Whatever we don’t own, owns us.
~ Carl Jung
Among recovering people, and in the lexicon of nearly every therapist I know, the single most common word used to describe unfinished emotional business is:
It’s a good metaphor.
Actual shit is a waste product, what’s left undigested after our systems process nourishment.
Emotional shit is what’s left undigested after human beings process (or can’t process) emotional experiences.
Actual shit is smelly and unpleasant. So is emotional shit.
Actual shit, when it collects inside you, makes you very uncomfortable. So does emotional shit.
Releasing actual shit is an enormous relief. Ditto the emotional version.
The biggest difference between them is that most people instinctually know what to do with actual shit.
They know they need to expel it from the body on a regular basis. And they know that if they don’t they’ll get sick.
But many people don’t know that about emotional shit. They think the way to handle it is to hide it, keep it inside, store it up.
Then they don’t understand why they go around feeling shitty.
They’re emotionally constipated.
Constipation produces all sorts of symptoms, like anxiety and depression and anger and addiction. Also high blood pressure, headaches, backaches, gastrointestinal distress and exhaustion. Also arguments and violence and child abuse and divorce.
What has this all to do with what I call the inner Kid?
Because this is the main way inner Kids gets wounded.
We’re not born constipated. We’re born healthy little animals, able to trust what our bodies tell us and automatically expel waste products. Then in childhood we begin hearing messages like Quiet down and Big boys don’t cry or Don’t cry or I’ll give you something to cry about. Surrounded by giants on whom we depend for food, shelter, love and security, we have no choice but to follow such instructions.
And why, exactly, does emotional constipation make us feel shitty?
“When feelings are denied or kept inside there is typically a buildup of physical tension,” Paul Foxman explains.
An accumulation of such pressure leads to anxiety, due to fears of losing control emotionally. That condition also triggers anxiety because of its physiological similarity to the fight/flight response, which is normally associated with danger. Thus our personality creates a paradox in which we deny feelings to prevent anxiety but experience anxiety when we deny our feelings.
One more consequence of constipation is worth noting:
It makes it impossible to feel like an adult.
Being adult means being strong and healthy enough to be yourself. That includes being able to notice your feelings, even the smelly ones, and take responsibility instead of hiding them. Taking responsibility means learning to express feelings in appropriate ways, ways that leaving you feeling stronger, not constipated.
Hiding feelings is what kids do. So no matter how old we are, to the extent we feel compelled to hide our feelings from others, we are going to feel like kids inside.
Adults can, in the jargon of recovery, own their shit.
There’s more to adulthood than this one ability, of course. Owning your shit doesn’t automatically make you a grownup.
But you can’t start growing up until you start owning your shit.
Foxman, Paul. Dancing with fear: Overcoming anxiety in a world of stress and uncertainty. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1996.