Like most Americans, I am in debt. Hell, our country is in debt. Medical issues, predatory lending, student loans, and credit cards can put us in debt. But, our relationship with money is a relationship like any other. Emotional toxicity in that relationship can cause the debt. People win the lottery and still end up penniless. Our emotional issues can cause barriers to financial wellness. In the same way, they can keep us single, under-earning or depressed. Self-worth, baggage from our past, and negative perspectives can all be hurdles we must conquer to succeed. To get out of financial debt, we may need to first address our emotional debt.
As queer people, we have a ton of negative emotions to process. In addition to the same problems any other person faces, we can have added issues with our family or traumatic experiences tied to something we can’t control… our sexuality or gender. We rarely get the tools or space to process the feelings that come up. We’re too focused on surviving. This can leave us with a ton of unprocessed feelings and just like Chase Visa, they compound interest.
What Is Emotional Debt?
“Emotional debt is a condition of imbalance in which feelings are trapped instead of expressed. Keeping feelings from being expressed naturally employs defenses and drains energy. The more feelings are held in, the less energy you have to be yourself…” This quote from Dr. David Viscott’s The Secret Language of Feelings is a game-changer. Sure, we know our pasts affect our present. But the idea unexpressed feelings from our past can be gathered inside of us affecting our behavior is important to remember. It gives a context to how limiting thoughts, negative core beliefs, and unhealthy behaviors can be caused by emotions we simply didn’t let ourselves feel at the time.
Emotions are a tool for processing stimuli. Emotions should flow through us like a current. They let us know how we feel about things. They don’t need to stick with us longer than that. Let’s say you try cilantro and don’t like it. Now you know. You don’t need to carry that negative feeling forever. It doesn’t have to color your worldview. You don’t need to resent cilantro fans. It’s not worth your time, energy or attention. And yet, how many emotions stick with us longer than they need to? Oftentimes, it’s because the emotional stimuli triggers our repressed emotions. Sometimes when we get really angry it has nothing to do with what pissed us off. It has to do with the underlying emotion that was awakened by what annoyed us. Old feelings of hurt, abandonment, sadness, or resentment can be waiting for an out. The emotions we haven’t let ourselves feel suddenly flood when given the chance. And once the dam is open, look out.
Express Yourself Don’t Repress Yourself
Madonna was onto something in her song Human Nature. She may have been talking about sex, but so much of our culture is about repression. It’s not just sexuality or differing points of view. It’s about repressing emotions. In the same way, our culture encourages blind spending and relying on credit keeping us in financial debt, we are encouraged to repress and stay in emotional debt. Coincidence?!? It’s easy to keep you spending if you think you need things to make you happy. It’s easy to keep you compliant and controlled.
Gay means happy. Many Americans have an inherent issue with gay people. Sit with that statement, sis. The homophobic issue with happiness is also a visa to keep men, regardless of their sexuality, from being able to fully feel their happiness. We are socialized to view sadness as a weakness, happiness as homosexual, and anger as socially acceptable. The very model of a modern heterosexual. Anger then becomes a mask for everything since that’s how we “can” express ourselves. Or we just hold onto feelings until they make us sick or drive us mad.
It’s not just men. Women are socialized against expressing anger so they don’t seem like “bitches.” We’re all discouraged from expressing pride or confidence. And yet, isn’t it more often someone else’s insecurity triggered by someone’s confidence? This emotional state of affairs pits people against each other. Instead of keeping our eyes on our own emotional papers we end up policing how people express themselves. This creates a space where we hold others accountable for how they make us feel. Meanwhile, no one is responsible for our feelings but us. Sure we can, and should, tell people how their actions affect us emotionally. That allows them to show us they care by acknowledging our feelings in their behavior. But no one owes us anything. We must do the work to get to a place where we have deactivated our own triggers and learned how to process our emotions in a healthy manner.
Simply put, humans have feelings. Feelings are meant to be felt. So much of surviving society is about not expressing our feelings. Professionalism is marked by an ability to not lose your cool, remain stoic, and keep a smile on your face. Many relationships reward us for putting others’ emotions before our own. As much as we try to rationalize and socialize our way out of emotions, we are just repressing the inevitable. We borrow against our emotions thinking they’ll just resolve themselves. We can make ourselves sick biting our tongues in anger, suffering through sadness, and repressing happiness. This builds up an emotional debt that can sneak into other aspects of our lives.
Some emotions take a longer time to process. We compartmentalize them. Compartmentalizing is healthy. Doctors compartmentalize their feelings so they don’t freak out their patients by crying in front of them. A teacher may compartmentalize their anger so they don’t lose it on their students. But if we compartmentalize more than we can handle it can cloud our judgment. We are meant to work through these feelings and let them go. These unexpressed feelings need somewhere to go.
