This is why therapy in a left brain world looks the way it does. It is a meme-worthy phrase that therapists repeat: “But how do you feel about that?” We are starting to see why it’s so important to identify what we think about a situation and what we feel about it.
For just a moment, let us throw away everything we think we know about emotions and consider them in the following way: as sources of information that run parallel with our thinking in language, acting as guides and prompts for our movement in the world. It is not our suggestion here that one form of awareness is better or worse, simply that when we have access to more information—and ultimately more integrated information—we end up with a richer picture of the world and perhaps even a richer picture of ourselves.
It is an illusion to believe that we can ignore our emotions. Like the three wise monkeys pictured above, we are fooling ourselves to think that we can simply choose to shut our ears and eyes and mouth to the world. When we attempt to fool ourselves in this way, we are not actually avoiding registering difficult experiences. We see them, and we feel them. The difficult experience and feelings are, in fact, registered in our bodies whether or not we have any awareness of it. This means that to actively ignore feelings is not the same as not experiencing feelings. Or, to put it another way, actively ignoring one’s feelings is not the same as being shielded from them. If we were able to shield ourselves from feelings then we wouldn’t have to deal with any feelings we didn’t want to. They would never be in us. They would never be a part of us.
The “active” part in actively ignoring one’s feelings isn’t the energy we put into holding the shield but the energy we put into ignoring the feelings that have already been registered in our bodies. In ignoring this information, we are actively choosing not to deal with and process this rich stream of data we call feelings. By choosing to ignore feelings, one becomes ignorant to aspects of oneself. This ignorance in turn makes decision making and action more fraught and difficult.
To be able to move towards safety, we must first be able to recognize danger. To be able to intimately connect with others, we must first be able to recognize if there are feelings of sadness or insecurity that are getting in the way. We must first be able to recognize stress if we are to move towards coping.
The unfortunate fact is that denial never works in the long run (except occasionally in rare and traumatic occasions of total dissociation in which the final “safety valve” of the mind actually stops the perception and memory systems from functioning). The reason it never works can be understood by entertaining the following: to deny something unpleasant, one must first register its unpleasantness.There would be no need to deny something that doesn’t exist. We always see what we choose to deny. We cannot instigate denial without knowing the thing we do not want to know.
Engaging in emotional denial is always a fool’s errand, though one that is well respected in many families and cultures. The idea of a “stiff upper lip” is most often an example of denying and ignoring the information of our emotions: fear, sadness, anger, and shame. When we engage in emotional denial, we are not actually transcending fear and pain through courage and tenacity. We are “sticking” the recognition of these emotions into the lower levels of our consciousness so that the most active and familiar part of our minds don’t participate in managing the problem. This has three inter-related consequences:
We exclude aspects of our highest functioning parts in the management of pain and stress. We actively prevent the information provided by our left brain from helping in assessment and action.
We engage in highly taxing strategies of self-regulation—denial and repression are proven to be exhausting.
Our capacities to decide and act are impaired, and so we remain in confusing relationships with the source of the stress or pain or danger, which perpetuates a cycle of overwhelm and avoidance.
If we stay in this cycle long enough, the problems mount. Staying in dangerous environments makes us more likely to be harmed. The energetic requirements of repression and denial can lead to chronic illnesses including fatigue and depression. An inability to integrate left and right brain experiences can lead to feelings of isolation from the self and of separateness from our own histories, which become rapidly forgotten.