There’s an idea that I’ve seen floating around a lot lately that when you feel something, the logical thing to do is act on it. I think this is an unspoken assumption that most people have. When you’re angry you either bottle it up or you act on it. There are no other options. And oddly enough acting on it is generally assumed to be a big, expansive action: acting on your anger isn’t going for a run to let off some steam, it’s yelling or hitting something or breaking something or cutting ties with someone.
And there’s this idea that if you don’t act out whatever your emotion is telling you to do, completely and fully, then you’re repressing your emotions, or you’re behaving dishonestly in some way, or that it will eventually all burst out of you in some gigantic flood of ARG. If you don’t let it all out then you at least need to fix whatever is causing the emotions, because emotions are a problem, ya know? So the healthy thing to do is to Logically Understand The Problem and then take Appropriate Action.
There’s something I’ve been practicing lately though. It’s a thing where I have a feeling and then I don’t do anything about it. The feeling keeps feeling, and that’s fine. Sometimes I distract myself a bit or just continue about my life. Sometimes (if it’s one of those really big emotions) I just sit and feel it for a while. This is not always a pleasant thing. Emotions often exist as a motivation for action, and it can be hard to resist that, but it doesn’t actually cause any harm. It’s just a little uncomfortable and sometimes distressing.
So what happens when I just let my emotions happen and choose to do nothing about them? Well most of the time nothing. There is no catastrophic consequence. They happen, and they fade. And sometimes there are lingering bits to it, and I have to continue to sit with it for quite some time, but eventually it does fade.
Now there is a huge caveat to this and that’s that if something is hurting you or is an actual problem and you think that your emotions are accurately telling you “something needs to change here” then yes, please alert someone to the situation and make that change. But for the emotions that are just there, like a crush or like some minor annoyance or like some random depression feels, in which there is no necessary action, it will fade.
And despite what you may think, that’s actually totally ok. The amazing thing about being an adult is that you can have an emotion and still use other tools to determine your course of action. You can decide that you don’t want to hold on to this emotion or that it’s just not that important.
One of the hardest places to do this is in romantic or positive feelings. When we feel an attraction or a desire, holy hell is it hard to not do anything about it. It’s like not eating that delicious slice of cake that’s sitting right in front of us. And yet we know that our desire for cake is not always the most important thing in the world and sometimes we don’t eat cake. Same thing with desiring a person or an outcome or an action.
For many people it’s a foreign concept not to pursue what you want, especially in the romantic sphere. Who wouldn’t want to get with the person they’re interested in? Well lots of people. Someone might be fun to hang out with but have radically different values from yours, or you might be moving away soon, or maybe you just prefer flirting. There’s all kinds of reasons you might prefer not to act on a desire. And so learning to feel that feeling, enjoy the goodness of that feeling, and not demand an action or a result from yourself can lead to a whole lot less angst.
I’ve always hated the advice of just “sitting with a feeling”, especially for mental illness related feelings. People always told me that they would go away eventually, but for me the eventually was years. Some of the really big emotions can’t just be sat with. But part of the reason for this is our societal obsession with seeing every emotion as a problem that requires a solution. So maybe we should start practicing with smaller things. Feel a feeling but don’t do a thing. It doesn’t have to be huge, but try letting go of the desire to talk to that one person, or notice that you have a flutter of anxiety about something but keep on with your day anyway, or get annoyed at your computer and don’t yell at it.
Just an experiment, but you might find that it leaves you with a lot more space to decide what you actually want to do.
So yesterday I was exploring new blogs and I ran across a blog written by a polyamorous, skeptical, atheist family. Needless to say, I was pretty excited. This sounded super interesting, and I’d never heard this particular perspective before. I needed to read all their backentries RIGHT NOW.
But then I got to this article, which was about 3 posts in, and I just couldn’t stomach anymore. The basic premise of this article is that “polyamory is not inherently egalitarian, but all egalitarian relationships must be polyamorous, or at least merely de facto monogamous (and open).” Then I got to this article, whose main point was that ” To be monogamous would be to say to Gina “if you develop a sexual or romantic interest in someone other than me, I want you to ignore or suppress those feelings,” because exploring them would hurt me. Put simpler, it would be saying “If you get what you want, that is bad for me.” Monogamy, like all rules in a relationship, sets the two partners against each other. For one to gain, the other must lose.”
