The Tyranny of Feelings

As passionate as I can be about things, I’ve only just begun to connect with the spectrum of emotions I had buried all my life under the stoicism.

When you reflect on your day as you turn out the lights, you are in fact revisiting how you felt about it, not what you thought about it. I’m seeing that feelings can be so prevailing they can redefine reality. You got word of a promotion – objectively, great news. But if it fills you with anxiety, that will translate a different news like maybe you’re really not competent enough. What if your spouse has little regard for you? His contempt will redefine what is true within the world you share. The final arbiter of our perception is emotion, not cognition.

Chief Justice Sonia Sotomayor in her early days as District Attorney couldn’t figure out where she’d gone wrong in one case. She replayed her presentation for a mentor who “identified the problem instantly: I was appealing to logic, not morality…since it is painful to most jurors to vote ‘guilty’ and send a human being to jail, you couldn’t simply reason with them to do it; you had to make them feel the necessity…put them in the shoes of the accused or the victim: make them feel the cold blade held against their necks, or the pang of unappreciated devotion that might drive someone to steal from a former employer…It was in effect to see that mastery of the law’s cold abstractions was actually incomplete without an understanding of how they affected individual lives.” My Beloved World

In the case of jurors, it is emotion that forges belief which determines conviction and behavior. Because when Sotomayor was arguing her case, she wasn’t feeding algorithms of reason into a machine for a logical verdict. She was appealing to people, people who were filtering the story through their own past, hopes, and fears as surely as they were supposed to aim for impartiality.

Yeonmi Park, who managed a harrowing escape out of North Korea, knows all about the power of feelings:

“In school, we sang a song about Kim Jong Il and how he worked so hard to give our laborers on-the-spot instruction as he traveled around the country, sleeping in his car and eating only small meals of rice balls [a lie]. “Please, please, Dear Leader, take good rest for us!” we sang through our tears. “We are all crying for you.” This worship of the Kims was reinforced in documentaries, movies, and shows broadcast by the single, state-run television station. Whenever the Leaders’ smiling pictures appeared on the screen, stirring sentimental music would build in the background. It made me so emotional every time.

Jang Jin Sung, a famous North Korea defector and former poet laureate who worked in North Korea’s propaganda bureau, calls this phenomenon ’emotional dictatorship’. In North Korea, it’s not enough for the government to control where you go, what you learn, where you work, and what you say. They need to control you through your emotions, making you a slave to the state by destroying your individuality, and your ability to react to situations based on your own experience of the world.” In Order to Live

The government wasn’t satisfied with subjugation of the mind. It wanted the heart because then the leaders had the whole person. And notice that you can create emotion – for someone you haven’t even met and for what is not real. This gives me hope that we can also deconstruct it, not remain enslaved to it.

I’ve always held to an Absolute Truth, ground harder than the sand mound of feelings, that can save us from ourselves. But I am seeing that where I’ve lived is really in the place of emotion, not of beliefs or facts. I have found anger much easier to access than sorrow. Anger allows me to borrow strength from the sheer force of it, as delusional as the sense of power may be, but what do you do with the sadness of inflicted pain except suffer its vulnerability and helplessness? It just hurts too much. Fear is another big one, and has accounted for a lot of my actions over the years. Now naming is one thing, freeing oneself of it another. And so to face these darker sides of my psyche, I’ve had to enter their deeper waters. Following memory as far back as it would take me, I’ve relived the traumas of childhood that gave way to resentment and fear. But for the first time, I was led to think about my mother, how indignant, fearful, and powerless she must have felt in the face of her husband’s offenses while she was pregnant with me – all that despair I felt in the womb, the energy that pieced me together. I don’t like victim talk, but making sense of my context and beginnings has given me greater compassion for myself. I’ve also known that we hold grief and anxiety in our lungs and while I’ve made the connection easily in others, did not see until recently the chronic bronchitis I had as a child in this startling light.