Repressed and unexpressed feelings can live in our body as tensed up muscles and a build-up of hormones. This puts undue stress on our bodies. Feelings can distort our thoughts as we create narratives to make sense of our negative emotional state. Our society can encourage us to spend now and worry later. In the same way, we’re rewarded for repressing our emotions. But do you want to spend your old age dealing with the sins of your past?
Anxiety & Depression: The Symptom Not the Disease
Viscott succinctly states “Hurt or loss leads to anger. Anger held in leads to guilt. Guilt, unrelieved, leads to depression.” To expand this paradigm, most emotions held in can cause guilt and depression. Traumatic moments in our past can cause us to mismanage our feelings. If you have a narcissistic parent who minimizes your feelings you can interpret minimizing your feelings as showing love. If you get teased or physically attacked for crying, you can develop negative associations with a healthy emotional response. This can keep you from crying to relieve emotional tension. Trauma during pivotal moments can form negative associations. Your brain can make a false connection between positive qualities or memories with negative feelings.
When we do not process emotions they can create a state of depression and/or anxiety. If we allow ourselves to, we can remain in these states. Physical and emotional trauma can cause us to have a fear response to normal stimuli giving us anxiety. Sadness, anger and other emotions held in can cause depression. We get trapped inside ourselves trying to sift through the backlog of emotions. The longer we stay in depression and anxiety the longer they can last. It becomes our new normal. Fear of change can keep us from progressing because the nervousness of new stimuli can get conflated with old emotions, bad memories, or a generally negative outlook.
Depression and anxiety can also build harmful habits. I can only speak for myself, but depression became like an ugly comfortable robe. I could always put it on whenever something bad happened. It was easier to rush to habits that would increase my depression like binge-watching television, eating unhealthy foods, and being apathetic rather than doing work to feel better. It can be easy to drink, smoke, or eat to try and stave off anxiety. But now you’re reliant on something to handle fear. Fear is a part of life. Contrary to popular belief we are not meant to be happy and comfortable at all times. Growth is uncomfortable. Many of our goals lie outside of our comfort zone and come with fear and dark times. But we can control how we handle those moments… emotionally.
Yes, some people have clinical depression. Yes, some people have a physiological and psychological predisposition to anxiety. But we also live in a society that loves to pathologize and hook you on more prescriptions rather than heal. Drug companies create ways to manage diseases rather than cure them. It’s easier to identify sadness as depression and stay there. But there’s a huge difference. Sadness is a temporary emotion. Depression is an emotional state and an undercover free pass to stay unhappy.
So How Do We Get Out?
Like with getting out of financial debt, getting out of emotional debt takes some changes. We have to change our views on our feelings. Boys do cry! We must take a long hard look at what needs to change for us to process emotions as they come up vs. repressing or masking them. Some people may need “debt relief” in the form of intensive therapy, rehab, or a meditation retreat. At the end of the day, we have to do the work. We have to challenge ourselves with new ways to navigate our emotions. We can focus on our goals for the future i.e. a relationship, a larger social circle, and a greater amount of happiness to help us through the rough patches.
Like with financial debt, the key relieving emotional debt is small incremental changes. Those changes build into habits that shift how we live our lives. We can find the space to feel old feelings in therapy, 12 step meetings, and with our support system of friends and family. We can try art, writing, exercise and other activities that give us an outlet to express our emotions. We can work to express our sadness by crying, our anger with civil confrontation, and our happiness by being happy with ourselves. It can be easy to think we need a drink, a boyfriend, Instagram likes or other people to be happy. But it comes from within. Similarly, new stimuli like feeling proud, excited, or even just plain good can be met with outdated fear responses. But our stronger emotional selves are on the other side. We just have to try.
When we balance our tools of survival with what makes us truly feel alive we thrive. Part of what powers the hunger to keep up with the Joneses is a lack of emotional satisfaction. Our reliance on stuff can be a smokescreen for our emotional needs. There’s a difference between treating yourself and investing in yourself. We must shift this paradigm from handling our emotions in the short term to investing the time it takes to do the work. This can look like having an uncomfortable conversation, sharing something vulnerable, and talking about our feelings. Over time, we can rid ourselves of the old and make room for new experiences, relationships, and successes. That’s when you get spiritually wealthy. That may not give you a beach house in Bali or Porsche but it can give you the emotional tools to get those things.
Christian Cintron is a writer, actor, and stand-up comedian. He has written about entertainment and gay culture for Edge Publications, Queerty and DNA Magazine. He’s also a regular contributor to Backstage.com.