire personality down.

So when it comes to our emotional nature, what would make us so prone to neglecting, repressing and stunting our own growth? And make no mistake, it’s universal that we do this. Most of us spend significant time looking in the mirror at our physical selves, doing what needs to be done to get the ship, if not in shape, at least seaworthy. In addition, people will make serious efforts to get and keep their thinking apparatus up to snuff; we learn and absorb, training our brains to memorize and reason using logic, nicely fostering mental growth.

But our emotional nature is often left in the dust. It turns out, there’s a very good reason for this. But sit tight, before we get to those reasons, we need to understand the basic functions of our emotions, which give us the capacity to feel, which is synonymous with being able to give and receive happiness. And the shin bone’s connected to the ankle bone. So to whatever degree we dodge any kind of emotional experience, that’s the extent to which we’re closed off from experiencing happiness.

What’s more, when we cut off our feelings, we cut off our creativity at the knees. Contrary to popular belief, being creative is not a brain-thing. Creative flow is an intuitive movement that gets backed up by skills we develop using our intellect. And for our intuition to function, the ignition must be on for our emotions. In brief, we need a strong, healthy, mature emotional life if we want to lead a creative one.

So then why the uneven emphasis on mental and physical growth over emotional? Let’s skip the general skin-deep causes and go right to the root of the problem. In the feeling world, there are both good and bad experiences: happy and sad, pleasant and painful. Unlike thoughts that just register an impression, emotional experiences actually land. And since our struggle is to only have the happy feelings, and since immature emotions are playmates with unhappiness, we adjust our position and aim to avoid unhappiness—to squelch having feelings.

Early in life, we each draw a similar conclusion: “If I don’t feel, I won’t be unhappy.” Rather than taking a brave and appropriate step of living through immature—and therefore negative—emotions, which would afford them the chance to mature and become constructive, we suppress our childish emotions. We bury them in the backyard of our awareness where they stay stuck, destructive and inadequate, even though we have long-ago forgotten we even hid them. Out of sight, out of mind.

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In every child’s life, there will be circumstances that are unhappy; disappointment and pain are the human common denominator. But if we don’t let these experiences be felt and moved along, they will stagnate and create a dull climate of vague unhappiness that we’ll be hard pressed to later put our finger on. We’ll just take it for granted that this is how the world is. The danger is that we’ll formulate an unconscious resolution for dealing with this: “If I want to prevent feeling the pain of being unhappy, I must stop myself from feeling altogether.”

This is one of the most basic wrong conclusions that people draw about life. Sure, it may be true that in the short run we can anesthetize ourselves this way, blocking our capacity to feel pain, but it’s also true that doing so dulls our capacity for feeling pleasure. Worse yet, this blocking action doesn’t prevent us from feeling the painful feelings forever—it just defers them.

So as we grow up, the unhappiness we seemed to have avoided will come to us in a different, indirect way that is much more painful. We will suffer the bitter hurt of isolation and loneliness, living with the gnawing feeling that our life is passing us by without our enjoying its depths or its heights. We won’t become the best we can be, all due to our cowardly evasion of feeling our feelings. We grabbed a wrong solution like it was scissors—hoping to cut out what hurt—and we ran.

At one time or another—and chances are we’ll never remember having made this decision—we put our stake in the ground and decided to feel no more pain. From then on, we withdrew from living and from loving. We shut down the factory of our feelings and along went our intuition and creativity. From there, we limped along on a fraction of our potential, and often, we still don’t realize how big a hit we took.

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Since this was our big plan for defending against being unhappy, it makes sense that we don’t want to let go of our bulletproof vest. We fail to see how we willingly choose our current painful isolation when we chose to defend ourselves this way, so we don’t accept our loneliness as a price we have to pay. In fact, the child in us is now fighting for receiving what we can’t possibly receive—happiness—as long as we’re holding on to our numbing defense.