When I was a kid, I didn’t salt my food. I felt guilty for the flavor, and so denied myself the pleasure. That went for the lettuce as well. No dressing. I took the asceticism to a whole other level in my adult years and only the other day recognized that I had actually invited much of the insane suffering in my life. I had to keep suffering because that is what Korean women do. It is how we show love, it is our lot. And our lot is where we are safe. It is all I saw of my mother, that for me to do and be otherwise would be not only criminal (how dare I enjoy my life?), but something alien and therefore…scary. Oh, how I LOVED my Bible passages on perseverance in affliction, on the cross I was to carry! Some years ago, I took a few lessons in the Alexander Technique, a mindful movement therapy. The instructor taught me how to lie down, really lie down. At one point I couldn’t help laughing out loud on the table. The deep, simple rest felt so good. At 30, I didn’t know I could rest like that, had been holding myself up in bed all those years. I now stand on unchartered terrain, a long but sure road where I am giving myself permission to stop hurting and to take my power back. I have died a hundred deaths. Surely that means a resurrection. Pleasure, comfort, (gasp) joy are within sight. At least I enjoy them every time here with you.

I had learned in my own depression how big an emotion can be, how it can be more real than facts. And I have found that that experience has allowed me to experience positive emotion in a more intense and more focused way. The opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality. I think that while I hated being depressed and would hate to be depressed again, I found a way to love my depression. I love it because it has forced me to find and cling to joy. I love it because each day I decide, sometimes gamely and sometimes against the moment’s reason, to cleave to the reasons for living. And that, I think, is a highly privileged rapture. Psychologist Andrew Solomon, PhD.

135 thoughts on “The Tyranny of Feelings

  1. “I found a way to love my depression. I love it because it has forced me to find and cling to joy. I love it because each day I decide, sometimes gamely and sometimes against the moment’s reason, to cleave to the reasons for living. And that, I think, is a highly privileged rapture.” Amen.

  2. Really love this. Stoics R us. I too have always been one of those who perseveres, a survivor, so passionate yes, but stuffing most of it away. Some years ago I realized my ponytail was kind of like the band that holds it altogether. Gives a whole new meaning to letting your hair down.

    • We expect kids to control their feelings when we’re such a mess. There is a lot of shame around this, too. Which is why men find it hard to get in touch with their feelings. We feel LESS for the vulnerability. But strength begins with honesty, doesn’t it?

  3. Always a treat to hear from you, Diana. Seems we’re on similar paths. This is the year I’m realizing my childhood coping mechanisms of “pushing down and pushing through” have done me a great disservice. It’s been a time of processing and putting things in proper perspective (His perspective). Scary initially yet ultimately SUCH a freeing experience for me! I pray you’re finding it the same.

    • Glad to know, Vanessa. Just wonderful that you’ve been facing those parts of yourself and knowing freedom. We can’t fool the body. An MD who authored Healing is Possible says we bury (emotional) trauma in our neuromuscular. He isn’t the first to say that but I’m glad science is catching up to holistic wisdom.

    • You are a blessed soul, Anne. Ha ha ha. I’d said to Holly on this thread that I hoped she got something out of this but I’m glad, on second thought, you aren’t very dysfunctional to have done so. =)

  4. Some years back my 16 year old did not make the school football team. He got hit… hard and limped off the field. The coach said, “Joe, get back out there, you gotta play hurt.” Joe responded, “Coach, I don’t do hurt on purpose.” That ended his football career and, I believe, added a measure of freedom.

  5. Amen, Diana. A post that reveals much wisdom gained in living.
    Truth and compassion are a necessary balance of justice. Truth alone tends toward cruelty, while compassion alone tends toward sentimentality. Like a pendulum that comes to rest in the middle by the weight of gravity, so, too, does truth and compassion find its balance by the weight of justice.
    Two men steal a loaf of bread. One because his son is starving, the other because he hates the baker. One might say to jail the hater and free the father. There truth is for one and compassion the other. But, the fact is the bread was stolen. Both have to pay. That is the truth of judgment. Compassion comes with the sentence. There mercy can be shown. The hater pays the greater price, while the father pays the lesser. But, the price must be served. There in lies justice and the peace of the world.
    With Christ there was no emotion without truth. An innocent had to die in the place of the sinner for reconciliation with God to be complete. With the sentence served, justice is served. Mercy can now be dispensed to all.

