A few years ago I wrote a column called “Can we all stop being so good?” The premise of the article was to recognize how habitual it is to respond “I’m good” to the question “How are you?” Many people related to that article and found value in it. We can all relate with the feeling of needing to be OK publicly so that we’re seen as, well, OK.
I was teaching a yoga class recently and asked everyone how they were doing emotionally (which I ask often). As you can imagine, there were blank looks and radio silence. So I explained how I was contending with my own anger and rage. I spoke about how I’ve learned that when I experience those emotions, I no longer think something is wrong with me. I explained that I understand that after years of bypassing my truth in order to be seen as a good, agreeable, or acceptable human, those emotions pop up quickly as a reminder that I need to listen to what’s happening in my body.
The wisdom that those emotions carry is: pay attention: question what are you doing because you think you ‘need’ to; think about how you silence yourself; figure out what is needed here; pull back and don’t react – digest. I used to think that those feelings meant that whatever was causing it was wrong, they were wrong, or I was wrong.
In reality, the anger is saying “I’m scared you’re going to abandon yourself,” and if you do, “I’m scared this other person/situation will abandon you. You can replace anger with any other emotion that feels troubling, such as anxiety, discontent, withdrawing, the desire to self-isolate, aggression, control, feeling like a victim, etc.
After years of therapy I understand that the emotion means that I need to slow down, not assume someone else has bad intentions or that I’m going to get hurt. It reminds me that I need to create space around the situation/person and look at the full picture, which means I need to look at why it feels so hard for me. Question why I feel like I might abandon myself.
After confessing that experience, I went around the room again, asking the same question. Most people still weren’t willing to go into my kind of detail, and I didn’t expect them to. I had simply wanted to open up space to be real; we’d already agreed we were all there to feel better.
Many people shared genuinely and allowed themselves to feel uncomfortable. When we arrived at one man’s turn, he said he was ‘good.’ I asked if he could use another word instead of good, after a moment he responded ‘stressed.’ Wow, it’s a big jump from good to stressed.
I commented that that was an amazing share because so many of us will settle in the ‘I’m good’ category instead of speaking openly about what is genuine. Or that it’s safer to respond simply than honestly. I think a lot of people would have a hard time identifying what they’re feeling because for a lot of us, we weren’t allowed to experience our feelings growing up, we were told to behave in order to be accepted. In this sense, ’behave’ means “don’t have your own emotions, just do what the people (adults) around you want you to do.” As adults we carry that message, and we expect that of ourselves and each other. You’re not allowed to feel, you have to stuff feelings away to be able to fit in.
Feeling is part of being you. We live in a society that projects constant images of perfection, which means it’s hard to be real because we genuinely know that being honest can put us in a precarious position.
Yet the question I ask myself is “What do I want the future to look like?” My answer is a kinder and more honest world: messy, not perfect. Messy doesn’t mean more conflict or people not taking responsibility for themselves, it’s just the opposite. If we’re brave enough to address ourselves with honesty, we are able to take responsibility for how we’re feeling. We stop projecting our pains outward and we stop blaming and shaming. That creates more peace for ourselves and others.
Perhaps trying to understand what you feel is your most profound and radical act. For most of us (if not all of us) this is activism, this is the first step to changing the world, this is love and kindness.
Maybe telling a group of strangers how you’re feeling feels stupid or scary, but just look at any recovery groups: the one thing they all have in common is that they ask a group of strangers to talk about the darkest parts of themselves. You know what happens here: they’re accepted for their honesty. They develop comfort and trust with others, and they grow.
You might not want to confess your shadows to strangers, but what if you confessed them to someone you know? If speaking truth to the people around you doesn’t feel safe, start with a counselor or therapist.
Confessing the anger and rage I’d been contending with in front of my class was cathartic, and I hadn’t intended it to be. But it provided immense relief from my hard emotions and ruminating thoughts. I was able to process, hear myself, and feel like the emotions weren’t going to consume me into my own darkness.
Maybe saying “I’m good” is camouflage, perhaps it’s protective, and other times it’s just how you are.
Food for thought