I was a little incensed. I happen to be monogamous, and not just an accidental monogamy, but the kind of monogamy that was agreed upon by both partners so that neither one of us would get hurt. According to these people, my partner and I are being selfish and limiting, pitting ourselves against each other, because we’re willing to not hurt the other person. The logic here is ridiculous. There ARE some instances in which partners have differing interests and desires. There ARE some instances in which “if you get what you want, that is bad for me”. To take a very clear example, in some instances, that would be rape (if one partner wants sex and the other doesn’t, it would be very bad for them to give their partner what they want). This model of relationships seems to circulate around the idea that there is no compromise in relationships, that we don’t sometimes give up things that we want in order to keep our relationship happy and healthy.
This does not of course mean that we don’t love our partner if we sometimes ask them not to do something they’d like. It means that we are balancing our own mental and emotional needs against the desires of our partner. Because there are in fact TWO people in a relationship, and we have to look out for BOTH of those people in a relationship. This kind of rhetoric is extremely harmful because it asks individuals to ignore their feelings and desires so that their partner can be happy. Want to know where else that kind of rhetoric exists? Rape culture. It invalidates your feelings, and means that you don’t get to ask for anything.
You DO get to ask for things in relationships. You DON’T have to be entirely “selfless”, because if you were then your partner would not be getting the happiest version of you possible. Every relationship has these instances of give and take, where one partner might desire something and the other might be hurt by it. If it’s a healthy relationship, they then discuss it and try to decide which course of action leads to the most happiness in the relationship. For example, in my relationship right now I’ve been struggling with some memories of bad relationships in the past. I’ve asked my boyfriend to stop doing certain things that are a little bit triggering to me. He may really desire those things, but he has stopped doing them because my trauma is a bigger harm to our relationship than his desire. Or a more mundane example, I hate the sound of people chewing, so if he’s eating and I’m not, I ask him to turn on the TV so that I can’t hear it. And he does, even if he may want to converse with me while he’s eating, because it’s really not hard for him and it means something to me.
But there are certain instances where it falls out the other way. I had a boyfriend in the past who told me that he was uncomfortable with me swing dancing because I was with other guys. Swing dancing brought me a GREAT deal of joy though, and I had already made certain compromises about what I would do with certain other people to keep his anxieties more settled, and we talked about it to keep both of us feeling comfortable. In that case, the balance swung the other way.
And sometimes, you can’t figure out the balance. Each individual thinks that their side is more important. For this writer, perhaps the freedom to have sex outside the relationship is HUGELY important in their ability to feel happy and fulfilled in life, and they simply can’t survive without it. Their partner might be incredibly hurt by it, and feel betrayed and alone and unwanted. In those cases, it might simply mean that the individuals are incompatible. However just because one individual can only imagine a life where everyone would want to give complete untethered freedom to their partner and want that complete freedom for themselves, does not mean that’s the only way to be egalitarian. Letting both partners have a say in what they do is egalitarian. His version of “egalitarian” is just as one sided as a single partner demanding that the other stay locked in the house. It’s simply the other direction. It’s holding your partner a slave to the idea of “freedom” even when that idea hurts them, and saying that if they can’t accept this abstract notion of freedom, they don’t love you. It invalidates your partner’s choices and ability to gauge for themselves what their level of emotional tolerance is for certain things.
Asking your partner to ignore their feelings so that you can pay attention to your own feelings is NOT egalitarian. A relationship that balances the feelings of both partners IS egaliatarian. It might be open, it might not be. That depends on the weight of the feelings of those involved. But the idea that we should ignore when we feel hurt, unwanted, vulnerable, betrayed, alone, jealous, or any other feeling you might get when your partner is with someone else is extremely invalidating, and ignores one half of the relationship. It promotes the idea that freedom is more important than respect for those you love. And that is NOT a healthy idea.
It is NOT inherently selfish to ask your partner to stop doing something that is hurting you. It IS inherently selfish for your partner to expect you to ignore those feelings of hurt if they’re having a good time.