  6. Wow. This is thought provoking and very reflective. I appreciate your raw openness. This line jumped out at me, “The opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality. I think that while I hated being depressed and would hate to be depressed again, I found a way to love my depression.” I agree. Learning to love myself, my whole self, is an ongoing journey for me. It is challenging to be aware of my faults and not fall back into unhelpful habits. There are still days that I don’t to love those parts.
    I was at the park yesterday watching others play and lie on the grass. I asked myself why I never chose this for a Saturday. My answer, “I don’t have time, I’ve got got things to do.” This is not true but a patterned way of thinking. I am challenging this notion. Next weekend I am going on a hike.
    Thanks for sharing. Your writing is fantastic.

    • Hi Ali, your comment didn’t show up in the notifications window ystrdy. Yes, depression is one thing I haven’t struggled with in a long time (bc sorrow is something I have trouble getting in touch with) but I think that line struck many people because frankly, how many people do you know who are living models of vitality? And why is this not so? I love that you’re challenging your own patterns and habits. We hold onto them out of a perceived sense of safety. I would love to hear about the hike Sunday. =) Keep me posted!!


  7. Thanks for sharing so openly Diana. I find strength and connection in being vulnerable, but it’s not easy to really accept, feel and allow our feelings, especially without letting them run our lives. Compassion and honesty seem like good anchors. Kudos, hugs, and messy stuff. 🙂

  8. Very vulnerable post to share. There is certainly a lot of uncertainty in dark times but looking ahead we feel at least a bit of hope. Like you, I didn’t salt my food either. No dressing either. I do like my food on the plainer side anyway…

  9. “I have found anger much easier to access than sorrow. Anger allows me to borrow strength from the sheer force of it . . .”

    Me, too. I have grown to love my anger. My best results are produced when I’m angry. The angrier the better. I took a project one time and fell in love with a girl from the project group. She liked me, too. It remains the worst project in my record. I couldn’t get myself to be angry, I couldn’t harness the dark energy enough to do a great job.

      • Thanks for the link. I remember reading that post. It was truly relevant to me. Though, unlike the writer, I’m still stuck in the dark energy spectrum.

        Women don’t suck. I loved the girl. I was just too happy to concentrate on my work. Anger condenses my focus into a single drop of genius. Anger keeps me defensive and self-critical. I couldn’t get something to be angry at. And so I performed poorly.

  10. The idea that emotion and intellect are incompatible goes back a long way, but i contend emotion is the battery that fuels intellect. We live in a world where normal emotions–especially uncomfortable ones–have been pathologized. A huge, profitable drug culture has been built up around anesthetizing them. New anti-depressants come on the market all the time.

    The whole world is depressed, according to me. The media exploits hate and fear, and individuals feel helplessly caught up in the massive thought-form that passes itself off as reality. I agree the opposite of depression is vitality, but vitality is an emotional response, too, based on a sense of confidence and competence, personal power.

    I have enormous respect for emotion, maybe especially uncomfortable emotions, because they can be so debilitating, but repressing or denying them only makes it worse. I try to train them to work for instead of against me, by allowing them to run their course. Writing it out seems to help, as you have done here. I hope your sharing has lifted your spirits, along with those who read.

    • Amazing feedback, Katharine. You know, I do believe the whole world is depressed! At least most of it. “I try to train them to work for instead of against me”. So wise. You know, I didn’t mention EFT here bc it is a post unto itself but you would appreciate it. It’s a practical way to do exactly what you’ve said and reforges the mind-body connection – if you’d like to Google it. Chk out The Tapping Solution by Nick Ortner, too. The first few chapters and some youtubes, and you will be flying.

      • Thanks for the tip. I’ll check it out. Since posting my comment, I read a couple of paragraphs in the Seth series by Jane Roberts. Seth says emotions follow beliefs, such as beliefs about yourself and human nature. If you believe people are selfish and greedy, for instance, you will develop a host of emotions supporting that belief. The concept of original sin, he says, pits man against himself and is a dangerous belief. He emphasizes the beliefs are not reality but ideas about reality, and changing beliefs changes emotions. Chanelled books like these may seem hokey to some, but I find a lot of interesting ideas in them. This particular idea came from “The Nature of Personal Reality.”

