Jim Cogley: Reflections Tues 9th April to Mon 15th April 2024

Note: Next seminar on Personal and Family Tree Healing is in Tallaght Priory Retreat Centre on Sat next 13th April from 10-4pm. Contact there for bookings.

Tue 9th April – Ashamed to Feel

How to deal with difficult emotions is a universal struggle. So many times during life l have not stayed in touch with my feelings. Often with the painful ones I managed to numb them out and didn’t allow myself to feel at all. It was as if I had a defense wall behind which I could withdraw for safety. More often than not, I had a delayed reaction and days or weeks later began to feel what I should have been feeling when it was more appropriate. Any repression or denial of emotions is not good since they don’t happily disappear, just because they are not acknowledged. Instead, they go underground and wage a kind of guerilla warfare. From their place of hiding they can then sabotage our lives at times when we least expect. They likewise could be compared to landmines that we ourselves have buried in the field of our lives. We have deliberately or unconsciously forgotten their location, but they can then be triggered so easily when we walk that path again.

Wed 10th April – Emotional Safety

Reflecting on our emotional history, and noticing whether we befriend or outlaw our emotions, is a very valuable exercise. My own experience as a child was to be caught between two warring women, my mother and godmother, who also was my aunt, with both competing for my attention. Their age-old sibling rivalry had now reached another generation and I was the meat in the sandwich. It was never safe to express any affection for one in the presence or hearing of the other, without that being met with disdain. Naturally my mother won out because as a small child her anger and rejection would have been too much to bear. However, that ‘victory’ came at a cost and I must have been resentful at not being allowed to love each of them, not one more than the other, but each one differently. This set up a dynamic where I found it very difficult to express to my mother how I was feeling not just about that issue, but also about so many other things. In effect I had learned to close down emotionally.

Thurs 11th April – The shame that buries our feelings

Because someone else’s experience can act as a mirror to our own, I will continue to share something of my emotional journey. Like so many of my generation I can never remember a single day looking forward to, or enjoying, either Primary or Secondary School. Corporal punishment was the norm and legitimized as the way to break the spirit of the child. At the same time bullying was rife but allowed to go unnoticed. It was a tough regime where any show of emotional upset at what was happening usually resulted in being named and shamed in front of the class. I now wonder how many of us subjected to such treatment learned to be ashamed of our emotions. It was always necessary to hide our feelings since emotion and shame were so interrelated. Not being able to speak out and not being able to withstand the bullying carried forward into adult life where feelings were still something to be ashamed of.

Fri 12th April – The fear that binds

If you can identify with some of my story of coming into adult life ashamed of how you feel, then that shame will block creative and emotional expression in a myriad of ways. I may find it very difficult to talk to anyone about how I feel because it awakens the painful sense of shame. Some fear going for counselling for that very reason. Feeling inadequate awakens a deeper sense of inferiority. Anger awakens a childhood fear of being punished. Admitting to feeling fearful is definitely a no-no. Shedding tears as an important form of releasing emotions is deemed to be a form of weakness (especially for males). At the heart of all these lies a deep sense of shame and this is a core belief that there is something fundamentally wrong with me. Shame attacks my core Self and undermines my ability to stand firm in the world.

Sat 13th April – Holding Secrets

Much of our emotional energy gets invested in holding on to secrets. Secrets are stories that need to be told in order for that emotional energy to find expression. They are the parts of us that have been buried alive and create a black hole in our psyche. They constellate around, and hold back sacred parts of ourselves that need to come home. Personal and family secrets usually involve shame and need time to unravel. Secrets are often shrouded in a self-imposed silence because of fear, intimidation, losing a relationship, or having made a vow never to disclose. The black hole in our psyche is something we cannot go near for fear of it being exposed. So it determines the places we go, the company we keep, the films we watch, and the books we read. Repressing secret material and surrounding it with shame guilt fear and anger shuts down other parts of the unconscious. It is like shooting an anaesthetic that spreads to surrounding areas.

