I recently discovered Star Trek. Don’t laugh! I have foreign parents who were unable to expose me to such things in a timely manner.
In episode 9 of the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Picard and his crew are confronted for the second time by the mysterious “Q,” a member of an apparently omnipotent species that can teleport and manipulate matter and energy in ways that humans cannot. This time, as last time, Q decides to test the crew of the Enterprise, toying with them like playthings. After transporting everyone but the Captain to the surface of an unknown planet, he challenges them to a game. Lieutenant Tasha Yar boldly confronts Q, and he punishes her by suddenly making her disappear. He explains to the others that Yar is in a “penalty box” where she is safe for the time being, but the penalty box only has one spot. So if anyone else messes up, they’ll get sent to the penalty box, and Yar will be gone forever.
As it turns out, the penalty box seems to be located on the bridge of the Enterprise. Seeing Yar, Picard asks what happened.
Yar: It sounds strange…but I’m in a penalty box.
Picard: A penalty box?
Yar: Q’s penalty box. It sounds strange but it definitely isn’t. I know that one more penalty–by anyone–and I’m gone.
Yar [agitated, starting to cry]: Yes, I am gone! It is so frustrating to be controlled like this!
Picard: Lieutenant…Tasha. It’s all right.
Yar: What in the hell am I doing? Crying?
Picard: Don’t worry. There is a new ship’s standing order on the bridge. When one is in the penalty box, tears are permitted.
Now allow me to make a corny analogy.
A lot of situations we end up in are like Lieutenant Yar’s penalty box. They suck. They’re terrifying. They’re unfair. Maybe, like the penalty box, they’re precipitous; one more misstep, and we’re done: not literally disappeared from the entire universe, perhaps, but fired from a job, flunked out of school, broke, alone. Sometimes we ended up there through no fault of our own, or even–as Yar was doing–while trying to make things better for ourselves or for others. But, stuck in the penalty box, we can’t fully acknowledge that the situation is crappy, and we don’t give ourselves permission to feel crappy about it.
My memory works in a very cyclical way: as time goes on, I think about things that happened during the same season but during a previous year. So now it’s mid-May and I’m remembering finishing college, graduating, packing, and that long, horrible move to the city I (nevertheless) loved then and still do. I have another move ahead of me this summer, so I’m especially thinking about it. Though, this time it’s within the same city and it’s to live with my best friends.
I think about how harsh I was on myself during that whole process, how worked up I’d get, crying about leaving and then crying about crying and probably at some point crying about crying about crying. Crying became such a routine for me last summer that I could’ve kept track of time that way.
For whatever combination of psychological and environmental factors, it seemed like that move was my penalty box. I felt on the edge of something horrible and I couldn’t even imagine what. I felt completely out of control, even though I had, after all, chosen the move. The move was my penalty box and on some fundamental level I didn’t really believe that tears were permitted. I knew that they were, but I couldn’t believe it.
Everyone I know who thinks about this stuff has their ways of trying to explain it. One good friend says, “No feelings about feelings.” Not as a rule, but as an ideal to aspire to: we get to feel sad or angry or afraid or embarrassed or ashamed or jealous, but we should try not to have feelings about the fact that we feel those things. Others just say, “Feel your feelings.” Mental health professionals practicing dialectical behavior therapy try to teach their clients a skill called “radical acceptance”: the ability to recognize that you’re feeling a certain horrible way and to accept it, not as something that’s good or preferable, but as something that, at least for now, just is.
The acceptance of feelings seems to be harder for many people than the acceptance of situations. I’ve adapted quickly to situations I’d previously thought would be intolerable, but I do not adapt quickly to my own emotions. It’s not just the emotions that feel bad; it’s the meta-emotions that do the most damage. Feelings about feelings.
There is no easy way out of this. There’s no convenient self-help trick that’ll stop the feelings about feelings. There is no Stop Hating Yourself For Being Sad In Five Easy Steps!. I wish there were.
But sometimes there are skills or coping mechanisms or even phrases from television shows that help.
When one is in the penalty box, tears are permitted.
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