      • Actually, it is (the concept of) original sin that leads us to a compassionate, merciful, and just God. That gives the (the concept of) grace. I know, it’s wild how it spirals! Your first comment was a great post unto itself. You should put it up!

  11. Beautiful writing. It’s so important to find joy in little things. I’ve decided to let go of perfectionism, which can be a great way for us to torture ourselves, and instead embrace the philosophy of “good enough”. If I start to relapse, a quick assessment of “what difference will this make to anyone in 100 years?” gets me back on track. Not to say I don’t like to do things well, but not everything (or hardly anything) has to be perfect.

    • Actually, yes, Heidi. I’ve often panned out 5 yrs to assess a situation. No one’s going to remember this then (or even in 5 months!). They are all preoccupied with their own issues.

  12. I like the idea that the opposite of depression is vitality, and would add to that as a kind of corollary expression. It seems that articulating our feelings and emotions is one way that we are not beholden to them. I think this is why making sure that children have access to the creative arts is really a life lesson that cannot be denied.

  13. What a brave post Diana and beautifully inspiring. For the longest time I suffered under the dual Gods of high anxiety and extreme stoicism. Honestly I’m surprised I just didn’t spontaneously combust one day. I too remember very distinctively the first time I learned how to really “rest” which came after studying present moment awareness and how to shut my mind off. A surprise belief in God and a growing faith helped me climb out of the pit but it’s always nearby.

    Interesting too how you tied in emotional trauma with political mind control. It’s brainwashing for sure whether it comes from politicians or our own selves. Good for you for being so honest in sharing your journey. Authenticity suits you.

    • It is a real shame that you don’t find many Christians in the mindfulness arena. Probably bc a lot it hails from the traditions and paradigms of Eastern medicine. But love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, all your strength. Heart, mind, body. A Holistic God if I ever saw one, bc that is how he designed us. It is man who dissected the Self. So the point is that healing (and resting) the mind, heals and rests the body. Health is balance and wholeness. We sure do ourselves in!

      I appreciate knowing this part of your journey, T. Luv ya.

      • All your mind indeed! There should be much more understanding of mindfulness and instead of fear. Honestly I find my prayer life much more effective when I can quiet my mind enough to be coherent. 😉

        Luv ya too D, happy journey to you.

  14. Parenting is tough! Sometimes, I think the first chapter in the Bible concerning Adam and Eve consuming the fruit of knowledge is actually God’s parable for carnal pleasure. Progenies are indeed a “blessing” to teach human-beings life lessons. Positive emotion, good energy and balanced nutrition are pertinent in ensuring healthy fetal growth. Chronic bronchitis in children can sometimes be attributed to the lack of breastfeeding. Mother transfer maternal immunity to her infant via breast milk hence mothers are encouraged to breastfeed infants for at least 6 months. Extreme ascetism is counterproductive in achieving epiphany because the body instinctively becomes too preoccupied in finding resources that was denied. As always, the key is balance 🙂

    • It is funny (as in interesting, ironic) to be reading this (thoughtful comment) for a number of reasons. It’s preaching to the choir, for starters. =) I appreciate it bc I thoroughly agree, and I was taken aback at first, thinking How did you know I’ve been having a hell of a time parenting??? But I saw where you were coming from. I was breastfed many years. Contrary to popular conceptions, it is not for everyone, as it depends on the quality of the milk, a reflection on the emotional and physical state of the mother. I really like the point on asceticism. And yes, health is balance.

      • Only a daughter, wife and mother like yourself with much experience in life struggles can empathize with your mother’s pain. I’ve observed enough to know that elderly parents, husbands and children are some of the main causes of depression in women. Hang on there! You’ve kick started a path towards awakening that hopefully translates into healing both emotionally and physically 🙂

  15. “Emotion can be…more real than facts.”
    This terrified me because I had to ask myself what longstanding “truths” do I believe about my life, family relationships, the world, etc., that have been shaped by this dynamic? And as a result of that shaping, what right perspectives have I robbed myself of because it was easier to wallow in the myth? So much to think about. You said a lot in here. I’ll take it!

