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My Life Changed at 40
I was raised to be a "real man," i.e., to be strong and silent, like my dad. I was tense in my dealing with my associates and family, and subject to frequently recurring bouts of migraine and hyperacidity. Between the ages of sixteen and forty, I had cried only once, and was somewhat inexpressive of other emotions as well, except anger.
Divorced at the age of forty, I was separated from my children for a full year. After two months of separation, feeling intensely lonely and missing my children, I saw a psychiatrist for an hour a week. I told the psychiatrist my feelings, and felt some relief, but was still tense and lonely.
During this period, I attended my first psychotherapy group. The group (Re-evaluation Counseling) emphasized emotions. During the class, I told the story of my childhood to a fellow participant, called a co-counselor. I had also stood up before the class and repeated phrases provided by the leader, "I hurt," and "I hurt a little bit." This last phrase she had had me repeat several times, first in a normal voice, then falsetto, then in a basso voice. I felt a lump in my throat during this episode, but no other feelings.
There were several participants who cried at various points in the class. I remember feeling envious. After the day long class, I went swimming and had dinner. At some point during the period after the class, I noticed a new sensation in my upper abdominal area: it felt like a knot the size of my fist. It was not particularly painful or even unpleasant, but it persisted for the rest of the day.
In the evening, I went to the home of my then girlfriend. In bed I told her about the group I had attended in the afternoon. She seemed quite interested and attentive. When I repeated the phrases I had spoken in front of the class, I began crying. At first the crying was tense and somewhat painful: it felt bitter and strained. The sensation of sobbing was brittle, like the dry heaves. After some fifteen or twenty minutes, however, the crying became more relaxed. After another quarter hour of intense crying, I stopped and lay back to rest.
After a few minutes' rest, I began to shake and sweat. The shaking was violent, like an earthquake. Yet I felt no fear. The sensation, rather, was pleasant. I felt that I was in touch with an enormous source of energy, like surf-riding a twenty-foot wave. Another way of expressed the feeling: like being shaken by the neck by a giant. After some thirty minutes of shaking and sweating, it stopped as suddenly as it had begun. The sweating was intense to the point that the sheet that I was lying on was soaked. I felt refreshed and relaxed. I noticed that the knot in my stomach was getting smaller.
After another brief rest, I began to feel angry. I started shouting, biting the air and moving on the bed. My writhing became so violent that I fell out of bed. On the floor, I continued, and began chewing on the shag rug. At this point, a peculiar thing happened. I realized that my ridiculous behavior might upset my friend, so I stopped. I said to her: "Are you all right?" She said, "Don't worry, I'm all right. Just do your thing!" I then immediately went back to the anger, without any pause whatsoever.
I had no sense of what I was angry about, but it seemed to be there, ready for me to express it, as if there had been no interruption at all. Just as I could turn off the anger, I could also turn it back on. (The kind of emotion episode that can be turned off and on will be discussed further below). After some thirty minutes, I ran out of anger. I got back in bed.
Once again, I rested. Because of what had happened before, I anticipated further strong responses. After a few minutes, I felt a strong sensation again, this time the urge to laugh. I began laughing a deep, relaxed laugh, and repeating a phrase that occurred to me: "I believe, Lord, oh help me to believe.” The laughter felt so deep and powerful that it seemed like someone else was laughing through me. I also felt strongly exhilarated. After a half hour of laughing, I felt finished. I lay back and rested. The knot in my stomach had disappeared.
In the morning when I awoke, I began crying again. I remember repeating a line of Auden's poetry, "All over Europe, the nurses were itching to boil their children." I went on to go through the whole cycle of discharge again, crying, shaking, screaming, and laughing, but in a much shorter space of time, fifteen or twenty minutes all told. I dressed to catch a plane.
At breakfast, I realized that I felt quite different than I had before. I was full of energy, and my senses felt exquisitely sharp, especially my sense of smell and taste. The sound of music on the radio was unbelievably beautiful. The smell and taste of breakfast was delightful. I felt that I had never actually tasted orange juice before, as if I could taste each molecule.
