By Caitlin Kelly

Do you start most sentences with “I think” or “I feel”?

Having, managing, expressing (or suppressing) feelings is a big deal in my life.

As someone who faced and had to cope alone with mental illness and alcoholism in one parent and frequent work-related absence in another, I learned early that no one had much interest in hearing how I felt about all of this.

So I learned to bottle it up, or to share only with close friends.

Living in boarding school and summer camp ages eight to 13 (school) and eight to 16 (camp) also meant being surrounded by strangers, some of whom became close friends — but some of whom were bullies.

You learned to keep your counsel.

So a recent workshop at a writers’ conference — where the audience was urged to write “I remember” and dredge up some memories — proved both painful and illuminating for me.

Some of us then read our initial sentences to the room, maybe 150 other professional writers; I did, as well.

I was amazed and moved by what I heard.

It made me much more aware of how limited my ability to express some feelings still is — even later in life.

I’m reluctant to show vulnerability.

I very rarely say “I love you” to someone, even when I feel it.

I’m much more comfortable (which tends to unnerve others) expressing dismay, outrage or frustration — less tender and delicate emotions.

Except — thanks to a diagnosis I received since writing this post (tiny/early/contained breast cancer) — my view has shifted radically and I’ve told a number of friends, neighbors and even professional colleagues.

This is not something to face alone.

It’s also exhausting keeping up a brave face when I don’t feel at all brave or badass but feel worried and tired dealing with six (!) doctors, even if all of them are people I like.

The greatest challenge so far has been managing my anxiety, a battle in itself, while absorbing and making lucid decisions about treatment. It’s a lot to manage.


Are you at ease having and expressing your feelings?


46 thoughts on “Feelings?!

  1. I do love your courage in this post, both to say you are examining how you are with expressing feelings and the scary diagnosis.I feel a lot and come from a feeling place first, and work on remembering that “feelings aren’t facts” –a saying in 12-step programs. But it’s a contimium for all of us. I love you–and your work.

    1. Thanks…

      I’ve spent most of my life absolutely hating feelings, as most of them have been stressful and unshared, which is really tiring and isolating.

      Examining and processing them only slows me down, messes me up and I find I have little patience (not kind, but true) for listening to others’ feelings at great length.

      I am much happier in the world of facts (hmmm, journalism?!) as they’re easier for me to manage and disassociate from.

    1. Thanks.

      It should be, as these shitty things go, as un-shitty as possible — no chemo (thank God.) My mom has survived multiple cancers (at 83) so I’m adopting her MO: denial! But…ugh.

  2. Jane

    So sorry to hear you, too, have join the ranks of those affected by cancer. Be kind to yourself over the next few months. Good luck & best wishes.

  3. First off, if there’s anything I can do, please let me know. I know you said it’s contained and early and tiny, but I want to help if I can.

    Second, expressing my feelings is often part of who I am. The only times I suppress my feelings is when it’s considered inappropriate, like at certain situations at work. But I’m a very feeling person, and show my feelings on my sleeve more often than not. I like to think that makes me a more accomplished writer (but I’ll leave that up to the critics).

    1. Thank you!!

      I admire people who have that much trust in others. I don’t. Partly my upbringing, partly decades spent in a crazy competitive industry full of bullies. One leans to be cautious.

  4. Cancer, whoa… My sister is just getting over it now. It cost her a breast and the radiation was rough, but no chemo. I just talked to her yesterday and, after just a couple months, she was back to doing the regular stuff she always does, so I’m pretty optimistic for you. Just the same, getting a cancer diagnosis has got to be like finding a skunk in your mailbox, except skunks are cute. Gotta run, feelings later.

  5. First, I am so glad it’s been detected early and is contained. Second, I do believe sometimes cancer comes when we don’t express our feelings. A sister and a friend–both feeling stuffers–suffered because of it. And third, I get it. My mother was not a “safe” person emotionally for me. I know yours wasn’t either. But their legacy should end with them. We can recreate and let the feelings–and energy–flow to our benefit. Sending you the best juju possible . . .

  6. There are many of us who walk this road. The stories may be different, however the struggles are somewhat the same and very real. I too have had to face some extremely big giants in my life and each time I face them with honesty, I come out stronger, wiser and better. My desire is to come through healthier (inwardly) than I was the day before. I take one day at a time…see what it holds and go from there. Feelings are a natural part of who we are as humans…it’s up to us how we use them…or not. It is your choice, however, I recommend being true to yourself, your situation, and be honest to those around you who want to help walk this with you. Falling apart is all part of our journey. it sucks but it’s real!!