  16. Diana, I firmly believe your sufferings have made you a woman of steel. You may call it stoicism, but you have been gifted with the ability to speak for others whose voices have been silenced.

    I have never been diagnosed with depression, but I have been severely depressed. When I was young enough to still have the “horrormones,” there were days I believed I could not survive. As a young highschool student, I actually checked out of school and planned to end my life; however, I never managed to do it because I did not know what to do. With all the media hype about juvenile suicides recently, more kids are able to find a way to end their suffering. Apparently it is easier to jump ship than it is to learn to steer it.

    “Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily; and why older persons, especially if vain or important, cannot learn at all.” – Thomas Szasz

    The Szasz quote is super. Search his name and find that he was a psychologist who fought the psychology establishment because he believed they were bogus and controlling everybody just by pretending to be scientific and using scientific-sounding names. He also believed that just because they “got there first” to define conditions or words, didn’t make them right or a valid authority. Psychologist often teach their patients to blame or hate as a means of “helping” them to heal.

    • On first thought I am surprised by your experience with depression but on second, I am not. You are such a trooper, wanting to hold up the world and all those ideals of yours, my friend. That’s a lot of pressure on anyone. Where would we be without the God who comes alongside with grace? I deeply appreciate the heartfelt read and comment.

      • We win God’s favor, in much the same way we win favor from each other. I favor you because I believe you are genuine. If we are “real” and genuinely strive to please our Creator, he shows more favor. We can grow in His grace (favor).

      • Sometimes conventional definitions confuse because they are inaccurate. If you study the original Greek, grace is just “caris” or favor. Thinking logically even in English, is there such a thing as unmerited favor? I show you favor because you make me happy. I show you favor because you show outstanding qualities of character.

        Let’s say I am a beggar on the street corner and you stop to give me food. Did I earn your favor? Did I win it? However your heart was moved, you saw fit to favor me with food. That’s grace.

  17. This is a beautiful, heartfelt post. Really honest. To me, being that honest is key to making peace with ourselves. Just to be with what’s present and allow it to move through.

    So glad I saw this. Thanks for sharing it. Sending you many blessings Debbie 💓

  18. How interesting! I remember sitting in what passed for a café in Northern Laos and listening to the amazing story of a Christian who suddenly found himself under direction of the Communists as they swept in. He’d worked on a Mission estate so was an instant target. They put him in solitary for three years blaring Communist propaganda at him day and night between questionings. He learned to focus his mind on other things more pleasant and cane through the experience without modifying his belief system and from my observation normal. I stood in awe of him after listening to that story. So it’s possible to train emotions it seems.

    • Thx for sharing, Ian. Remarkable. He suffered untold things, and solitary is the worst thing you can do to a person, I understand. It is inspiring to see just how deep the human potential for strength and healing is.

  19. Powerful post, obviously. It resonates for me for many reasons. One of those reasons is that I worked in the counseling field for 17 (+) years, with many high-risk clients. Working with recovering addicts, this piece of emotions colliding with thinking is at the core of their treatment. “If I feel this way, then it must be true.” WRONG. A guy from the past, Bishop Carleton, said this: “Perception is the ultimate reality. But not the ultimate truth.” And perception is intensely connected with emotions. Well done, on this post. You always have something for my writing soul.

  20. Thank you, Diana, for sharing this part of your journey. so many of us shared those feelings of despair with our mothers while in the womb, and so many anxieties once we entered the world. This post was so beautiful and helpful.

    • Thanks, Michele. I’ve shied from compassion for myself, have felt it a cop-out and that I didn’t deserve it. I think many of us could be more gentle with ourselves, that it will help us be that way with others.

  21. An inspiring and revealing piece that exposed your inner thoughts and how you have denied yourself on many fronts. I’ve learned so much about Korean culture from your blog. I think you are a very strong and talented lady. I so hope that you will really live the life that gives you pleasure.

    I’ve been in your shoes to a lesser extent. We just don’t need to emulate our parents in un-heathy ways. Be that strong lady but be so in beneficial ways by being constructive.

    I hope I am on the right track here and that I did not misread your post.

