Seeing a two-year-old scream at the top of his or her lungs is an annoying but clear reminder that you can maintain yourself. When I shuffle past a yelling kid and harried parent in a store, I think to myself that I’m hungry too, and also frustrated by it, but relieved that I can just check this feeling and take care of it according to what I want. My bulwark keeps my inner feelings from bursting out of me and dictating my actions and reactions; everyone older than two has a bulwark.
Bulwarks work a little different for each person. A five-year-old will have a little more self-control than a two-year-old, but a twenty-five-year-old will have more self-control than that five-year-old (hopefully). And two different twenty-five-year-olds will have different strengths and weaknesses of what taxes their energies. But no matter the person, the bulwark has a breaking point where it ceases to hold the feelings it contains. You explode at someone; you start crying without knowing why. It can be frightening to feel emotions rip out of you, and also a relaxing release.
Despite that, sometimes a bulwark holds too well. In these cases, you don’t even realize that it’s there. The same feelings are behind it - rage, grief, terror - but they don’t show up as they should, they just stay deep inside you, sealed so tight they barely change your facial expression.
Emotions are strange in that they don’t go away even when you don’t feel them. Instead they show up in physical and mental ways: being tired, having trouble concentrating, out-of-nowhere sensations of nausea or pain, or lightheadedness. They may give hints through indirect feelings: being anxious without any clear reason, feeling a little on edge, finding loneliness in a crowd, experiencing pessimism you don’t embrace, having sadness you can’t place.
Dissociation is not being able to feel your emotions. It sounds like a paradox, but only because emotions are easy to take for granted - they come without us calling. Thing is, they don’t come when called, either. Our main way of dealing with pain is to do anything but feel it, which is sensible - true pain has the power to stop us cold, so muscling through it (sometimes literally - imagine a boxer at her fiercest the night her father dies) is necessary to survive and thrive, and we do so naturally. But it puts us in debt. If we stay in emotional debt too long, emotions don’t give us any more credit. They don’t come when they should, they don’t let us feel. Our emotional selves have a sense of whether it’s safe to come out or not, and after too much, they just don’t bother.
How does one overcome dissociation? If emotions go away and they don’t come when called, how do you make them come back? Fortunately, emotions are always hungry to find safe people. The longer the emotions have been hidden, the longer it takes for safety to be built, but there is never an impenetrable door. Debt can be repaid, and also forgiven. Asking someone to hold your emotional debt for you as you rebuild self-trust reduces dissociation and brings back emotional connection, awareness, and expression.