  7. Your courage continues to inspire me.

    As for feelings, HATE THEM. So bad at talking about them, you know, with actual people. I’m currently dealing with spiking anxiety that actually culminated in a full blown anxiety attack this morning. A good portion of this latest bout has come from my inability to express myself or some feelings, including overwhelm. Or at least in a way that certain people will be able to hear and understand. Finding the right way to articulate feelings can be so difficult.

    1. Thanks!

      So sorry to read this. Hoping for much happier days for you SOONEST.

      I so so so hear you. I bottle up so much, as I know you do, partly because some people can’t relate to what we are feeling — which makes us feel weirder and more isolated. The safer choice, it seems, is not to say anything.

      But that’s not true.

  8. I’m glad to hear that it was found early. Both my sisters had it and so I monitor closely. As to feelings – I understand. My upbringing was difficult as well and the whole expressing of emotions piece was a minefield. You’re great, Caitlin. Try to stay positive and let others be with you.

    1. Thanks!

      This year, for the 1st time, I also had a 3D mammo…that showed…something and biopsy confirmed it. My mother had BC/mastectomy years ago (still very alive at 83).

      Expressing (softer) emotions is very tough. Trusting that whatever I share will be heard and respected? Hmmmmm. Friends, yes. and thank heaven for that safe haven. Family, a definite no.

      My father (getting along with him now) once replied to my plaintive: “Some families actually talk about their feelings” snapped “Ours isn’t one of them.”

      My default is cheer or humor. If I can’t laugh, I’m toast.

      I will do my best…:-)

  9. OK it’s later, now feelings.
    My feelings run kind of close to the surface most of the time. I spend a lot of time alone, which makes it easier to bleed off the pressure so my wife and friends don’t have to deal with it.

    I don’t think it’s all that unusual, or necessarily all that unhealthy, to not want to talk that much about feelings, yours or theirs. In fact, I think it’s pretty smart. If you really need to sort out your feelings, see a therapist. You can say what you want, even if you don’t mean it, without damaging a valuable friendship over a moment of meaningless anger or hurt. It’s safe and generally comfortable. I think we deserve that in our heads.

    Even if I’m not mad at anyone, I don’t really want to invite non-professionals, no matter how they feel about me, to take a whack at fixing all my problems. It’s annoying and exhausting and no one needs that.

    Stingy as I am with my emotions, I definitely have them and I often wish for the luxury of an unguarded moment to let them all out. It doesn’t work. These conversations play over and over, with overdubbed recriminations and second-guessing, until I find myself wishing I could just un-say it all.

    I am, however, very honest and open with my wife, Cathy. This is a nice way of saying that we fight. I think fighting is good, as long as you can remember that you are fighting with someone you love and you can trust. In thirty two years together, there is only one way I ever wanted a fight to end. So far so good.

    There you go, some feelings. Chin up, you’re going to be fine.

    1. Thanks…

      Lots to think about here.

      Have done lots of therapy, with many people, starting at age 17 while being bullied mercilessly in high school. Some therapists are excellent, others less so. You also have more appetite sometimes for the work, or less.

      I totally get being alone to process stuff and try to do that. But sometimes — and even for much lighter stuff — you just really need someone to bitch to to nod and agree, as I did last night with a friend about a professional issue and today, again with another friend, via email, about a payment a month late…

      One reason I have decided to be more public about this is to throw up a bit of a firewall…I just have less bandwiidth for bullshit right now, and much less (imagine!!!) patience than usual. It’s tacky, perhaps, but the big C slows people down a bit — and they get that I now have less energy to engage or argue.

      Jose and I fought like crazy for the first few years; 2 very stubborn, driven, competitive people marrying later in life after shitty first marriages/betrayal. SO FUN. Not now. Too tired!

      Thank you.

  10. Osha Gray Davidson

    So sorry that you have to deal with this, but I have faith you will. And I’m glad that you and Jose have each other!

