A few years ago, I noticed a new trend. Not in pop culture or fashion, but in me. While watching some banal animated movie with my kids or listening to a song I’d heard a thousand times, I would get choked up. And although it was usually in response to a fairly touching scene or powerful line, my reaction still seemed excessive. Seeing a cartoon character go through trying times or hearing “Lightning Crashes” didn’t use to have this kind of impact on me. So what was going on?
As time passed, I paid more attention to this tendency, specifically how I dealt with it. The short version is that I did what most guys and alpha-type personalities do - ignore and repress. Which is to say, I resisted crying at all costs. It’s certainly what I felt like doing, but I was too embarrassed. Even sitting somewhere by myself, I didn’t succumb to this urge. Given a choice between expression and suppression, I almost always picked the latter.
During this same period, I also had some of my worst days mentally and physically from a chronic illness perspective. In mid-2018, I came home from the gym once, entered the front door, collapsed to the ground, and began shaking and crying uncontrollably. As I lay there having something resembling an epileptic seizure, my wife laid her hands on me and whispered a prayer to herself until things finally subsided. My kids saw all this happen. I remember telling them afterward, “dad is sick, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get better.”
And just before Christmas in 2019, I hit my absolute lowest. It had been well over three years since my health had utterly crashed. After trying nearly every treatment I could find, I had gotten to the point where I thought any continued effort was futile. My cognitive function was steadily declining, and I was in so much pain. I was constantly terrified, depressed, and hopeless. One day, I broke down and started sobbing. Curled in a ball on the kitchen floor, I begged my wife to let me kill myself through streams of tears.
Luckily I didn’t take that course of action. And I also learned something of significance in the immediate aftermath of both incidents. By letting myself cry on those occasions (and I mean really wail), I had improved my predicament, even if only for a fleeting moment. What essentially amounted to a quick release of energy had been therapeutic not only from an emotional perspective but also from a physical one.
Founder of the neural retraining system The Gupta Program Ashok Gupta, refers to sensations in the body as “trapped emotions.” He goes on to say that emotions themselves are just “energy in motion.” Before my struggles, I would have dismissed such a statement as new age woo nonsense. But over time, I’ve come to believe this interpretation is probably accurate. I’ve seen it proven time and again with myself. Emotions can quite literally get locked in your tissues and cause you physical problems. After all, if you don’t let that energy out of your body it doesn’t just vanish, and it has to go somewhere.
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Unfortunately, western medicine doesn’t do much to address the energetic component of our existence. Instead, it treats humans like bags of chemicals, nothing more. I could go on a long tirade about the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries here, but I’ll save that for another time. For now, the main point I want to highlight is that despite our bodies being made of matter, they function with energy. Our brains communicate to our bodies via our nervous system using electricity. And if we neglect that fundamental fact of life, we will eventually run into trouble.
Of course, one of the obvious ways we demonstrate our electrical nature is through emotions, just like Gupta said. They are a powerful way our body tells us to release energy. And we have no problem conveying most of them. We are certainly not embarrassed to laugh regardless of the company we keep. But conversely, we don’t always listen to somatic cues of sorrow. I grew up in a house that didn’t shame boys for crying, but I still felt like it was somehow inappropriate, especially as an adult. I don’t know if it was my chosen profession or something else. But for the longest time, my go-to response to any impulse to shed tears was resistance, because crying wasn’t anything I needed to do.
However, the relief I felt after breaking down on those dark days made me start to think otherwise. But it wasn’t until I attended a retreat in Costa Rica in 2021 that I truly understood the depth of this problem for me. Over the course of five days, through various methods of self-exploration, I spent hours crying on multiple occasions. And this wasn’t quiet sniffling. It was loud, visceral, unabashed bawling that came in waves and felt like a workout. I found myself having to catch my breath in between “sets.”
The proximate cause for such an abundant emotional release was just simple thoughts:
You’ve been beating yourself up too much.
No one is judging you other than you.
Just be happy with what you have.
None of that seems profound at face value. But if I dig in, all of it was tied to years of repression. Enough trapped energy to power a city. So after that experience, I started to pay much closer attention to the hints I was getting from my body. I no longer recoiled if some silly YouTube video started tugging at my grief. Granted, it can still be uncomfortable to break down in public. And I’m not suggesting that anyone goes through life as a blubbering mess. The key is to notice what’s happening and figure out how to dissipate your energy on your terms.
A perfect example happened to me just a few weeks ago. On Father’s Day, my family took me to see Top Gun: Maverick. Settling in for the opening scene, I was excited. I’d heard great things about it, and the original movie is what sparked my interest in joining the Navy when I was only ten years old. What I didn’t expect was the torrent of emotion I would undergo for the two hours that followed. I spent the entire time choking back tears. I still don’t fully understand precisely why. I think there was something about the arc of the eponymous lead character that was reminiscent of the last twenty-five years of my own life, even though I didn’t become a fighter pilot.
However, I don’t think it’s necessary for me to psychoanalyze my reactions. What was much more critical was recognizing the neon sign flashing before my eyes that said, “release this energy.” Regardless of what I’d repressed in years past, my body was telling my mind that here was an opportunity to let it out. As I’ve stated before, I tend to get pretty loud when I “go there,” and I didn’t want to disrupt anyone else’s enjoyment of the film. So I managed to keep the cork in the champagne bottle just enough while in the theater, knowing I could pop it off soon thereafter. And luckily, we’d driven two cars. As we walked through the parking lot, I asked my kids to ride home with their mom instead of me. I got in my truck and bawled behind the wheel for fifteen minutes. And as before, I felt immediately better. Lighter.
I don’t know how much more of this is in me. Maybe a lot. Maybe none. Whatever the case, I do know this approach is working. I’ll rewatch things that would make me teary-eyed months ago, and they no longer have the same effect. Those emotions are now processed. And if more come along, I now know how to deal with them, and I’m no longer ashamed to do so.
It may sound like hyperbole but learning to cry literally saved my life, at least in part. Please don’t make the same mistake I did for so long. Chances are, something triggers your sadness response. Don’t hold back or resist. Listen to your body. Sequester yourself in private if you must, but lean in.
Remember, emotions are just energy in motion. Turn on the power and let them flow.
So on point and once again, your words ring true. Thank you for sharing your personal story that we can all learn from.
Ignoring the emotional energy is something I did for a long time, however now I work on NOT ignoring it.
Work in progress is better than no progress.