Sun 14th April – Telling the Story

Breaking the bubble of Isolation

Our Gospel today begins with an apparently simple statement: ‘The disciples told their story of what had happened on the Emmaus Road and how they had come to recognize Christ at the breaking of the bread’. This was what Christ had encouraged them to do when he had joined them on the road. As I look back on over forty years of being a priest I realize that a huge proportion of that time has been spent listening to stories. I have learned more from listening to peoples stories than I ever have from books. In fact, all of my own books and writings don’t come from the internet but from simply listening and what I learn because every person is like a book. Sometimes the stories are of a confessional nature, as in what someone has done and coming to terms with their mistakes and regrets and finding the humility to forgive themselves. From our religious tradition ‘telling our sins’ is what so many understand as telling our story. While this is important it is also very inadequate.

The real story that needs to be told is not what we have done but what has been done to us, or what has happened to us, as we have journeyed through life. So the really important stories are about our family of origin, where we have come from, our childhood story, our early years, what happened us as a teenager and what was young adulthood like for us. Alongside of that is so much more of what Shakespeare calls the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that life throws at us.’

When it comes to telling our story so many just shrug their shoulders and dismiss it as if it were of little significance. So, we hear remarks like, ‘sure that happens to everyone,’ even from someone who grew up in a violent or alcoholic home or from someone who was a victim of bullying or abuse. None of us had perfect childhoods nor had we perfect parents and where we have come from has a direct influence on where we are right now in life. It’s our past that has made us who we are and particularly it’s our past that we may have buried that exercises greatest influence over our lives right now. In so many ways it’s our past that sabotages our present until we come to terms with it. In a strange way it finds ways of repeating itself until we give it acknowledgement.

As adults we may find ourselves struggling with unmet needs in our current relationships and yet fail to see that those same needs had never been met in childhood. We may find ourselves struggling with low moods or depression and not see that growing up it was never safe to express how I really felt and so I buried my feelings. So what is depression? It’s not an emotion but an absence of feelings, it’s where I have buried how I really feel. The easy option is to go to a doctor and be told that you have a chemical imbalance and need medication. In my own work I meet so many who have a far greater need to tell their story than to take pills to further block out painful memories of how they feel.

The first time we decide to open up and talk to someone about what is really going on in our lives it takes a lot of courage, so much in fact that the majority will choose to stay in denial and pretend that all is well. Added to this is the problem of finding someone who is trustworthy enough to treat our story as sacred. Perhaps it’s even an Irish trait to ‘say nothing and keep on saying it’. Years back in Kilmore Quay a man rang and made an appointment for a counselling session. For some reason I thought he was ringing from Carlow. He came in and I asked him his journey had been and he proceeded to tell me about his flights from Los Angeles to New York and then to Dublin. He didn’t seem to make much of the fact that in order to get help he was prepared to travel so far. Meanwhile, I was thinking of someone within a stone’s throw who was crippled because of childhood issues and would be terrified of crossing the threshold.

Opening up our story carries the fear that if another knew us as we really are they may not like us. Yet not telling our story can leave us with deep feelings of isolation and the sense that we are the only person in the whole world who is suffering like I am. Once we do finally get the courage to open up we find that we are all in the same boat struggling to stay afloat and that we all have our leaks that need to be fixed. We are not that much different from anyone else or as someone has said ‘we are all made of the same stuff and just cooked slightly different’.

In our attempts to evade our past we are in fact eroding our future. In telling our story we are facing up to our past and in so doing are opening up a door of hope for what is to come.

Mon 15th April – Lancing the Wound

Carl Jung writing on secrets said: ‘Secrets shut down our unconscious and create a dead zone in our psyche. So, our emotional capacity to respond appropriately to life’s events is blocked’. The dead zone is greatly protected, but the secret will always find a way out in sadness, mood swings, even somatically with unexplained physical pains and ailments, or conversations that are left dangling, and odd reactions. To disclose the secret needs one trustworthy human being who can really listen, be moved by what is revealed, and wince at the pain that has been carried for so long. The story may need to be told and retold. Once the wound is opened it may need to be disinfected several times as part of the healing process. The telling of the story may involve tears. Our secrets are the underwater rocks upon which we run aground and tears raise the water level so we can be carried downstream to a new and better place. To refuse to keep the secret is to claim ones right to be fully alive. Telling and grieving resurrect us from the dead zone. Better to come out tear-stained than to remain shame bound.

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