Emotional Fitness
discovering our natural healing power
by Janice Berger


My brother died. Ten years later, I began to say good-bye. Ron was my only sibling, but I did not have time to grieve. Within thirty-six hours of the plane crash that took his life I gave birth to my second son, Paul. I missed the visitation and the funeral, the sharing of experience through talk and touch that would have helped me begin to heal. Instantly my time was filled with caring for a new baby and seventeen-month-old Karl, helping my parents cope with their loss, and supporting my husband, who took over my brother's business. There was no time for me.

I experienced only brief release for my grief: the unbidden and sudden tears whenever I heard Ron's favourite song "You Are My Sunshine," the embarrassing tears whenever I met someone who spoke of him, the lonely tears as I walked my newborn in the middle of the night.

The loss of my brother was not my first encounter with the death of someone important to me. When I was a young girl my grandfather, who often used to take only me to the movies, died. There was the war: my much-admired cousin was killed in combat; a family friend was killed in a practice manoeuvre; another cousin was taken prisoner of war. Neighbours, friends, and my family looked grim, and I was scared. Although it was acknowledged that I might have troublesome feelings about these events, my family did not know how to give me the room and support to feel and express my feelings. I did not know I needed to feel so much more so I shut down my feelings and just carried on.

At age seventeen, well past those anxious years, my dear friend Johnny died violently in a motorcycle accident. My friend's mother said, "Johnny wouldn't want you to cry." Again, nobody knew how to give me support so that I could grieve enough - weep and sob, even rage, until I did not need to do it any more.

Feeling fully was contrary to my conditioning. I have come to know that feeling all that happens to us is the key to letting go and to being fully alive. I have come to understand that this is our natural emotional healing power that exists to keep us emotionally fit. Knowing this has made such a difference in my life.

I needed to grieve my brother's death and feel my loss. I needed to deal with - that is, feel - all the unfinished business from my relationship with my brother: my resentment that Ron had never let me into his life, my anger and hurt from the times he had punched my arm or belittled me, my anguish because he did not really like me, my sorrow that we were just getting to know each other when he died. I needed, as well, to feel the sadness evoked by the earlier loss of a beloved friend and I needed to grieve all the losses, small and large, that I had been unable to feel completely.

The opening to my own emotional life came through my desire to be a good parent. My earlier traumas had begun to reveal themselves in telling moments with my children. I would be irritable but would not really understand why. I remember my excitement when I discovered Thomas Gordon's Parent Effectiveness Training. Gordon talks about labelling feelings so that we can express them. I began to label my feelings specifically: hurt, disappointment and frustration, for example, not just amorphous irritability. When I did this I began to know what was bothering me. It was only then that I could do something about it. Labelling my feelings began to open me up to myself.

Through my reading of Arthur Janov I began to acknowledge my overreactions and my underreactions - what Janov calls "hallmarks of neurosis." I needed help to deal with the feelings that were surfacing. I was fortunate to be directed to Dr. Mary Lou McIntosh, whose practice focused on deep emotional processing.

My life began to change. I began to feel deeply the loss of my brother, not only as an adult when he died, but the loss I had suffered as a little girl when I put so much need on my older brother who did not like me at all. I put my need on Ron because my father was largely absent from my life. Ron disliked me and acted out on me because no one was hearing how he really felt when this little sister intruded into his life. Completing emotions that belonged to past incidents allowed me to integrate my experience rather than keep it split off from my awareness. In my therapy I relived both lesser and greater traumas in my life, I felt and connected with my repressed emotions and as a result I was able to feel more fully in the moment. I learned that feelings whatever they may be deserve a lot of room. I was opening to the potential of my life.

This has continued to be an ongoing process for me: listening to my feelings, feeling again and again their impact on me, giving them space. When I am filled with feelings that will not go away, feelings that want to stay around, I am able to recognize that these feelings are likely supported by pain from my past. With this understanding I am able to continue to complete feelings and become clearer about my life in the present.

In my twenty-five years as a therapist I have been privileged to know many courageous people who have enhanced their lives, often dramatically, when they were able to risk change by allowing themselves to feel. I have come to understand that emotional health and a sense of freedom within are possible for those who wish to take the time necessary to connect with themselves and the truth of their lives - a simple process, but not an easy one.

In recent years the physical and sexual abuse of children has received considerable attention, yet the more subtle damage children suffer - emotional abuse and various degrees of neglect - has not been acknowledged for what it is. I have had many clients who feel ashamed because they believe their abuse was not severe enough to result in the problems they are having. One client was besieged with self-doubt and could connect this feeling to his mother's insidious put-downs but said, "It's not as if she took a belt to me or anything." I asked, "Would you deny your injuries if you were hit by a car, not a Mack truck?"

We misunderstand our suffering; we perpetuate pain by trying to avoid feelings instead of going into and through them. The simple question "How are you?" could be so helpful, yet it rings insincerely and expects no answer. The question "How do you feel?" is seldom asked. Perhaps we do not ask because we are afraid of the response; we would have to be courageous to listen to what we are afraid to hear.

How much healthier we would all be if we could ask each other, "How does that make you feel?" and listen to the response.

Our culture teaches us to ignore our emotions and our real needs, even to be ashamed of them. Instead we are offered false solutions, hints of higher self-esteem if we consume. Television advertisements lure us to believe we can find joy in the purr of a new sedan, fulfillment in a pot of spaghetti sauce and adventure in a bottle of beer. For pain we have a choice of pills. But imagine instead if we could alleviate our stomachache by connecting to the anxiety producing this discomfort. Imagine discovering that we could lessen the pain in our shoulders by feeling through all the "shoulds" we carry there. There are many benefits to this process: being able to be ourselves with our spouse, having a bit of self doubt from time to time but not being overwhelmed by it, not needing to self-righteously judge others, feeling clear to make choices.

There is no mystery to psychotherapy, nor do we necessarily need to go into therapy to access our natural healing power. I ask my clients, "What was that like for you?" and I listen. We can ask ourselves such questions as "How do I feel about that?" "What do I need?" "When have I felt like this before?" and pay attention to our gut response. Whether we do it on our own or with a skilled therapist in intensive therapy, the movement toward emotional fitness begins in the same way: we learn to feel our emotions fully, connect with their roots and take the risk of accepting the responsibility to change our behaviour in order to honour our self. The more we achieve this, the less energy we use holding our feelings, pretending and hiding our true selves.

The process of completing held feelings by feeling them as fully as possible instead of repressing them is the way we "let go." Although this may be challenging and is certainly not a quick fix, I have a profound belief in the potential of all people to move toward wholeness. I have worked with many individuals who have shown enormous courage as they have changed their lives despite great odds. I have seen the power of the human spirit.

I believe our lives can be different. We can feel more alive and centred in ourselves. It is possible to learn to access and facilitate our own natural emotional healing power.

This book is the fulfillment of my desire to open doors for everyone willing to take responsibility for their own healing and willing to risk taking steps toward positive change.
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