  11. i’m sorry to hear that you are going through this right now, and i have high hopes for a positive outcome for you. it must be really hard with all that’s going on with everything else, but i am happy that you have jose to stand by your side.

    as for feelings, i have always had a hard time with this as well, having grown up with a challenging childhood/mother and understand that we’ve both learned long ago, to keep our feelings close to the vest. with time, and age, i’ve grown better about it, and work on it on a conscious level, trying to step out of my comfort zone and into saying what i feel, need, or want.

    best –

  12. Edmonton Tourist

    I am sorry you are going through this. I was diagnosed with a benign acoustic neuroma in the left quadrant of my brain near my brain stem. I have been on watch and wait and do not face anything remotely the same as you, however, after the diagnosis I did experience a shift. I value time in a way that never occurred to me before. I prefer experiences to things and this includes spending time with people who are important to me. Important things rose to the surface and stressful useless things were let go. People in my life know how I feel about them now. Sad that it took this for me to wake up. I am woke now and am grateful. I wish you well in your journey.

    1. Sorry to read this — and thanks for sharing…wishing you the best with it.

      Barring horrible surgical surprises (which can happen), this is the best possible BC diagnosis available — should be done with lumpectomy, radiation and meds. Hardly fun and a real shock to the system…but…but…I agree with you.

      I have no patience at all now for bullshit, from anyone. I had very little before and now, none. I also find I need more time to be alone and quiet.

  13. Cancer is a game-changer in so many ways. Good for you for “writing your way through” these big challenges. I wish you the best possible outcome medically and personally. You deserve to have people in your life that you can safely share feelings with and be vulnerable with – people who care enough and know you well enough so they can really be there for you.

    You can probably tell by reading all of our replies that you have an online community that cares about you as a person, not only as a writer and thinker, but also as a feeling person. My life experience is that when we can really notice that caring and let it in, our vision shifts.

    It’s so hard to write well about these kinds of issues! I’ve been trying to write this comment for a half-hour – but this is what you are asking about – how well do we communicate about feelings? Each person does the best she can at each moment.

    I’m pulling for you, Caitlin!

    1. Thank you!

      I had written that post weeks beforehand — which is typical for me — and then…hah! Now I had/have a whole host of new feelings to manage, cope with, try to communicate (or not.)

      I spend most of my time denying this is happening (which allows me to function without anxiety) and the diagnosis is the best one can have. If the surgery produces no surprises, I will be pretty calm about this and move ahead.

      But for someone who likes the fantasy of independence and invulnerability…it’s a moment, for sure.

  14. Caitlin, sending my good vibrations toward you! And this is a great topic, expressing feelings. I too grew up in a family where my sister and I could not express ourselves, especially with me as the oldest. The family mantra was “Don’t upset your mother.” Hence, I grew into a very stoic teenager and adult, not expressing anything that upset me, not admitting I needed help or was hurt, and subsequently not having boundaries (and taking life’s hard knocks on the chin). After decades, I now am exploring my boundaries, and trying to express my feelings in appropriate ways. I tend to be better in writing, which gives me the opportunity to self-edit 🙂 Your self-awareness and inner strength (and finding your support system) will see you through this challenge. Wishing you well, on all fronts.

    1. Thanks!

      It’s good to know (although sad) that you can relate to that kind of upbringing. You do therefore really learn to ignore, downplay or devalue your own feelings (which is not a good choice) and prioritize others’.

      Empathy and compassion are good to have, for sure, but when we also need them…we don’t know how to ask for them.

      This is really the first time (!?) I’ve ever even written about this, or admitted to it publicly. People who have known me for decades, and know my family history, totally get it and know why…

      It takes a LOT of trust in others to say “Hey, I’m scared” or “I feel anxious” or…anything other than “I’m fine!!!” The kindness we have been receiving from so so many friends (and some that really surprised me) is deeply touching. I never knew.

  15. Ni Brewer

    I’m an occasional reader of yours…always inspired by you though. Praying for you in the medical process. Naomi x

  16. I’m inspired by how brave you are! It takes a huge amount of courage to face the unknown and stay positive and hopeful and share it with the world. You’ve got this!

    As a side note, if you have time to look into cognitive development in children before the age of three within households that lacked empathy/care for the children (ahem… narcissitist parents/mother) you’ll see that with a lack of care there is a pattern in children to retreat emotionally and to feel unsafe and unsure of human interaction later on in life (given the unpredictable environment at home).

    Been doing a huge amount of reading (and therapy with a Canadian expert) to overcome my own past traumas – and thought you might be interested as there are many similarities as I’ve noticed in some of your post posts about family (I do read them!).

    Check out this site: https://glynissherwood.com/ She’s based in the Maritimes and can consult by Skype (which is what I do here from Australia). It might be worth checking out?

    And even more information is here: https://www.daughtersofnarcissisticmothers.com/characteristics-of-narcissistic-mothers/

    1. Thanks for the kind words.

      I’m not sure I’m brave…you just have to deal with this stuff and get on with it, no matter what you really feel, (anger, fear, anxiety, the works.)

