Life Lessons Learned from Emotions

by Lucia Capacchione, Ph.D., A.T.R.

Growing up, we’re taught to judge and avoid certain emotions, such as anger, sadness, fear, depression and confusion. Sometimes emotions are forbidden based on gender: “big boys don’t cry,” “anger isn’t ladylike.” Families differ and cultures differ, but they all have one thing in common: certain emotions are frowned upon. Expressing these emotions leads to ridicule, punishment or being shunned. For survival’s sake, we learn to deny certain sets of feelings. In losing touch with our feelings, we lose touch with our true Selves.

Feelings are important for our physical survival and our mental and emotional health. For example fear of traffic (which we learned as children) alerts us to be cautious when crossing a busy street. Grieving and expressing our deep sorrow over the death of a loved one allows us to move on with our lives. Anger over abuse or injustice helps us protect ourselves, others or natural resources. A group of nature lovers in my community were angry at the thought of developers destroying a precious piece of the central California coast for their own profit. Our anger got translated into effective social and political action. We organized and eventually got funding to purchase the land and rescue it permanently from any development. The meadows, seaside bluffs and forest in Cambria are now in public trust and are there for all to enjoy. We learned that when anger is focused it can provide the fuel for dedicated action toward a desired goal.

Emotions are simply energy. When they are in motion “E(nergy) + motion” feelings move in and through us. Problems arise only when we judge certain emotions as unacceptable. First we are taught to hide those particular feelings from others. Then we numb ourselves and try not to feel those emotions anymore. We end up using our body parts as storage lockers for the emotions we don’t want to feel. A problem we are not facing becomes a “pain in the neck.” Extra and unnecessary responsibilities we take on become chronic shoulder pain, as in “carrying the weight of the world around on our shoulders.”

Visual journal keeping and expressive arts therapies are immensely powerful tools for embracing emotions as healers and guides. The arts are the language of feelings, dreams and all that is unconscious. If we want to find out which emotions have been hiding out in the body, the answers are as close as our hands. Take Pamela for instance. She enrolled in my journal class thinking she would be studying creative writing. She had some big surprises in store. I asked the students to write a dialogue with a body part that was in pain or discomfort. Pamela chose to converse with her sinus congestion, which she’d had for thirty years, since age five. Using my technique, Pamela, the adult, wrote with her dominant hand. Her sinus congestion printed with her non-dominant hand (the hand we don’t normally write with). When she began writing, Pamela was surprised to discover her five year old self “talking” to her on the page. Five years old! That was the age Pamela was when her parents divorced and left her to be raised by her grand parents. In doing this dialogue, Pamela remembered being told: “be a brave little girl, don’t cry.” She had obeyed and stuffed her grief in the part of her body where her “tears lived”: her sinuses. In class, Pamela shared her journal dialogue and told us that she had seen scores of doctors and had medical treatment and numerous medications with no lasting relief. While drawing and writing this journal assignment at home, she said that thirty years of closeted grief had poured out in tears. Afterward, she realized she had never grieved the loss of her parents. After this deep emotional release her sinus condition cleared up permanently.

In recent years science has corroborated my discoveries dating back to the mid seventies when I was working with Pamela. Expressing emotions has the power to heal. The research of Dr. James Pennebaker and others has shown that writing about a trauma or illness actually strengthens the immune system and leads to fewer doctor’s visits. That is why I always recommend journal writing after any expressive arts activities, regardless of the medium being used. Putting our insights into words provides gives of practical guidance for everyday life.

Another example of lessons learned from emotions is Marsha. In an expressive arts workshop she danced spontaneously, painted and drew her feelings, journaled her insights. Since it was a non-threatening atmosphere with no judgment, Marsha felt free to express whatever feelings were coming up. While creating a clay figure of a woman she began sobbing. She had recently undergone a hysterectomy. Working with clay had brought to light a hidden grief: although was raising two adopted children and two step-children, she would never give birth to her own child. Releasing her emotions through this medium brought closure, peace, and a newfound energy. After that she gave birth to a new career and a new life.

We use graphic descriptions everyday to convey emotional states. We speak of having “the blues,” of being “at the end of our rope.” We refer to someone who “blew his top,” or was “red with rage.” It’s almost as if we are trying to paint word pictures of our moods. In expressive arts therapies, when we draw, write, dance, sculpt and dramatize emotions we match the medium to the mood. For example, clay is a wonderful material for releasing anger. Pounding and punching the clay allows us to celebrate our feelings and even be playful with them. Scribbling with crayons can help us get in touch with any number of emotions. The colors we choose and the kinds of strokes we make on the paper reflect back our true feelings. Tearing and cutting up pieces of paper for a collage can release feelings of fragmentation and confusion. Watercolor and pastels often draw out feelings of sadness. Artistic talent is not required, nor is any training in the arts. We are not trying to make Art with a capital A. Nor are we attempting to produce a pleasing product. Rather we are using art as a vehicle for emotional expression. In so doing, we use many of the same materials that pre-schoolers and kindergartners use.

Some people find that they can move their feelings out in spontaneous body movement. Again, there is no structure, no “steps” to learn. Todd attended a workshop where we did some movement therapy. He entered his feelings of fear by curling up into a fetal ball. After embracing his vulnerable, fearful self through movement, he allowed himself to unfold until he was standing tall, with confidence in himself. Todd told the group that as a boy he’d been terrified of showing weakness and fear. He’d been called a “sissy” whenever he’d let that part of himself show. After doing the movement expression, he realized that allowing himself to “have the fear” actually made him feel stronger in the long run. What a paradox! The body has its own inner wisdom and will speak if we let it.

Others discover that spontaneous musical expression gives vent to their unacknowledged emotions. Carlene bought a simple Mexican clay flute and began expressing feelings of loneliness after her marriage ended. She’d never studied music nor did she care to. She simply discovered that the flute “gave voice to feelings that were deeply buried, feelings she’d avoided through compulsive work,” as she put it. In her journal, dialogues with loneliness led her to solitude and a new sense of inner peace as a necessary balance to a busy professional life. She also discovered a deeper spirituality through contemplation and meditation. The arts are tangible creative outlets for emotions wanting to be expressed. If we follow arts activities with journal writing, we find deep insights and lessons for a more fulfilling life. At this point, emotions become our teachers.

Feelings are guides on the spiritual path. Even young children seem to know that the arts are healing. They scribble with crayons, pound on clay, paint their feelings out, dance and play make-believe with costumes and props as easily as they eat and sleep. Using the arts to heal our feelings, we celebrate the emotional Inner Child and the Artist Within. Talent and artistic skill are not required; this is not about fine art. The goal is to explore many forms of creative expression for the purpose of healing our emotional Selves, and have fun doing it!