After deplaning, while entering the terminal building, I felt emotions coming up again. This time I felt it would be inappropriate, and I sought to hold the emotions back. I took ten or twenty deep breaths, and the anticipated catharsis did not occur.
After this I experienced myself as having changed in fundamental ways. I felt much more relaxed and open, and less driven. Although I hadn't realized that they were deficient, my senses seemed sharper, especially smell, to the point that I felt that I hadn't been really using my senses before. My work habits also changed. I felt more creative and less driven. I realized in retrospect that I had been obsessed with work, and had let other aspects of my life take second place. I continued to work, but I felt I had more perspective and was more effective. Finally, I felt better and more open with people. The impatience and frustration that I often felt seemed virtually to disappear.
Although I continued to laugh, the experience of a massive catharsis occurred only one more time, about six months after the first. On this occasion, I was all alone in a situation in which I thought my life and the lives of my children were endangered. I had a fit of fear, much like the shaking episode in the first catharsis, but even more violent. After some fifteen minutes of the most intense shaking and sweating, but again without the experience of fear, I got up from the floor, completely refreshed. Once again, my clothes were drenched with sweat, as if I had been swimming. My mind seemed utterly clear. I gave a public speech soon after, extempore, which I thought was my most effective speech ever. The words seemed to be there when I needed them, without planning or forethought.
For about a year after the first massive discharge, I cried every day without fail, usually about missing my children. When they returned, I cried much less often, about once a week or less.
Most of the changes have continued. The psychosomatic disturbances did not disappear completely but became infrequent and mild. My obsession with work diminished. Before catharsis, I spent most of my time feeling neither pleasure nor pain, but suspended. After catharsis, and to the present, I have considerable variation, with many highs and lows. I laugh and cry easily, but still have occasional anger problems, and little contact with fear.
How could genuine emotions be turned on and turned off? This idea has been explored by classic theories of drama. They proposed that what makes for a successful drama is that the audience feels strong emotions, but not at too close nor too far a distance. The right distance is called aesthetic distance: the audience is feeling strong emotions, but also aware that they are in a theatre. One is feeling strongly, but in an environment that feels safe in the sense that you can quit at any time.
Genuine catharsis, it seems to me, always involves this feature. Too close means that the audience is merely reliving an unresolved emotional trauma, rather than resolving it. Too far means not feeling emotions at all. During my two intense emotion outpourings and subsequently I often had a sense of being able to stop if I wished.
The second issue concerns this question: to what extent was my emotional experience between childhood and the age of 40 typical or atypical? It now seems to me that it was typical, especially for males. For example, most men learn somehow that feeling fear is the same as being a coward, so they block it out. Indeed, beginning on the playground, most boys learn that not just fear, but other vulnerable emotions such as grief and shame are not permitted by the the other boys. Anger on the other hand, is permitted, so it tends to be overused, covering up the vulnerable emotions.
Normally, emotions are quickly resolved and therefore cause no harm. Indeed fear is life-enhancing, an instantaneous warning of danger. When emotions are hidden, however, they become life threating.
The use of anger and aggression to cover over shame, embarrassment and humiliation is visible in the wide world, not just on the playground. For example, the US attack on Iraq may have been in part a response to the US government’s embarrassment over 9/11 occurring on its watch. Many earlier wars and conflicts seem to have had at least an element of hidden humiliation leading to a desire for vengeance at any cost. The origins of WWI and the rise of Hitler seem particularly involved in this way. Persons and nations that hide their emotions may become ruled by them.
One result of my emotional episodes was to change my professional career. During my early career my work on the sociology of mental illness was highly regarded by my colleagues. When I shifted to the study of emotions, I lost the regard of almost all of them. It seems to me that neither they nor the public at large were ready to give serious consideration to the role of emotions in human life, especially hidden emotions. I have been trying for many years to open up this possibility, and will continue to try as long as I am able.