Emotion Is Not A Character Flaw

Emotion is Not A Character Flaw - amber et cetera

This is a really vulnerable, raw post. I originally put it on Facebook but thought it belonged here. Some of you might call it oversharing. I don’t care. It’s my blog. If you aren’t into that kind of thing or it makes you uncomfortable, you probably want to skip it.

I just had a conversation today with my sister Dyan where she said something very wise, and something I have long believed.

I’m having a tough time right now.

And yet, we don’t make it very acceptable for that to be the truth for people.

We aren’t graceful when someone is hurting. We want to fix it or make them fix it, tell them why they shouldn’t feel that way, tell them why all the evidence points to other feelings they should have, preach things like perseverance and overcoming and not letting things get you down.

We tell them to suck it up and go to the gym anyway because that’s being strong. Or to “gut through” the pain. Or to “man up” and get to work. To be fierce or strong or anything but broken. Because we are horribly uncomfortable around broken people.

We glamorize people who are “unstoppable”, revere the seemingly invincible people that are never brought down, by anything. So what happens when we’re stopped dead in our tracks?

One important thing I have learned from therapy: our hearts don’t learn by force. They don’t respond to direction. They have to *relearn* and live through emotions in order to make sense of them, in context. We can know something intellectually, but it might take our hearts some time to catch up.

Telling someone they “should” or “need to” feel a certain way – like the well-meaning “oh but you have all the reasons in the world to feel happy/confident/at peace” – is insensitive at best and dismissive at worst, making someone feel guilt and shame over emotions they can’t control with a switch and most certainly didn’t ask for.

This isn’t license for all of us to endlessly surrender to our emotions and use them to excuse our behavior. Nor do I believe that you can forever hang around someone who is unwilling to help themselves or work through the difficult times, even when it’s messy.

Instead, it’s a plea for patience during that process. For understanding that emotions are on a spectrum. For grace for people when they’re having a tough day or week or month. It’s an ask for us to let it be okay for someone to hurt without having to compare our hurt to theirs in order to “give them perspective”. It’s a request that we sometimes hand someone the tissues, offer a hug, and assure them that there is light on the other side, and that they’ll find it in their own time.

We hate the unrealistic body images that the media has fed us for years. Maybe we ought to dislike the unrealistic emotional pictures we’ve been handed, too.

I think we’d all be more at ease with taking a mental health break from our days or lives — without defending it or needing endless validation that it’s okay to do it — if we’d just accept this need for healing the way we would if someone broke their leg, and practice compassion instead of suspicion or derision when someone hurts.

Sometimes, difficult emotion is a plea for attention. A very real, human act of seeking comfort in the strength that someone else has while you don’t. It’s okay to give it. It’s okay to need it. It’s okay to not have it all figured out today, to sink into the pain and just say “this really hurts right now, and it sucks.”

We have so demonized the idea of seeking attention and validation that it’s become a character flaw to do so, ever. Which is heartbreaking to me.

Because I personally feel the pain of rejection when someone ignores my hurt or refuses to reach out because it might somehow enable me wallowing in a pit of self-pity. I feel the shame when I default to swallowing the feelings, if only so that someone else doesn’t think I’m weak, or pathetic, or dramatic, or ‘out of control’. I lie and make excuses about why I’m not at the gym today because it’s simply not okay to skip being awesome today in favor of being in pain.

And it all eats me up inside.

I’m not a negative person by default. But when my negative emotions aren’t dealt with well by me and aren’t given grace by those around me, they dominate my world. We are consumed by what’s unresolved in our lives. And there’s precious little room for the joy to sneak through the cracks in between. We only have so much energy to give.

Broken feelings and emotions are real, too. Tough love isn’t always the way to help them find their way back to okay. We’re not doing ourselves favors by insisting that a brave face is the cure for a damaged spirit.

And I’m starting with me, because it’s the only place I have. You can unfriend or unfollow or unsubscribe if you like. You can choose not to be my friend. It’s absolutely your right to choose the company you keep. But I am learning to give myself compassion first, and that my emotions are not things to be ashamed of, even when I don’t understand them.

