I went to bed just after 1.00am, but I woke up before 7.00am. I’m not sure why. It was possibly related to a strange dream I had that mixed my previous job with the shul (synagogue) where I used to volunteer and a bit of my current job. I felt tired, but I knew I wouldn’t go back to sleep. I lay in bed for a while, thinking and trying to understand my emotions.
This seems like a good time to talk about the way I have been trying to cope with my alexithymia (inability to feel and understand emotions), as I know there is at least one person reading who also suffers from it. (I should say that I’m somewhat self-diagnosed. At least, my therapist noted that I have difficulty understanding my emotions, but she didn’t know there was a technical term for it.) I have only been trying this method for a week or so, and it is something I improvised for myself rather than having learnt it from someone else, but it seems to be helping, so here goes.
When I have a strong emotion, rather than be scared of it or try to repress it or even to wallow it, I simply try to describe to myself what I am feeling and accept the feeling as a feeling, nothing more or less. So, this morning I was lying in bed, wishing I had a wife to snuggle up to. In the past, I would have felt guilty for this and tried to repress it or else wallowed in it and made myself feel lonely and frustrated at my apparently permanently single state. But today I simply told myself, “I wish I was snuggled up with my wife.” I think I may have described a bit the warm feeling I thought this would give me. Then I just accepted the feeling and sat with it, neither feeling guilty nor wallowing in loneliness.
So far I have mostly been using this method to deal with the feelings of loneliness and sexual frustration that overwhelm me so much of the time. I haven’t tried it so much with the depression because it is hard to remember that I can do this when I feel very depressed. Nor have I tried it with the violent ‘pure O’ OCD thoughts because I haven’t had many of those this week. An example of these thoughts would be when I am waiting at the train station and imagine jumping in front of the train as it comes in. This is a common thought for me and I think it is an OCD fear rather than a suicidal/depressive fantasy. I don’t really want to jump in front of the train, I just worry that I will do so. What I hope to think when I have these kinds of thoughts in the future is, “I am afraid that I will jump in front of the train” and sit with the fear, rather than panic that I am actually going to jump in front of a train one day or wallow in suicidal fantasies.
It is useful to me just to put a label on my thoughts and feelings. For so much of my life, I have not really understood what I have been feeling or why. I have usually been scared of my feelings, particularly strong sexual or angry feelings, which I feel I should repress for religious reasons. In fact, Judaism generally teaches that our inner drives and emotions are neither good nor evil. Good and evil applies to our actions rather than our emotions. Although there are different ideas about dealing with emotions, Judaism generally teaches that all our emotions have at least the potential for goodness, otherwise God would not have created them. It is up to us to decide to use them in a responsible and ethical way. With some exceptions, the rabbis did not generally feel that negative-seeming emotions can actually be repressed indefinitely. One Hasidic rabbi was asked by his student how to “break” his desire for a particular sin. He responded “you can break your back, but you won’t break a desire.” Instead, he counselled sublimating the feelings in more positive activity. For instance, lust can be used to build a loving and nurturing relationship with a spouse, while envy and greed can be used to spur us to greater meaningful achievements. Even hatred, the most negative emotion, can be used to hate injustice and suffering and work to end it.
I don’t know why I have suddenly started being able to do this. Some of it probably comes from years of my therapist asking what I am feeling and trying to get me to label my emotions in therapy. I suppose that this is a good time of year to be doing this, inasmuch as the period between Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot (Pentecost) is a time favoured for personal growth in Judaism, being the period between the exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Mount Sinai when the Israelites worked on their character traits to be ready for the giving of the Torah.