Deep down, we want to belong and be loved, all the while dulling our feelings into a state of numbness that keeps us from truly loving another. We may need others, and we may pretend that to need is to love, but they’re not the same. Inside, we’re hoping we can unite with others, communicating in a way that is rewarding and satisfying, while putting up a wall against the impact of feeling. Then when we realize we can’t feel anything, we try to hide that.

Protecting ourselves in this foolish way is a double-miss. We don’t avoid what we fear—we end up feeling the pain of our unavoidable isolation—and miss out on what we could have. In the end, we can’t have it both ways, both feeling love and not feeling anything. But the child in us never wants to hear this.

Our resulting craving for fulfillment makes us blame anyone but ourselves for our lack. We’ll blame people and circumstances, fate or bad luck—anything but seeing how we ourselves are responsible. We resist such helpful insight because then the jig will be up. We’ll have to give up our comfortable albeit unrealizable hope that we can have what we want and not have to pay any price for it.

Truth is, if we want happiness, we will need to be able to give happiness. And how can we do that if we can’t feel? What we need to see is that we created this situation—even if we didn’t mean to—and we’re perfectly capable of changing it. No matter how old we are now.

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There’s yet another reason we resort to unsuccessful ways involving our pseudo-solutions. We all start out as children with an immature body and mind, and therefore quite naturally with immature emotions too. For the most part, we gave our bodies and our minds a chance to mature, but our emotions, not so much.

An example of this on the physical level relates to a baby’s use of their vocal chords. An infant will have a strong urge to scream, which is not pleasant to listen to. But strongly using their vocal chords is a necessary period of transition that leads to the development of strong and healthy organs. If the baby doesn’t go through this, and instead suppresses the instinctual urge to scream, this will eventually damage and weaken the organs.

It is the same with the urge for physical exercise, or at times the urge to eat more. All this is part of the process of growing. To halt all movement thinking there’s a danger of overexertion would be damaging (unless of course something obviously harmful is occurring). We can all agree, it would be foolish to stop using our muscles because doing so could lead to painful experiences.

Yet this is what we do with our feelings. We stop them from functioning because we think the transitional period of growing is so dangerous. As such, we stop growing at all. Yes, this prevents us from experiencing upsets, but we also halt the transition to having mature constructive emotions.

Well, pay me now or pay me later. For every single one of us who has done this, it’s time to call the bluff. Attempting to skip this step will result in lopsided development, and we’ll never walk straight in the world.

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In our mental processes, we also go through transition periods as part of the learning process. We’re bound to make mistakes along the way. For example, when we’re younger, we’ll have opinions we will later outgrow. We’ll see that what we once thought was “right” was limited and therefore not quite so correct, but we’ll also see it was beneficial to go through those times of error. How could we appreciate the truth without ever seeing the other side?

We can’t get to truth by avoiding making mistakes. Seeing our errors strengthens our logic and thinking capacity, expanding our range and our power of deductive reasoning. If we were never allowed to mess up in our thinking or opinions, we’d have itty-bitty bird brains.

Isn’t it odd how little resistance we have to the growing pains of developing our physical and mental sides, but we balk terribly at growing up our emotions. And even though it’s hard to discount how important our feelings are, without thinking this through, we believe our feelings should grow up without causing any growing pains. We don’t know how to even go about this, and so mostly, we ignore it. But once we see the light, our commitment to staying deadened and dulled will start to relent. Time for that remedial class on feeling our feelings.

During this growing period, immature emotions are going to need some space. We can’t get past them if we don’t have a chance to express them and hear them out. Then they’ll mature and we can move on. But this won’t happen as an act of sheer will or a decision to be other than how we are. No, an organic process must happen in which our feelings naturally change their course—their aim and intensity. For this to happen, we have to feel them.

When, as children, we had our feelings hurt, we reacted with anger and resentment and hate. Often, we felt these feelings with great intensity. But if we continue to not feel these feelings, we won’t get rid of them, and healthy feelings won’t then be able to backfill those frozen spaces with more mature feelings. We’ll keep repressing what’s in there, burying them and deceiving ourselves that we don’t feel what we actually feel. In our dulled and numbed state, we superimpose “better” feelings over the top—those feelings we think we ought to have, but really don’t.