      It’s been extremely difficult to get any paid work done. I am tired and distracted right now and simply don’t give a shit about sucking up to one more editor and their demands. Work has been crappy this year in so many ways that it will be a relief to just STOP for a month to have surgery (July 6), radiation and heal. It takes a kind of emotional energy to handle life now that I have much less of.

      Yesterday we lost from 1pm to 5pm going to/sitting in/meeting with doctors at the hospital. I can’t imagine how someone with a regular job can even manage this, let alone with children. I am lucky I have flexibility and savings and a supportive husband who is also freelance and has been with me at most of these meetings.

      Thanks for these tips…will check it out.

  17. It is a life-changer when the “C word” attaches to you. Even if tiny/early/contained, it is okay if it doesn’t “feel” so small. Well-meaning friends encouraged me that my cancer was no big deal. But it had claimed three family members and it felt scarey as hell to me. In the end, they were right and I’ve been cancer-free for going on nine years. I’m grateful, but will never feel quite the same about myself.

    1. Thanks.

      My mother has survived multiple cancers and is alive at 83 and my father has never had it so that helps. I am finding myself needing a lot of sleep now (took a 2 hour nap yesterday) because I feel overwhelmed.

      I try not to think about it because it overwhelms me.

  18. I’m catching up on blog posts and just saw this. So sorry to hear that you’re having to deal with these health issues, Caitlin. It’s a shock to the system, isn’t it? Having been a caregiver for my mother when she had major surgery, I can understand how exhausting and anxiety-inducing it all is…hours spent in the hospital, waiting for appointments and test results etc. It’s great that you have Jose’s support and I hope you’re spending plenty of time on self-care.

    As for feelings, I tend to be fairly open about expressing mine although there are some things, like the details of my anxiety and how it originated (my parents’ messy and traumatic divorce when I was a child) that I’m more wary about sharing, unless I know I can trust the person I’m talking to. My concern when talking about more delicate issues is also that I am ‘oversharing’ and might make the other person feel uncomfortable. But I have to remember that if they’re a true friend, they will hopefully be happy to listen with compassion. We all need someone who will listen when we need it, without trying to fix our problems or make suggestions… simply listen.

    Thinking about you!

    1. Thanks…you know the drill! We lost an entire afternoon last week to this, (one 90-minute wait for one MD), and I have 3 appointments on the 21st…it’s very very time-consuming and I am taking 5 days off right now to just enjoy a break out on Long Island while Jose works.

      I know what it’s like to withhold information; when it’s painful stuff some people can’t handle it. The ones who can become good friends because you don’t have to apologize for being who you are.

  19. Susan Dunphy

    Have been meaning to tell you how much I enjoy your blog; I also enjoyed your book “Malled.”

    I’m sorry to hear of your illness and best wishes for a speedy recovery.

    In terms of the topic of this column, I struggle with when and how much to express to others. While I do have a therapist I’ve seen on and off for over thirty years, she clearly can’t be the only person I talk to. I guess I’m trying to say that determining what to say, when to say, and to whom to say it to is an ongoing process. You’re far from alone with this problem.

    1. Thank you! That’s so nice to hear. 🙂

      Thanks for that…

      Being a reticent Canadian in an EMOTIONAL country (the U.S.) I am always really somewhat ill at ease when people spill their feelings all over strangers, as many will do here.

      In some other cultures, that’s a true sign of intimacy and trust, but when it’s just something people do….(!??) it’s oddly disorienting to me.

      I’ve also seen — from disclosing this news to people — a wide range of reactions, mostly incredibly kind and generous. But some freak and flee. You learn quite a bit about what some people can handle.

      1. Susan Dunphy

        And what can be disorienting, at least to me, are the times when people will ‘spill’ their whole lives to you, but it doesn’t mean that your relationship with that person is more close or more intimate as a result of this. It’s as though you’re not supposed to acknowledge what they told you; just be a receptacle for their pain on that particular day.

        And about the people that haven’t responded to the news of your illness in the way you might expect, it’s because of a problem that person (s) is having; it has nothing to do with you. The confession that you’re ill is probably frightening to them in some way and they can’t deal with it.

        Again, stay strong; I wish you the best.

      2. Man, that is so true. I have no patience for that stuff.

        I agree. I don’t take it personally. I am very very grateful for the kindness we have been shown by our friends, even colleagues.

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