One of my friends in Memphis used to say “fill your fillings, gurl!”. I always giggled but usually I was so sad when she said it that it was hard to laugh too hard. Every time I get down in the dumps I hear her sweet voice reminding me to “fill my fillings” … and I do.
I grew up with the notion that I needed to put on my big girl panties and deal with whatever life dished out. That was fine when life was dishing out a C when I wanted an A or my boyfriend of the month went out with my best friend. It was an effective way to cope and get on with life. But, just like every other coping mechanism we pick up when we are a kid, when the problems get bigger and rapid-fire, those coping habits fail. At some point we realize we are overwhelmed, sick, suicidal, crazy or addicted to something…. or all of the aforementioned. At some point the coping mechanism becomes the problem that triggers the fall of the dominoes.
I had several ineffective coping mechanisms. I wanted to be perfect – or to be seen as perfect – to avoid criticism. I got angry when things didn’t go my way until so much didn’t go my way that I was angry all the time. I ate sugar and drank alcohol to cope with fear and sadness. I spent money when I felt alone. At some point, there are consequences to all of these behaviors that begin to overshadow the consequences of just “filling my fillings”. I didn’t know that, of course. It’s not like I said, “I am afraid to express my anger, so I’m going to eat this whole bag of Dove candies.” It took a couple of therapists, a few workshops, a twelve-step group and many friends before I unraveled the truth that stuffing my feelings was making me sick.
There’s a lot of research pointing out that repressing your feelings will give you heart disease and some cancers. I’m not a medical expert, so I’m not going to focus on the medical conditions that can be caused by repressing feelings. I’d rather tell you my experience. I do “fill my fillings” today. So, I have the experience to say what life is like before feeling my feelings and after feeling my feelings. I’m somewhat of an expert on my own emotions.
Right after my first divorce, I was visiting my friend Lorna in Knoxville. I struggled with depression, and so did she. On top of the depression, I was experiencing grief from the loss of an 11-year marriage. I now know that I was also repressing almost every bit of anger and sadness that I had ever felt because it made other people uncomfortable for me to be sad or angry. As a side note, my repressed anger that eventually turned into rage was my core issue in both of my marriages. Had I dealt with this sooner, I may have had more marital success.
I couldn’t hold it in any longer, and I blurted out to Lorna that I was just so incredibly sad and depressed that I felt like I couldn’t function very well. I expected the usual, “oh, you’ll get through it” or “you have nothing to be sad about, you have a wonderful life before you.” Instead, she said, “Come here….”. I walked over to her, and she motioned for me to sit beside her on the sofa, and she put her arms around me in a big hug. I cried the tears of a million years of sadness. My tears had never felt so welcome, and they poured out all over her like a summer rainstorm. I will never forget how I felt in that moment. I was accepted and loved and supported in my pain. The feeling was so profound I feel it right now – 25 years later.
It would be a long time before I experienced that kind of acceptance again about expressing my emotions. I saw a therapist in Michigan because I was still stuck in my lifelong cloak of depression. I broke down one day and told him that I just couldn’t take being depressed anymore. The weight of it was killing me, and life was so hard when I had to literally drag myself through it everyday. I was so sick of fighting the disorder that grabbed me when I was a teenager and seemed determined to suck the life out of me. He told me to quit fighting it. Huh? “Quit fighting it,” he said. “When you are depressed, just accept that you are depressed. Everybody gets down. It’s normal. And do 20 minutes of exercise every day.” I realized that when I fought it I was beating myself up for not being able to pull myself out of it or for being so weak that I had it or one of a hundred different failures. All of these self-perceived failures brought on a dark cloud of shame. Acceptance let me release it.
It would take years and lots of talking and tears before I finally got to the end of my depression. I learned that when I stuff my feelings, they don’t go anywhere. They sit inside me and require feeding in order to keep them from eating me alive. So, I have to feed them food … or alcohol … or new clothes … or any one of a hundred things that abate the hunger for a moment. I was never content. Meditating was miserable, and sleeping was impossible. As soon as my mind got quiet, my anger or fear pulsed up and increased my anxiety. If I tried to do something fun, my sadness would sit on my shoulders like a huge boulder weighing me down. I had no energy; I was constantly irritable; I got colds all the time because my immune system was on overwhelm. I was never content…. and I really wanted to be.
Today, I feel my feelings when I’m sad. I have a handful of friends that know that sadness is really, really okay, and they will hold me through my tears. That same handful of friends will play the role of the object of my anger so I can safely get it out and express myself without losing a job or embarrassing myself. I know how to journal and figure out what boundaries I need to set if someone is making me angry or hurting me. Meditation and yoga allow me to be quiet so I can feel what is bubbling up – even when it’s really small.
The difference in then and now is huge. I have days of sadness instead of one long lifetime of chronic depression. My sadness used to be a huge boulder that I carried around. Now, it is a boulder but a manageable one. I can put it down or make it dissolve slowly with tears. I rarely have rage. I do get angry, but my anger is an indicator that I either need to readjust my thinking about something, or I need to set a boundary. I haven’t had a cold in years. If I can stay clean of caffeine and sugar, I sleep like a baby with no sleep meds or supplements. I have energy for my ever-evolving passions. My lows are less intense, but my joys are exponentially more enjoyable.
When people started telling me to feel my feelings, I didn’t understand what they meant. I thought I was feeling them all the time. I was in pain all the time. I had to get the gunk cleaned out by allowing myself to fall apart before I could do the regular housecleaning on my feelings. It was a long, slow process, but I’m so glad I did it. I found this article today that might help you if you want to start “filling your fillings,” but you don’t really know what that means.
In a way, I’m asking you to feel bad for awhile. And, if you need me to, I’m happy to support you in doing so. Contrary to popular belief, feeling your feelings will make you healthier, stronger, happier and more content. Give it a try…. fill your fillings, gurl! Your tears and anger are welcome here!