A golden buddha head with two faces, one laughing, one blank to. illustrate our rules around emotions

Revising Your Rules Around Emotions

A lot of what kept me stuck came from the bathroom.

1988. The first spring day of my freshman year of high school. The air smelled like sunshine. 

I planned to zip through my homework then go for a walk, so I could soak up the sun after a season of cold, gray days. But when I opened the door to our house, Mom thrust a can of Comet into one hands, a sour rag into the other.

“Clean it again!” she screamed, furious about the patch of soap scum I’d failed to scrub away. That cleanliness was her way of quieting the hurricane of anxiety living in her blood was something I’d learn decades later.

In that moment, all I knew was that I’d cleaned the bathroom that morning and I would have to clean it again the next day. Cleaning it now felt pointless.

But I knew better than to argue. So I squeezed the cleanser’s cardboard barrel and gritted my teeth, hoping to whiz through this chore.

 As I turned toward the bathroom, Mom grabbed my arm. “Get that look off your face before I smack it off,” she said

The hormones coursing through my veins made this feel like an impossible request. 

She said it again. “Get that look off your face before I smack it off.”

I don’t dare say, “See if I care” or “Make me.” I just stand there, a forest fire of rage burning behind my irises.

The first smack rang in my ears.

The second watered my eyes.

I locked that look onto my face, unwilling to bend on this one point.

The third whipped my head to the side.

After the fourth, she stepped back, shook her hand, then said, “You’re grounded for three days. Now clean the fucking bathroom, then go to your room.”

By this point, I’d been hit enough times that pain had become a companion.

But, at fourteen, there was no torture worse than being not just isolated from my friends, but forced to stare at a wall, accompanied by nothing but my thoughts.

I scrubbed furiously, hoping the tub sparkled so much Mr. Clean burst through the door to give me a high five, hoping his presence wowed my mother so much she recanted, or at least shortened my sentence to one night with no dinner.

The doorbell rang. A glimmer of hope swelled in my chest. A neighbor boy asked if my brothers and I could come out and play. I heard the singsong in my mother’s voice, a trill of possible happiness. Then she said, “No, sweetie, they’re all grounded.”

Three days later, when I walked out that door, I promised myself that next time I’d not just wipe that look off my face, I’d smile. 

I share this story for several reasons.

Last week, I showed you how to connect with and regulate your emotions. Now, I want to explore why we avoid certain ones, and how understanding your rules around emotions can help you become a better writer.

What we allow ourselves to feel is directly related to what we’re taught and the rules we develop around which feelings are acceptable.  So let’s unpack the lessons and rules in that situation.

Clean It Again

  • What I was taught: Mistakes will not be tolerated.
  • What I learned: Perfectionism, both in what I do and how I feel, guarantees my safety.
  • Rule I developed: Be perfect in all situations.

Get that Look Off Your Face

  • What I was taught: Only certain emotions are acceptable.
  • What I learned: Your face will betray you.
  • Rule I developed: Never let them see you feel, better yet, don’t feel anything, ESPECIALLY anger.

The Need for Clean

  • What I was taught: Spotlessness and cheerfulness are proof of happiness.
  • What I learned: If it’s attractive, people will believe the innards are sweet.
  • Rule I created: What people see is all that matters.

These rules gummed up my writing life for a very long time. Old journals, especially from my teenage years, are filled with vague lines like ” it was a lot” or “it wasn’t a big deal,” but very few feelings appear.  

While I learned how to show what externally happened during early writing classes, revealing my feelings was a struggle. 

It took a lot of work to feel safe enough to write about my emotions. But before I get to what that work looks like, I want to set the stage for it. 

One of the biggest mistakes I see writers make is focusing on an external audience from the very first draft or seeing an initial idea as a project—maybe even THE project—that must be published. 

A premature focus on an external audience, especially when you don’t know where a piece is going, is certain to trigger your rules. 

To keep them at bay, write everything for yourself first, and focus on making meaning from it. This is especially true if the writing involves the emotions you try to avoid. 

To get in touch with your rules, write a scene where a rule likely formed, then analyze its key moments. As you do this, keep in mind that some of our most inhibiting rules were created, not during moments of high trauma, but in mundane situations.

Once you know your rules, thank them for serving you well.

Next, rewrite them.

Here are a few of my rewritten rules around emotions.

Example One:

  • Rule: Be perfect, always. 
  • Revision: I don’t need to be perfect; I need to be real. That means figuring out what I want and need, then expressing it with safe people.

Example Two:

  • Rule: Never let them see you feel, ESPECIALLY when it comes to anger.
  • Revision: There are no bad feelings. While not everyone has the capacity to be with mine, I can make space for them.

Example Three:

  • Rule: What people see is all that matters.
  • Revision: A sequin-covered shit ball might sparkle, but it’s still a ball of shit. It’s what’s inside that matters.

Acknowledging and working with my pain has helped me see that while what happened during that interaction wasn’t okay, it was fueled by fear and hurt, and because I see myself, I can hold space for that too.

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