Being real about our hurt and our struggles is the only way back to our humanity. Being kind to others when they hurt is the key to our own grace. And allowing emotion and compassion to be a beautiful part of the human condition instead of a terrible flaw is our first step to living less pain.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

That means being kind to yourself, too.



  • Summer Joy

    So good Amber. I have no problem admitting pain or a tough time in the right company. I reserve that look into my life for those who care enough to listen and to offer compassion. Not everyone in my life has earned that place or the privilege to see me when I’m vulnerable…and I’m ok with keeping an arms length.

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      Summer, no question. Pain is an intimate thing, most of the time. It’s totally okay to keep it where it’s comfortable for you. I’m okay with sharing generalized “I’m hurting”, but the specifics are often reserved for those I trust most. I find, however, that even those closest to you can expect more from your emotional journeys than you can reasonably give. So we all need to understand how to better support the people we love when they’re struggling.

  • Kristy Bell

    Amber, this is one of the most incredible, beautiful, haunting things I have read in a very long time. You have a true gift as a writer. Thank you for sharing. Your words will stick with me and, hopefully, change me.

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      Thank you so much, Kristy. I appreciate your being here.

  • http://www.renewabelle.com renewabelle

    is the 14-year anniversary of my mom’s suicide. She was often called
    “strong” and “unstoppable,” too. I can’t help but believe that the guilt
    you mentioned plays a big part in the prolonging of and actionable
    expansion of clinical depression. That’s not to say it’s anyone’s “fault,” but it identifies an opportunity we all have when our friends are hurting…

    and love are the best gifts for ailing friends. They don’t need to be
    “fixed.” They just need to know they’re not alone and that you’re there
    for them. No conditions needed. <3

    (hugs and thanks to you, Amber — you *know* I've got your back)

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      I can’t even imagine what you went through then and go through every day, missing her. I’ve got your back too. Thanks for reading and for sharing such a personal experience.

  • deannamcneil

    That’s an interesting phrase you use: “…we are horribly uncomfortable around broken people” It’s only fair to add that we are all ‘broken’ (the basic definition of imperfect), so acknowledging that someone has a more profound & complex set of things to cope with that someone else may not understand is really what is happening. We each do well to take the lead in loving ourselves, showing others how it is done so that we may receive what we most need: compassion.

    I love reading your thoughts and somehow lost track of you in the thunderous noise of Twitter. Your being yourself helped draw me back to your writing. Rock on Amber!

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      Of course you’re right, we’re all broken to some degree. Maybe what I mean is that we’re uncomfortable in the moments when that’s acutely visible. I think we like to joke about it, but when we look hard at it, we have trouble knowing how to cope with it. But you’re right about loving ourselves, which is one of the hardest things to do.

  • Ian

    Amber, I so appreciate your honesty and vulnerability. The strange thing is that for many of us we’re the one’s not exercising grace towards ourselves when we’re experiencing a tough time. “C’mon Ian stop letting such and such bother you. Man up, blah, blah, blah.” So because we’re not kind to ourselves in this way, we probably don’t seek to share much with others.

    I’m still learning to be kind to myself. It’s posts like yours that help me do that. So thank you for extending grace to others in sharing this post.

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      That’s very true, Ian, and has been something I’ve been working very hard on in therapy. Giving myself grace has not been on my agenda. Not because I’m some sort of martyr or selfless something, but because I fundamentally didn’t know how. Somewhere along the way I confused selfishness and self-compassion. And now I’m learning to do that, from scratch.

      Perhaps one of the reasons we’re usually ungraceful with others is that we’re not predisposed to be that way with ourselves, so the feeling itself is totally foreign to start with.

  • http://www.kaarinadillabough.com Kaarina Dillabough

    We are all wabi-sabi, and to quote Leonard Cohen:
    “Ring the bells that still can ring
    Forget your perfect offering
    There is a crack in everything
    That’s how the light gets in.”

    And yet another, from Amanda Marshall: If only we all realized that “everybody’s got a story” and stop the wrong assumptions

    Here in friendship:) Kaarina