As anyone who’s been to San Francisco knows, if you walk around the city for a while, you’re sure to meet some colorful characters. I met one such person the other day in a park. She was middle-aged, and she wore a rainbow-colored dress embroidered with hearts and llamas. I guess I was smiling, because she approached me and yelled “stop! You’re under arrest for smiling without a license.” And she laughed and ran off.
On one level, what she said was just amusing. I don’t need a “license” to smile, or to feel or express any emotion. I can legally smile for any reason or no reason at all. On the other hand, her words contained profound insights into the way we experience and manage our emotions.
When we tell someone we’re feeling a certain way, their typical response—if they care how we’re doing—is to ask “about what?” In other words, people ask for the reason why we’re having the emotion. If you tell them you don’t know, or that you don’t have a rational explanation for feeling the way you do, they’ll probably become concerned. They’ll worry that you’re drunk or high on some drug, or perhaps even that you have a mental illness. Or maybe they’ll question your “right” to feel the way you do, as in when friends or loved ones tell you “you don’t have a right to be angry about that.”
We tend to have the same attitude toward ourselves when we experience an emotion we can’t explain. We shame ourselves for feeling that way, calling ourselves irrational and childish. “Come on, there’s no reason to feel bad,” we say to ourselves when sadness arises. “You have so many good things in your life.” Or, if we’re feeling “too good,” we’ll criticize ourselves for being “unrealistic” or “pollyannaish” about the state of our lives.
How did we develop this need to “justify” our emotions to ourselves and others? In our early childhoods, we didn’t have this need. We would feel spontaneously joyful, sad, angry and so forth, and we wouldn’t suppress those feelings simply because we couldn’t explain them.
Probably, our need to rationalize our emotions stems from the way our parents disciplined us as children. When they didn’t like the way we expressed our emotions, they’d demand an explanation for why we were acting the way we were. “Why are you being so loud?” they’d ask. “Why are you bouncing off the walls like that?” “Why are you going so crazy?” And so on.
When our parents made this sort of request, they didn’t actually want us to explain why we had the emotions we did. They were upset about the way we were expressing our emotions, not our lack of justification for feeling them, and demanding explanations was their way of voicing their annoyance. But our young minds didn’t understand this, and we concluded that our parents didn’t want us to have emotions we couldn’t logically explain. To appease our parents, and to make sure they kept loving and protecting us, we started shaming ourselves whenever we’d have a feeling we couldn’t rationally justify. And that habit stuck with us into adulthood.
Unfortunately, when we shame ourselves for having an emotion and repress it, it doesn’t go away. It stays in our bodies, and creates distraction, fatigue, tension in our muscles and other uncomfortable sensations. Our habit of denying ourselves permission to experience emotions unless we can rationally explain them—of, in a sense, arresting ourselves for feeling without a license—is actually harmful to us.
If you feel that you have this habit, I invite you to try an experiment. The next time you feel an emotion coming up with seemingly no relationship to events in the outside world, see if you can find a place to sit with your eyes closed. Simply sit there, breathe, and focus your attention on the emotion you’re feeling. Don’t applaud, judge, criticize or explain the emotion. Just allow it to move through you. If you feel the urge to let out a sound—perhaps a moan or a laugh—allow that sound to emerge as well. Remain there until you’ve fully allowed yourself to experience what you’re feeling.
If you repeat this practice over time, you’ll likely find your compulsion to justify your emotions, and to repress those feelings you can’t justify, fading away. You’ll come to see that you don’t need, and never needed, an “emotion license.” You’re free to experience, and express, whatever feelings arise within you—and, in fact, doing so is key to living a whole and fulfilling life.