If you come into the program fearful, you’re going to end up angry. If you come into the program angry, you’re going to end up fearful. — Speaker at Alcoholics Anonymous meeting
Are you aware of all your emotional layers? Most of us aren’t. Human beings are complex, multi-faceted creatures, and we rarely experience one pure emotion. Instead, they are usually messy combinations of many feelings at once–or feelings that mask other, more disturbing feelings we’d rather not identify with.
I had this driven home for me in an AA meeting many years ago, where I heard a woman say the quote above. I had been sober for a few years, and had done a few 4th and 5th Steps–the ones where you make a “fearless and searching moral inventory” and “admit to another person the exact nature of your wrongs.” I won’t go into the principles underlying these steps, except to say that confession is good for the soul. It is. Anyway, I did my first 4th Step at about 3 months sober, and the only thing I remember about it is that it was pages and pages and pages of fears; 10 handwritten pages, if I remember correctly! I was afraid of everything and everybody, and I guess I considered fear my primary “moral defect” because I spent so much time brooding on it and wanted to, somehow, be absolved of it.
A couple of years later, at the suggestion of a new sponsor, I did another 4th Step. This time, I saw with dismay that my primary troubling defect was anger. But I hadn’t become more angry since my first inventory; quite the opposite, in fact. Life was mostly good, and I was happier than I’d ever been. No, I had simply become more in touch with all the anger which had always been raging inside of me. It was a short time afterward when thats speaker reflected back to me my exact life experience. It was one of those amazing, when-the-student-is-ready moments for me.
The idea of emotional layers has always kind of stuck with me. Now, many years later, I’ve come across the idea again. I’ve been doing research for a book, and in the book Getting the Love You Wantcouples therapist Harville Hendrix talks about emotional layering. Although it is in relation to marriage therapy, it reminded me of that AA speaker so long ago and gave me more insight into what this layering is.
He is speaking of a client after she’s had an emotional breakthrough. Says Dr. Hendrix:
“…It was easy for Marla to feel sad, because that was a feeling that her caretakers [when she was a child] allowed her. Without my urging, she probably would have stayed with this familiar and comfortable feeling and never experienced the more archaic emotions about her father that underlay it. Her natural response was to let the sadness evolve into withdrawal and long-term resentment.
By escalating her feelings…Marla was able to break through her sadness to her fear of anger…This was followed by an important discovery. The reason she was not in touch with her rage, she realized, was that she had internalized her father’s injunction against anger. When she was a child, her father had made her feel crazy or stupid for being angry. Violating his taboo against anger meant potential abandonment, and if she were abandoned, reasoned her old brain, she would die. It’s no wonder that, when her fear of abandonment was coupled with the even more powerful fear of being murdered, it was extremely difficult for her to be angry…”
I have written a bit about my process of accepting my anger. (Here, for example.) I have also written about how children in invalidating environments must adapt–usually involving some form of disowning their feelings–to what feels like terrifying situations. (Or check out the posts in the Healing Process category.) But it wasn’t until I read this passage in this book that I put the two ideas together, and realized that in order to own my anger, some very old part of me had to believe that doing so was not going to kill me. And it wasn’t until now that I realized just how much work and change had gone into that leap from feeling my fear, which was “safe,” to feeling my anger, which was not.
I had thought it was a natural progression that all people make if they stay with their process long enough. But when Dr. Hendrix put it in terms of the fear of death–of murder, even, by our parents–that we carry around with us in our subconscious, I saw how huge it really was that I had been able to accept my anger as part of me. As he said, if he hadn’t urged Marla into new territory, she would have stayed with her sadness, perhaps infinitely picking it apart in an attempt to understand herself, but never really getting past it because it wasn’t her problem. How fortunate she was to have had a therapist who pushed her to this discovery–and how fortunate I was to have similar support way back when. Otherwise, I would still be a timid rabbit, stuck in my fear and wondering what I can possibly do to become braver, endlessly distracting myself from the deeper nature of my problems.
I don’t think digging into scary and uncomfortable emotional layers is a natural progression at all. I think that, left to our own devices, we prefer to leave those sleeping dogs lie. Now I know that when I felt as though death was waiting for me on the other side of a painful awareness, that this is what I truly felt–this was not an exaggeration! When feelings are that big and that threatening, of course avoidance seems like a plausible solution, one we would not question without very good reason. I see now that getting past that fear and actually dealing with the deeper layers is a small personal development miracle. I also see how lucky I was to have had enough support to feel strong enough and safe enough to delve into those layers.
We all have emotional layers, lots of them. And the more invalidating your childhood was–that is, the more feelings you had to deny and repress to come through it intact–the more problematic your emotional layers are likely to be. What emotions are you most in touch with? Which ones bother you to think about? Consider that ones you’re most in touch with could be covering up some that you’d rather not deal with. Take your time, and be gentle with yourself as you approach this process. But know that what feels like it may kill you won’t–I promise!–and once you face it, it will feel as small and innocent as that frightened child you once were.