By Marion Woodman
Inner City Books, 1990
This book is about the different powers of the feminine and the masculine, and the unconscious suppression of both. It is not about the stereotypes of males and females. Marion Woodman does a marvelous job of defining the difference between the words feminine and female, and male and masculine. If these terms resonate with you, this book can be extraordinarily helpful in clearing up fuzzy thinking around them (they are often used, incorrectly, as synonyms). But that’s not what I’m writing about. I am, instead, cherry-picking a few delicious paragraphs about the power and importance of emotions.
Woodman observes that “feeling is not valued by the industrial and post-industrial macho machine that drives Western civilization. Women as often as men … end up dismissing their authentic feelings as ‘naive, illogical, stupid’. This is profound self-betrayal.” I agree, it can indeed be a profound self-betrayal. However, that betrayal can serve an aspect of the self quite well. A person who has denied their personal emotional veracity may be protecting extremely painful wounds. So instead of actually feeling the emotional torment, the mind steps in and blocks the emotions by rationalizing the feelings away or belittling them. (And by the way, emotional pain can come from any emotion. For many feeling joy is terrifying, hope is excessively dangerous, or connecting with anger can be too, too threatening; what happens if that monster is unleashed?).
But whatever the reason, dismissing, ignoring, devaluing, or denying authentic feelings winds up betraying a profound part of the self; our original, uncluttered, pure self. Finding that buried part of ourselves is a process of healing that allows one to experience a more soulful and heartfelt life. This is the healing that finds its way into our irrational fears (which are often the unconscious embodiment of the original trauma) and can define those fears, bring them into the world of consciousness, and disempower them. Woodman asserts that “when pain or grief or anger are recognized and given space to express themselves, raw instincts transform. Like animals who are loved, they bring their wisdom into our lives and guide us where we would not dare to go alone. They know what we do not know.”
I had never considered that processing raw emotions would transform raw instincts. But the more I think about it, the more I see it. A Google search defines instincts “as a natural or intuitive way of acting or thinking”. What started out as a natural way of thinking or acting can be warped by being fed too much pain (I am using the words pain and trauma interchangeably). And one of the most basic, natural instincts is the primal one that makes us want to stay alive. Generally, pain serves us by telling us something is unsafe or threatening: you put your hand in the fire and get burned, so you learn to not do that, or you scorch your beautiful, sensitive tongue on tea that’s too hot, so you adapt your behavior and blow on the tea to let it cool a bit before taking another sip. The same instincts work emotionally. If you were neglected as a child, you adapt your thinking so as not to expect kindness, and worse you internalize that you don’t deserve love, that you don’t matter. In this instance, the defense of blocking hope may keep you alive. The hope once felt natural, now feels wrong, or embarrassing, or shameful. Those emotions do a great job of saying stop feeling! In that moment, the moment of the trauma occurring, or the moment when the old wound festers, the most prudent strategy may be dissociating, especially if you are in a situation that overwhelms or overpowers you. However, escaping mentally is not a cure. As we dissociate from trauma, we are still actively affected by that trauma. The natural part of ourselves has learned to hide or modify itself to stay alive and survive the intolerable pain. An effective and worthwhile defense at the time the trauma is occurring, but less than perfect for connecting us with our original, natural propensities and intuition.
Once we have found some sort of a safe haven, we can start the work that will allow us to reveal our natural instincts. It is important to acknowledge that a feeling of safety is different for everyone; for some, it can be the geographical distance from the perpetrator, for others a supportive human, for others a powerful dream that won’t let them stay in the same muck any longer, etc. I have a dear old friend who was finally able to grieve the loss of her son who passed over 40 years ago after her beloved dog died recently.
There is a vital caveat to emotional healing. It is not just about feeling willy-nilly. I have seen many patients who seem to feel everything, and take it all very personally. For some, there is a lack of emotional regulation and/or emotional intelligence. The result being that they continually suffer, but never really deal with the source of suffering. Where do you start if everything is perceived as a crisis? Woodman has considered this situation and cogently states: “The childhood trauma is driven into the unconscious and, therefore, disconnected from feeling. The person may cry hysterically for hours but because the crying is not connected to the cause of the crying, the trauma in the body is not released.” (Woodman, along with many others, myself included, believe that emotions and trauma are held in the body.) So the caveat is that the work is not only about being able to vitalize emotions but more importantly to find the door that connects the feeling to the trauma. It is not necessarily reliving the trauma, but more about allowing oneself access to the pain that the trauma created. As anti-intuitive as that sounds (remember the hot tea that taught us to not burn our tongues again?) the healing comes from walking into the pain so it can be respected, processed, and released.
This healing process can finally allow us to reconnect with the natural instincts that had been buried under intolerable pain. As we welcome our raw instincts, our raw and natural self, we can transform ourselves. We can live a life that up ‘til now had been unlived. By trusting our instincts, we are allowing them to “bring their wisdom into our lives and guide us where we would not dare to go alone. They know what we do not know.”