About a month ago, my dog Atticus was diagnosed with cancer.
Tom, one of the vet clinic staff who adores Atticus, asked me about our visit when we left the examination room. I told him the bad news. Tom expressed his sorrow and asked, “are you totally about to burst into tears?”
Of course not, I said. I talked about how we all have to die sometime, about how great of a life Atticus has had, about how my anxiety about his health would have to be right at some point.
In other words I was completely denying any feelings I had in the moment. (In hindsight, I think I was just still in serious shock about the news.)
Over the next two days I was more or less a non-functioning mess.
What if I had continued the same nonchalant approach after leaving the vet’s office? Perhaps I might have said some of the following:
He’s just a dog, not my child.
We’ve all gotta die sometime.
No big deal.
When in fact this is a huge deal. Atticus has lived with me in two countries, two states, and accompanied me on countless adventures. Friends who know me, know my dog. I have essentially structured my life around him for the last 12 1/2 years—health issues and personality quirks and all. Raising my first dog was no small feat.
A month before Atticus’ diagnosis was confirmed, Tina Gilbertson released her first book, called Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings By Letting Yourself Have Them.
In the book, Tina talks about the detrimental effects of emotional constipation—not allowing yourself to have feelings. Tina’s discoveries began when she was an aspiring actor in Los Angeles:
I was thinking about a young woman in my [acting] class who was not only a talented actress, but also smart, funny, utterly charming, and easily twice as pretty as me. She was seriously cramping my style; I wanted to be the best actress, the “phenom,” in that class…
As I drove home from class that day, I was aware of vaguely ‘icky’ emotions trying to rise up inside me. I didn’t exactly know what I was feeling, I just knew it was bad. I didn’t want to feel bothered by the situation in acting class. But I was bothered…
Spontaneously, I decided to speak my feelings aloud.
Tina then discovered that the act of speaking and acknowledging her feelings helped her feel better. When she wasn’t struggling against the feelings, they didn’t have a secret control over her. She eventually detoured from her Hollywood aspirations and ended up becoming a counselor.
Tina’s book walks readers through various obstacles that might keep them from the process of acknowledging their feelings. Perhaps you’re your own worst critic, telling yourself that other people have it way worse (#firstworldproblems!) or that whatever you might be feeling is stupid or selfish. Using insightful analogies, she walks the reader through each obstacle with kindness, and even some wit thrown in.
And anyone who may be thinking that acknowledging your own feelings will turn you into a scenery-chewing Hamlet, it turns out that acknowledging your feelings is not the same thing as choosing your behavior. If your boss has taken credit for your work, it is enough that you understand how you feel about that—this book is not advocating that you tell your boss or coworkers how you feel, or retaliate by putting rat poison in his coffee.
Having feelings is quite natural, she says, and the message is even drawn out in the book design. Natural colors are used in the cover design that incorporates a rainy theme, with a raindrop-on-water motif sprinkled throughout the inside pages. Normally I’m less apt to notice book design, but the design choices in this book seemed to be supporting the overall theme.
As you can imagine, Atticus’ cancer diagnosis certainly gave me an opportunity to review and practice the book’s contents pretty quickly after I was finished reading! In the past I’ve certainly been guilty of holding things to the detriment of my own mental health, but this was one instance when it was almost a non-issue. The feelings just happened. Like Tina, I’ve found that for the most part, knowing how you feel is crucial to resolution.