As a result, we go through life operating with feelings that aren’t really ours; our surface expressions aren’t the right match for the undercurrent. But in times of crisis, our actual feelings tend to reach the surface, at which point we immediately blame the crisis for causing our reaction. Truth be told, the crisis just made it impossible to keep up our charade, and our immature emotions popped out. What never occurs to us is that the crisis is a result of our hidden emotional immaturity, coupled with our self-deception.

This is actually dishonest, this thing that we do, putting raw, destructive emotions out of sight, instead of growing out of them, and then deceiving ourselves about how mature and integrated we are. This hypocrisy leads us more deeply into isolation, which makes us unhappy, which alienates us from ourselves, and sets up unrewarding and unsuccessful patterns. And the ankle bone’s connected to the foot bone.

Strange thing is, all this misery seems to confirm for us that, yep, we were right to defend ourselves by shutting down. Wrong conclusion and wrong solution, over and over again.

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Back when we were kids, our immature emotions earned us punishment. Often we lost something we wanted, such as the affection of someone we loved, or some desired object was withheld from us when we expressed what we were feeling. So we came to the conclusion, not surprising, that the problem was the self-expression. We wanted to have what we wanted, so we whisked those pesky feelings out of sight. Expressing negative feelings just didn’t end well.

One can how the strategy was self-preserving, even valid or necessary. One can see why we don’t want to risk it even today. After all, who wants to be punished by the world? It’s true that immature emotions are destructive, and they are not apt to be well-received. But here’s the mix-up. We believe that if we become aware of what we’re feeling, we must vent our feelings. But these are not one and the same thing.

Likewise, it is not the same thing to talk about our feelings in the right time and place and with the right people, versus to indiscriminately unleash our feelings on whoever happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. For to let go without discipline or aim, exposing our negative emotions willy-nilly, is indeed destructive.

We need to give some thought to the reason for exposing our emotions, and develop the courage and humility to do so in a meaningful way. This is markedly different from expressing negative emotions just to relieve the pressure. We need to purposely re-experience all the feelings we had, couldn’t bear to feel, and that now exist in us—even if we are convinced this isn’t so.

Because if we don’t do this, life will bring them up for us. All that has not been properly assimilated will get reactivated by current circumstances. When we see this happening—especially the part where what’s happening seems to confirm our original solution of going numb—we need to remember that these aren’t the true facts. We may be re-experiencing an emotional climate, triggered by current events that mimic past wounding situations, but as we become aware that this is what’s happening, we’ll have the chance to make a different choice. We’ll likely see that what we really feel is very much the opposite of what we tell ourselves to feel. We need to bridge this gap.

Our first few tentative steps to become aware of what we feel, and learning to express our feelings directly without excuses and rationalizations, will open a new window into ourselves. This is the growth process at work, engaging with our inner feelings instead of latching onto outer gestures. We’ll see what precipitated unwelcome events, and how we have the power to change that. We’ll recognize how our own patterns of behavior have been affecting people in exactly the opposite way we were shooting for. And that opens new doors for how to communicate with people.

We can’t mature our emotions any other way than this. We have to backtrack through those steps we skipped in childhood and adolescence so we can learn to no longer fear our feelings, and instead start to trust them. We need our feelings to guide us—that’s what well-functioning, mature people do.

For most of us, allowing our intuition to guide us is the exception, not the rule. Then we must survive by our mental faculties alone. They, however, are not that efficient. Rather, when healthy emotions merge with a reliable intuition, we can enjoy a mutual harmony between our minds and our emotions. There need not be any contradiction.

But if we can’t rely on our intuitive processes, we’ll feel insecure and low on self-confidence. So we’ll rely too much on others, or on false religions. This further weakens us and makes us feel helpless. With strong, mature emotions, though, we will be able to trust ourselves and find a security beyond what we’ve ever dreamed of.

