Imagine living in a world where everybody sees black and white and shades of gray — and you realize that you’re different from everyone else, because you see the world in vivid colors instead.
The experience of color is amazing, but how frustrating would it be if you couldn’t explain to others what you saw? What if others didn’t understand, because they had no frame of reference? How painful would it be to want to share that experience of color — but you couldn’t share it with anyone? How lonely would that be?
For much of my early life, I assumed everyone experienced emotions in the same intense ways that I do. When I discovered otherwise, I was confused and struggled to explain how my interior experience of painful emotion works. I’ve almost given up, because so few are even interested.
I was reminded of this again tonight because of what I felt during a movie. It was just a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy, so it’s not something most people would have seen as intensely emotional, but interaction between two characters struck me in that oddly intense way. Two characters each experienced painful longing for the other, even though they couldn’t be together.
As I’ve had to do so many times when I experience such things, I had to pause the film and let the feelings dissipate.
This isn’t unusual for me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a theater watching a movie with a girlfriend and I’ve had to suddenly quit listening and look away from the screen. In those moments, the intensity of whatever I’m feeling is so strong that I have to get away from it. During a couple of movies — “The Hours” and “Radio Flyer” — the intensity of the feelings was so strong I had to briefly go to the lobby to compose myself.
I doubt any of my girlfriends has entirely understood what was going on, but the best among them have at least empathized with my experience.
I can’t say why my emotional experiences are so intense, especially around the subject of connecting with deeply felt love for another. For years, I thought about this and read psychology books in an effort to understand, but the most helpful possibility I’ve ever run across was from writer Shari Schreiber. She says it goes back to unresolved childhood issues — and that feels right for me. She wrote:
A child who’s grown up believing they have to behave perfectly in order to receive attention, affirmation or praise has acquired a distorted definition of love. For this child, Love means painful longing and yearning for that which cannot be gratified. Thus, this same type of emotional experience is intoxicating in his/her adult attachments, for their present anguish is literally identical to feelings that he/she experienced throughout childhood, which are now interpreted as “the real deal,” or True Love.
This means that lovers who are capable of reciprocating their care and affection are rejected out of hand. It’s boring and doesn’t feel like a fit, because this dynamic doesn’t trigger the dramatic inner pain that was consistently associated with loving, as a kid.
Core-damaged children grow into needful adults, but they could fear that if they let themselves love somebody as intensely as they want to, that person will freak out, run off into the night, and abandon them. Their sense of need feels gigantic, and often very painful. It presumes that someone on the receiving end won’t be able to handle it — which triggers shame for being “so needy.”
There’s a French phrase which applies here. The French speak of “la douleur exquise” and it literally means “the exquisite pain.” It expresses the pain of wanting the love of someone unattainable. I can see ways in which this applied in my childhood — and it would be natural that I would still be seeking to resolve the same longing as an adult.
One of the things I accepted years ago is that I’m not attracted to women who are completely emotionally healthy. It’s obviously not a conscious choice, but I’ve seen it play out too many times not to accept it.
As Schreiber says, someone who is too normal and emotionally healthy seems boring to me. That doesn’t feel right. A person like that couldn’t possibly have experienced the emotional trauma that drives me to be what I am. On the other hand, someone who is too far into the realm of emotional damage — and who has no understanding of her internal damage or interest in emotional health — is useless in an entirely different way. (I almost married someone like that. I loved her, but I doubt she’s ever going to be emotionally healthy. I hope for her sake that I’m wrong, although she will never be in my life again.)
A woman I’m attracted to walks a fine line — like a razor’s edge between two chasms. If she’s too far in one direction, she’s too “normal” to ever understand me. If she’s too damaged, she will never have the ability to heal enough to have a healthy relationship and form a healthy family.
There aren’t many women at that very narrow place — and even fewer who recognize something in me which they believe could make us good for one another.
When I was young, kids at school perceived me as having little in the way of emotions. I didn’t express myself and I was pretty withdrawn except in the academic sense. (In those situations, I was driven and competitive. I needed to achieve and prove myself superior.) When I was in middle school, some of my classmates derisively called me “Spockelroy” — a portmanteau for Star Trek’s Spock and my last name — because they saw me as operating like a computer with no feelings.
It took me many years to get in touch with those hidden emotions and to realize how much of me was buried in them. The teen version of myself wouldn’t recognize the emotional self I am today and I barely recognize him. I understand now that I buried my emotions because it would have been too intensely painful to actually feel them.
Today, I walk around with my feelings as a flag. I no longer hide who I am or what I feel. Other people frequently don’t understand that, but I can’t help it. As Pat Terry said in a song many years ago, “Sometimes these feelings are a curse to me, but they’re who I am and they’re the way I see; guess I’ll take them with me to eternity some bright and glorious day.”
The longing that I carry with me is looking to resolve childhood pain. If you believe a lot of psychology, almost everything we do is about resolving something painful from childhood. We’re trying to overcome trauma or a loss of someone or rejection or a thousand other possibilities.
I used to see this aspect of myself as broken, but then I realized that we’re all broken. Some people just don’t accept their brokenness. They’re ashamed of their brokenness and they hide it in ways that prevent them from having any chance of healing.
Today, I accept it for what it is. The longing isn’t so much about the past — and it’s not about blame for anyone — but rather diagnosing the damage and finding ways to repair it.
I’ve come a long way from where I once was. I understand far more than I understood even 10 years ago, much less 20 or 30 years ago. Much of what I understand now would have scared me then.
I still need a partner who is strong where I am weak — someone for whom I can be strong in places where she is weak. Needing such reciprocity isn’t weakness. It’s not something to be ashamed of. It’s simply a recognition that many of us are badly broken — and we need each other to repair what’s wrong and to become what we are capable of being.
Until I have that, I’ll keep walking around being open about who and what I am. I’ll keep hoping she sees this longing I carry and say, “You have something I need — and I have something you need — so we belong together.”
I hate this feeling of longing — and I look forward to the day when I no longer have to feel it — but for today, I know no other way to live. So I embrace these intense feelings and long for the day when I can share them with the right partner who needs what I offer.
I pray that day comes soon.