    • You really didn’t need to take the time, Yvonne, with so much on your plate. I hope the cardio appointment went okay and you’ve been able to catch your breath. I’m so glad you’ve grown a bit more familiar with the Korean culture! It’s one I’m not too keen on =).

      “I so hope that you will really live the life that gives you pleasure.”
      I cherish this benediction.

      And no pressure on my previous offer. Rap my shoulder whenever you’re ready.


      • You are so sweet. I must add that I saw a program on CNN about Koreans that live in one section of LA. It was Anthony Bourdain talking to folks about the food and asking questions about the culture. I found it very interesting. I love learning about other cultures. I am not a traveler but I like to know how the rest of the world lives and thinks.

        I will continue to comment when I have the energy and time because I like your blog and I’m fond of you even though we’ll never meet. I “get” some bloggers and others I don’t feel any connection. It’s funny how one can connect even through our words.

        I don’t have a cardio report yet. I had to call a few days ago and the MD’s nurse has not called me back. In this clinic the MD never talks over the phone. The RN does the phone calls. But the tech that did the ultra sound of the carotid arteries told me there did not appear to be any changes and that “they” looked good for an 80 year old. 🙂

        Love and hugs,

  22. A powerful post, Diana, and full of insights. I also believe that emotions are the main driver of our health, choices, and attitudes. And when they’re out of kilter, our lives tend to skew. Your mention of bronchitis makes perfect sense in the context of my life as well. Facing our fears is hard, partly because we don’t clearly perceive them. Your insights are enlightening and the compassion you feel for yourself is a huge step toward healing. Thanks so much for the thoughtful post. ❤

  23. Wow, that took a lot of soul searching to get from start to finish here, but also a good deal of wisdom. Having invited the suffering into my own life again and again, I am quick to recognize the pitfalls, but not always powerful enough to sidestep them. It’s an ongoing process, I think, and I’m grateful for the bits of rest I manage to pull from the chaotic periods and am forcing myself to stop from time to time and at least close my eyes in an effort to change the energy. I salute you in your own process. If you figure it out, please share. :0)

      • Ah, yes, I am also taking the emotional releasing journey through acupuncture. I go every 4 weeks and this time around had been 5 weeks and I’m feeling pretty jangled. We’ll compare notes, D. 😘

      • That is great. It’d be better to go more often. What I’ve been doing is like free acupuncture (unless you have a friend for that, too. LOL). It dovetails beautifully with NAET, so I think you’ll get it. Don’t hold your breath but I will try to rap on your window in the next 2 wks.

  24. Thanks for sharing the dark side(?) of your feelings. To me, anger is the most destructive feeling of all emotions. Although it relives some bottled up emotions, loss–physically and mentally–is greater than gain.

  25. Thanks for the honesty and transparency. “When you Search for me with all your heart, you will find me” says God, the heart being intellect, emotions, and will. I know many people are unwilling to acknowledge their emotions, but in reality they cannot be avoided. When controlled by the Holy Spirit they are an integral and vital part of our decision making process. Totally agree with you.

  26. Diana, This is where faith helps me to keep perspective… “beauty from ashes” and “purpose in suffering.” How often do we find that place of true joy and stay there? This world tends to pull us back into the arena of fear, worry, and insecurity which can lead to depression. Thanks for pointing out that the first step in recovery is putting into words what is in our heart of hearts! Then we can lay that emotional burden down and tightly grasp joy that was always intended for us.

    • My blog name is A Holistic Journey, my username Holistic Wayfarer. Actually, a part of me wished I’d had more time to peg what may have been a better username. The friend who taught me how to use WPress was here, drumming his fingers, and I had to come up with something fast! It went with the blog title. Thx for the follow. =)

  27. The cross section about North Korea is interesting to fathom. The narrative is interesting to read. Anand Bose from Kerala

  28. Only the brave can share their journey with the world so openly. Your line about women denying themselves I find generally applicable to Asian women. While I don’t think I can question their reasons, it does create downstream impact in the form of a build-up of expectations from the world for recognising and honouring that self-denial.

My Two Gold Cents in the Holistic Treasury

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