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All feelings allowed
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
All feelings allowed
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
All feelings allowed
Pass it on
Pass it on
Articles
26 April 2017

All feelings allowed

Why one doctor is thankful when people cry in his office.

Written by Matthew Roberts

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

What’s the first word most people in my medical practice say when they cry?

“Sorry.”

Sorry for what? For feeling something? For showing feelings? What kind of world makes us sorry for that?

More and more, I find myself prefacing advice to patients and families by saying: “You know, the world is a bit nuts…”

Not completely crazy, mind. Just a bit, but in some important ways.

It’s a bit nuts that to grow up, our children have to unlearn so much. It’s said all babies are scientists and all children are artists; yet by adulthood most are not.

Similarly, it’s a bit nuts that this doctor who chose medicine to become a healer had to unlearn large chunks of medical schooling in order to heal anyone properly. I had to relearn to use the word “heart” to mean the site of your deepest sense of self.

It’s a bit nuts that we have split feeling from reason, as if the feelings that don’t have obvious explanations aren’t allowed. We call those feelings irrational, silly, stupid, ridiculous. Yet some of the truest, finest words I hear at work or elsewhere are prefaced with “this sounds crazy but…”

We can do better, of course. I go to work each day believing we can make our world a bit less nuts, one heard person at a time, one healing family at a time.

There’s a hearing-healing triad that only humans can do, if only we remember to do it for each other:

Words

for

Feelings

amid enough

Trust.

Psychology literature has of course given us a lineage of wise voices with their different words for this–Freud, Klein, Bowlby, Stern, Fonagy and Siegel to name a few. I have had to learn to translate and distill all that, and this is the language that seems to reach people I want to help.

It seems to me that people heal when they experience being heard.

When someone you trust hears your words for your feelings and nods in understanding, they show you that they follow your story. They get it.

Sound simple? It’s also incredibly difficult. The listener too has their own feelings to find words for, trust to risk. And then there’s everyone else who’s involved! All those relationships interwoven–it’s complicated.

Relationships under stress particularly test our ability to find words for feelings amid enough trust. But I think that when we find such ability, that’s when we experience being heard, that the other person gets it. And that’s when I see suffering ease and people growing healthier.

I think health improves at this point because your mind and body know where those feelings go, filed as stories whose words keep the feelings somewhere safe and enduring. Somewhere a little out of the way so you can get on with things, but close enough by that you can navigate by the light of those stories you’ve filed. So you work out what to do. And live better.

That, by my lights, is healing.

To help people live better I take my heart to work and I seek people’s trust. Sometimes words come, sometimes not, but all feelings are allowed. This helps them move along, flowing through between us as evolution designed it. They’re signals, and like any signal when the message gets through, it fades, job done.

Meanwhile out in that bit-nuts world, unwanted signals build and are ignored, so they keep building and are met with yet more ignoring.

But eventually the signal bursts through and feelings explode into all sorts of messy actions which just can’t be ignored. However hard that may seem, there is a vital chance to learn in the mop-up, deep learnings which could help prevent future mess. Healing. This would be less hard for us in the long run.

Alas, most often we will mop up just enough to go back to doing what we were doing, requiring our patient teacher—history—to repeat and repeat until we get the damn point. It’s a bit nuts, all this learning the hard way. Yet while there is learning there is hope. Because there are signals to learn from, there is still hope.

I have learned so much from babies, the least crazy people in this world. Anyone who’s met and got to know a newborn knows that good or evil don’t start out within that little heart. They aren’t good or bad until we call them so.

For sleeping well and making less trouble for us adults a baby is called good. An angel, even! For struggling to settle, however, for taking us with them into their discomfort, a baby is often called some version of bad, like clingy or difficult. A little devil, even.

Is it any wonder we grow into adults who do the same thing to our deepest selves, to our oldest and most powerful feelings?

We keep and cuddle the feelings we like, we take happy snaps and selfies, we share them with the world. The feelings we don’t like we call difficult. We can shut them away, closing the door and waiting for the crying to stop. For extinction of the signal.

Extinction is the word for the cry that stops because hope finally ran out. Extinction of the cry completes the madness. Only then, when the crier has completely given up and gone quiet, is all hope lost and the world finally totally nuts.

So my hope for our species to avoid actual extinction hangs on a tear that’s allowed to run down a cheek without being wiped away and said sorry for.

That is why when someone cries in my office, in my heart I say thank you. Because somehow a person felt their cry could be heard.

At a moment like that I can feel that the world’s kind of crazy is a little more kind than crazy. And for that I am thankful.

This piece was originally published on My Doctor’s Handwriting.

Matthew Roberts

Dr Matthew Roberts trained as a perinatal psychiatrist: a medical specialist in mental health of pregnancy and early family life. In addition, he is a Fatherhood Clinician, a role he has developed to promote healthy fatherhood in all its stages.

Matthew is also a passionate writer and speaker, with journal publications as well as a blog, My Doctor’s Handwriting. A working musician and (most importantly) father of three, Matthew openly admits that he probably needs to meditate more.

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