Feelings aren’t facts is a useful slogan from the Al-Anon Program.* It was a revelation to me when I first heard this in my twenties. I had a lot of feelings in those days, more than I could handle. Hearing this slogan was an early step for me in learning how not to be ruled by my feelings in everyday life.
I always felt I had a right to my feelings. My father, who inspired many difficult feelings in me over the years, used to joke that I was always concerned with justice. I suppose I said “It’s not fair!” a lot. Lots of things weren’t fair when I was a kid. I was the youngest of four, and constantly trying to keep up. I have no idea how a parent makes things “fair” with four kids—I have a hard enough time doing it with two. But somehow kids always want everything their siblings get, and a little more. Which isn’t fair at all.
I’ve had trouble hiding my feelings in my life. I have never really wanted to, though of course it isn’t helpful to always show and/or express one’s feelings. I have been called bitchy, angry, emotional. I had to leave the Yale School of Drama because I was unable to hide my feelings of disdain for our admittedly talentless and incompetent playwriting instructor. Everyone felt this way about him, but they hid it. I couldn’t.
I have taken up social justice causes and other battles where my passion can be both a strength and a liability. My students admire my passion for my subject, but some also find me bitchy. (What word do they use? Not that one. Opinionated.) I have had supervisors advise me to smile more, and to make more of an effort to let students know I care about them. Doing this actually made me enjoy my job more, so it wasn’t such a bad thing, but are male professors told they need to smile more? Not be so opinionated? I don’t think so. I have gotten into tricky places with administrators by championing causes on behalf of faculty that were, shall we say, unpopular (threatening) to the powers that be. Now that I have achieved tenure and promotion to Full Professor, I no longer have to worry so much about students complaining in my teaching evaluations or administrators not promoting me. But learning to regulate my feelings, in order to make things work at my job, has made my life easier.
Is our culture’s idea of a mature woman someone like Jane Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, who takes her licks with grace and self-admonition? But we all like her sister Elizabeth better, who has flashes of temper and defies the status quo. (And in the end gets the best, richest, sexiest man.)
I don’t feel as deeply as I once did. I pass through most days without the severe ups and downs that used to make my life so exhausting. I am on a much more even keel. Sometimes I miss those moments of transcendence, those extreme highs, like being newly in love, or excited by the beginning of spring after a long winter. On the other hand, I experience deep, abiding contentment in a way that was completely unavailable to me before the age of, say, 35. I enjoy the weather, I look at the miracle of my family, I feel awe at how lucky I am. None of this passed through my psyche when I was younger. Along with those extreme highs came extreme despair, which I do not miss at all. Getting older provides this very nice benefit.
(And how can I not have the soundtrack of that stupid 70’s song in my head as I write this: “Feelings, wo-wo-wo feelings, wo-wo-wo feelings, feelings of love”? Sorry if I’ve now put it in yours.)
*Al-Anon is a support program for the loved ones of alcoholics.