The Beginning of Emotional Literacy

Navigating life after being forcibly jettisoned into singledom isn’t easy, and legions of people told me that I would look back at my divorce and see it as one of the best things that ever happened to me. Bullshit, I say. They were right, but I’m still calling bullshit. This, dear reader, is not something one should say to a grieving person. You may mean well, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

See, despite what you think you are saying, that little bit of “encouragement” feels like a twisted knife on so many different levels. A break of any kind (not just divorce) requires time to live in the moment, time to process the metaphysical trails of loneliness and grief. It is a state that is best handled with a mentality of “What does it mean to be here?” instead of “How the fuck do I get out of here?!”

Imagine if someone you love died unexpectedly. You are standing at the casket, lost in a hazy fog of confusion and sadness when a friend approaches you and says, “Hey, buddy, I know this is really tough right now, but eventually you’ll basically forget all about this person like they barely even existed in the first place! You won’t feel this sadness forever!” That’s basically what someone like me hears when someone like you tries to cheer me up. The thing is, we don’t want to forget all of it, even those of us who were ruthlessly abused for years like myself.

Do you think I enjoy thinking about my wife cheating on me with an architect twice her age and probably a sea of other men that I didn’t even figure out about? Nope! But part of remembering the good times means remembering the bad times. I’m always hesitant to use the words “good” and “bad,” but we will get into that in another post. For now, good and bad come with six of one and half a dozen of the other.

Most of us don’t want to see any part of our lives as mistakes, and I definitely don’t see the marriage with my ex as a mistake. It was hard, abusive, full of lies, and down-right toxic, and obviously, I would have preferred if things wouldn’t have had to go that way in order for me to be where I am now emotionally. For the first time in my damn life, I actually love myself though. It took recognizing that someone was trying to kill who I am in order for me to really value myself, and in that way, I owe everything to that marriage. Don’t get me wrong; I owe nothing to her. She basically took everything I had anyway. *shrug* I am grateful for the process though, because it was responsible for leading me down a path of self discovery.

At this point, I would agree with all those people who tried to encourage me. Yes, the divorce was a good life choice for me, but that was my call to make. It was just as likely that my decision could have been the most permanent, soul-crushing occurrence of my life (and oh boy, did it feel like it at times). They just happened to be right. After getting out of a relationship, so much of our life feels out of control, and having to hear other people tell us how we are going to feel seems all the more restrictive.

So, if you really want to help a grieving friend, let me give you some tips. Unless you are explicitly ask to do otherwise, just erase any phrase beginning in “You should…” “You could have…” “You are going to…” and “You will…” from your lexicon. It was hard enough for people like me to understand my present feelings, much less what I might be feeling in the future. The truth is, everything that we feel at any moment is valid. The thought processes that lead up to those feelings may not be accurate, but you can’t really be incorrect about something as subjective as raw emotions.

A curator walks up to a woman who is pensively staring at a Bruce Gray. “I could stare at his work all day too,” he says.

She smiles back for a moment, then returns her attention to the painting, “It’s just all the circles, I think.” She traces her finger through the air in front of the canvas, “See, so many intersections: colors cross with colors that cross into lines that cross into circles. And then, all those intersections start making new shapes. It makes me feel like Gray is really trying to see the big picture of his life as a network of desperate pieces that somehow fit together in some meaningful way.”

The curator blinks, “Well you won’t always feel that way,” then walks away.

Thoughts are pieces of art that we interpret through feeling. Sometimes, when I mention to people that I miss my wife in the sense that I miss the aspects of her that made me happy or brought value to my life, they look at me in complete bewilderment, especially if they know the finer details of the situation. I have even encountered someone with the audacity to tell me that I should, “hate her and everything she meant.” The fuq?

How about we stop telling people how they “need” to feel about things? What if (big thought coming) we just accept exactly how we feel in the moment and encourage others to do the same. Regardless of how troubling your emotions may feel, they are the distillation of your most authentic self at that moment. In other words, by denying your feeling or seeking to change them without changing your thought processes, you are just denying yourself the luxury of honing your emotional literacy.

I have been unexpectedly reconnecting with a friend from high school who used to post on her Instagram regularly that she didn’t understand why she felt so sad all the time after her and her long term boyfriend broke up. I could visibly see the emotional tension rising day after day, until she finally posted something equivalent to, “Well, fuck it.” Somehow, miraculously, as soon as she stopped berating her sadness and actually decided to actively accept it, her whole demeanor shifted. She discovered one of the most important lessons that one can learn in one’s journey of self-discovery; that is, all emotions are tools that help build the complete you. Yes, rage is important to accept. Fear is important. Sorrow, pain, loneliness, and defeat? Embrace that shit. Emotions are going to be there even if you ignore them. Actually, they are going to be there especially if you ignore them!

Do yourself a favor. Take emotional stock one day and try to understand physiologically what those feelings feel like. How does sadness make you feel? How does joy feel? Learning what those feelings do to your body is a great way to pinpoint exactly what you are feeling. Let’s say you get a pang in your heart and a tightness in the chest. Boom! Instantly, I know that is anxiety for me, and I can start trying to backtrack through the thoughts that lead me to feeling this way. Once I do, I can thank my old friend Anxiety for showing up and trying to alert me of something. I can shake his hand and tell him that I got it from there. Then he is free to stay or go when he pleases, and I can go about my day without having to worry about worrying.

I works. Don’t take my word for it.

Anyway, why am I rambling about that? I am rambling because a lot of the time the emotional advice that others give to us is so incredibly unhelpful. Personal emotions are so nuanced that it is impossible for someone else to process them for us. We have to do the heavy lifting on our own. By learning to flag emotions, understand why they are there, and accept them as important pieces of ourselves, we no longer feel the need to rely on the guesswork of our well-meaning peers.

This is the first step towards emotional literacy: autonomy. It is a real, “I think, therefore I am” kind of realization, but I would make an addendum to that statement. I would say, “I think, therefore I feel that I am.” I say that it is just about time that people start waking up to the fact that each individual is complete, and each of our personal experiences are valid. The sooner we start accepting the responsibility of feeling like a ghost, the sooner one can begin to feel human.

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