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Old unfelt immature emotions are like a stopper holding back genuine good feelings. Once we move through that first painful release of what we’ve been sitting on all these years, it will feel like a poison has left our system. Best of all, if we do this mindfully with someone trained to help others, we’ll see that this can be done without harming anyone else.

Insight and understanding will flow into us, and now good feelings can flow through. We’ll start to sort out the true good feelings from the fake ones. Those are the ones we superimpose out of a need to ‘be the way I should be,’ in order to maintain the perfect appearance we like to project—our idealized self-image. As long as we cling to this manufactured version of ourselves, we won’t be able to find our real self. We’ll also lack the courage to accept that for now, we have a fairly large space in ourselves occupied by immature feelings. This would seem to make us incomplete and imperfect. Again with the feeling of falling short, which is just a childish notion that we should be better than we are at this moment.

We cling to this false version of ourselves out of the mistaken belief that if we admit it’s not true, we will be destroyed. So step one: we need to destroy this destructive process. Our goal is to build a true solid self that stands on firm ground. This means we need to operate with mature emotions, which gives us the courage to make growth possible, giving us the self-confidence we hunt for everywhere but here. Now that’s a structure that can hang together. But as long as we search for our security through false means, it can be pulled out from under us at the slightest provocation. We’ll have no ground we can stand on.

There’s nothing inside us we need to run from. We just need to become aware of what’s already in there. Looking away doesn’t make it go away, so the wise choice is to become willing to look within. Then we can face and acknowledge what we find—nothing more and nothing less.

It’s a bit crazy to believe that we would more harmed by knowing what we really feel, than by not knowing. But that’s what we all do. That’s what our resistance is all about. And then once we see what’s really on the menu, we can make a smart choice about whether to keep serving the same stuff up. No one’s going to force us to give up anything we don’t want to, especially if we think it’s for our own protection. But we need to think, people, with a clear mind and open eyes. There’s truly nothing here to be afraid of.

What we’re really scared of is our own pretense and false maturity and idealized self-image—that falsely perfect version of ourselves. This is what makes us tremble. This is what we need to own up to. Then we can find a genuine self to connect with, and never have to fear being exposed.

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Let’s look at this in light of our spirituality, which is what we say we all want—to grow spiritually. But without realizing it, most of us want this to happen without the need for emotional growth. We think these are two separate things, that we can have one without the other. But that’s impossible. And sooner or later, we will all must come to terms with this.

Regardless of what religion or spiritual teachings we follow, we all know that love is the whole enchilada; it’s the greatest power there is. We have given this so much lip service, yet often we are mouthing this maxim while at the same time careening away from feeling and experiencing. But how can we love if we don’t feel? How can we love and remain “detached?” To be detached means we don’t get personally involved, and we don’t risk any pain or disappointment. But is it really possible to love in such a comfortable way?

If we numb ourselves to any pain, can we truly love? Is loving a mental process, a lukewarm bunch of laws and words, rules and regulations we can discuss? Do this but don’t do that. Or does love arise from deep in the soul, a warm flow of feelings that can’t leave us untouched or feeling indifferent? Isn’t love, first and foremost, a feeling? And then only after we fully experience and express the feeling will wisdom and intellectual insight emerge, almost like a byproduct.

If we stop mincing words, we’ll see that spirituality and religion and love are one, and we can’t gain any traction on any of them if we continue to neglect our emotions. We’re hoping we can sit back and enjoy a comfortable, mountaintop spirituality that’s only touchy feely in a positive way—no involvement with the tedious work of sorting out negative feelings.

But if destructiveness is what’s in us, that’s what we need to work with. And we can start by looking straight into the eyes of our resistance to doing so. Otherwise, our spiritual development will be a farce. We need the courage to let the immature bits surface so that strong, healthy feelings can find a home in our being. Because whatever blocks us from looking at the negative in ourselves is the exact same thing that’s blocking the love.

 

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