Filtering Experience

Something I’ve long puzzled over is the balance between allowing myself to accept undesirable states of mind–fractious moods, low spirits, unmotivated inertia–while also not getting so wrapped up in these states such that I wallow in them. Well, I say I’ve “long” puzzled over this, but really, it’s only been in the last five years or so. Before that, there was no question of balance: it was simply unacceptable to admit to myself I was feeling grumpy or sad or lazy. These feelings were noted only long enough to cue an inner reprimand of, “snap out of it.” However, what this really meant was that I turned all of my energy towards not appearing grumpy or sad or lazy.

Of course, not admitting you feel a certain way doesn’t take away the uneasiness  of the feeling; it just buries it under layers of insulation so you don’t have to look at it. And as the layers grow thicker and thicker, the uneasiness gets further and further removed from its original source.  This is fine, in a way–it makes it possible to keep up the operations of day-to-day living without stopping to fall apart with every little shift in mood; it protects us from the immediate experience of sometimes overwhelming pain; it keeps life feeling manageable. More and more, I’m in awe of our capacity for self-preservation.

However, there is also a way in which this elegant coping mechanism can act as an inaccurate filter to my experience. With this filter in place, I carry a vague sense of “I’m wrong…somehow,” or “something is missing.” In the last few years, as I’ve attempted to live a more examined life , I’ve found that these feelings of vague uneasiness not only leave me feeling less connected to myself but also to others. At times, I’ve thought to myself, “I know that I am loved, but I can’t feel it”; I’ve had the sense that the person loved is not really me but, rather, the person I’ve represented myself to be, someone who’s pleasant and joyful and hard-working–if they could see what a mess I actually am, they’d see I don’t deserve their love.

It’s only recently that I’ve made the connection between this painful distance I feel from others and the distance I’ve put between myself and the feelings I can’t accept in myself. It’s only recently that I’ve been able to watch these deeply ingrained habits dig deeper ruts. It can be painful, being able to see the little tricks my mind plays more clearly–sometimes I feel as though I can see just clearly enough to watch myself run in circles without being able to intervene. However, another thing the past few years have taught me is that realizations are only the very first steps of a long, winding progression towards perceptible, lived changes. Habits that I’ve spent my entire life perfecting will take some time to chip away at and then break. And just as I can now more clearly see the mess underneath all the layers of politeness and artificial smiles and industrious activity, every once in a while,  I can also see little gaps between how I feel and what is laid out before me.


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