Monday, February 17, 2014

What Alanis Morissette Taught Me About Emotional Agency

How emotional agency can lead to stronger relationships, with lessons from Alanis Morissette.

Few people have influenced me as much as my ultimate guru, my enduring idol and sweet soul-model Alanis Morissette. As her new album Havoc and Bright Lights releases, I anticipate a similar unravelling-of-self to those I have experienced with the release of each album in her repertoire over the dozen years of our communion. Her musical and spiritual influence on my life has not waned in this time, and I find each new album to act as a calling. Often these callings are challenging, jarring, painful and unsettling. Always they are beautiful. So in anticipation of another such revelatory experience, I feel that now is an ideal time to reflect on how her music and message have helped me to become the person that I am: a forcefully imperfect person, with baggage to spare, but someone powerful and connected in ways that I could never have dreamed to be had it not been for the influence of people like Alanis.

It is a difficult task to sum up the role which the music of Alanis has played in my life. Her 7 albums and over 100 songs have dealt with many subjects and themes which are personally significant to me: feminism, addiction, connection, actualisation, parenting, relationships, self-deception, self-doubt, creativity, heartache, and enjoying life fully (to name a few). Her mode of expression has always been uplifting and affirming, but simultaneously critical and feisty, characteristics which I have sought to emulate in my personal dealings. She has demonstrated a willingness to face her demons bravely and shamelessly, and to engage with herself and the world with love and openness. And through all of this, she has maintained an approach of humility and an understanding that humanity is defined by its incompleteness. There will always be higher levels to reach, new things to learn, and deeper connections to foster. This message has been especially resonant for me in my own writing, and has helped me to accept and embrace my own weakness, failure, insanity, lack of poise, and disconnection. I’ve seen that all of those things which I once was (and still am, in many ways) ashamed or frightened of, actually allow me to lead a more meaningful life. Those things allow me to express and experience things which define the Grantness of my being, and I’ve discovered the beauty of that Grantness in part due to the role which Alanis has played. This idea of embracing the journey of life is captured in the (initially ironic) lyrics of her song “Incomplete”:

One day I’ll find relief
I’ll be arrived
And I’ll be a friend to my friends who know how to be friends
One day I’ll be at peace
I’ll be enlightened
And I’ll be married with children and maybe adopt
One day I will be healed
I will gather my wounds, forge the end of tragic comedy
I have been running so sweaty my whole life
Urgent for a finish line
And I have been missing the rapture this whole time
Of being forever incomplete
Through looking closely at these illusions of completeness, Alanis has helped me to understand and appreciate the endless journeying which life entails. There will never be a finish line to personal development in life, and there will never be perfection in any aspect of my being. And that is a fact worth celebrating – as Alanis refers to it, a rapturous truth. It allows for expansion, exploration and adventure. But it also implies failure and difficulty as constants in life. The song has highlighted for me that embracing these markers of incompleteness allows for a life of deeper gratitude and centeredness.
Considering the wide range of influence which her music has had in my life, I’ve chosen to focus this article on how Alanis has facilitated my journey in a sphere which I refer to as emotional agency. Having a developed faculty of emotional agency means being able to understand and process emotions so that they are empowering.  It is also the ability to communicate emotions effectively in ways which can strengthen connections: being able to say “I love you” or “I am frightened” when you feel these things; being able to apologise for hurting someone else; being able to soften and embrace yourself and others; being able to learn from experiences and deal with similar experiences more effectively in future.
Emotional agency has two important aspects: it requires vulnerability, and it is a part of any truly significant and deep connection. These are factors which I’ve witnessed repeatedly in my life. Often, I’ve been on the precipice of beautiful connections with romantic partners or friends, but I have suffered from the unwillingness to be vulnerable to that connection. I was too scared to say how I truly felt, or I left a lot of emotions unprocessed, or I carried psychic baggage that I was unable to face, or I ran away when parts of myself were being uncomfortably exposed. These are things which I continue to do in many ways, but which I am getting better at. Being vulnerable to emotions, be they good or bad, is a powerful tool in strengthening connections in life. This vulnerability requires honesty, to yourself and to others. When you can look at the pain which you carry instead of hiding from it or denying it, you dispel some of its power. When you can go through grief instead of trying to numb yourself to emotion, you can move forward in your personal development.
Alanis demonstrates this form of vulnerability to emotion in many of her songs. In the poignant exposition of her song “This Grudge”, she focuses on the way in which anger and resentment can linger for years after a relationship ends. The song deals with how she has held on to these negative emotions instead of releasing them, and blaming someone else for the emotional baggage which she carried. She asserts in this song: “I wanna forgive for the both of us,” recognising how allowing these emotions to go unprocessed can be a constant nagging weight on personal development as well as on connection. Similarly, her song “You Oughta Know” demonstrates this cathartic release of anger and resentment. The song is a visceral disparagement of a former lover, referring to him as “Mr. Duplicity” and describing the situation with tangible contempt: “It was a slap in the face/ How quickly I was replaced/ And are you thinking of me when you fuck her?” The rawness on display in this song demonstrates an aspect of emotional agency: Alanis is allowing the ugliness of disconnection and the embarrassment of this separation to be portrayed. She opens herself to the welling anger which she feels, and allows this energy to be shifted. She has famously never named this former lover, never resorting to simple vengefulness through shaming. Instead, the song seems to offer a form of confrontation with an overwhelming situation. In “Torch”, her haunting lament on a breakup, she recounts all of the aspects of a relationship which she remembers and misses, staring into the face of this painful separation: “I miss your smell and your style/ And your pure abiding way/ Miss your approach to life/ And your body in my bed/ Miss your take on anything/ And the music you would play/ Miss cracking up and wrestling/ Our debriefs at end of day.” By focusing on the connection that once was, and grieving the loss of this closeness, Alanis speaks to the way in which psychic scars from these forms of trauma can have fundamental effects on one’s sense of self. She unearths the mourning not only of what was, but also what could have been, and allowing these illusions to find expression dispels some of their power. In “Simple Together”, she again focuses on loss and the illusions which romance can produce, singing: “This grief overwhelms me/ It burns in my stomach/ And I can’t stop bumping into things/ I thought we’d be simple together/ I thought we’d be happy together/ Thought we’d be limitless together/ I thought we’d be precious together/ But I was sadly mistaken.  Each of these songs about disconnection point to an aspect of emotional agency: looking at the resentments and illusions which trauma inspires, and allowing them to fall, even though that process of surrender can be extremely painful. Romantic relationships are always significantly affecting and also act as a mirror to the self, and through Alanis’s willingness to delve into the implications of disconnection with ex-romantic partners, she highlights how the space of vulnerability can be richly rewarding. By acknowledging and affirming the emotions which surround disconnection, she can lay to rest the illusions which accompany them and take back a sense of power. This courageous honesty and vulnerability also allows those who are going through similar experiences to relate to her music and to process their own emotions.
But emotional agency does not simply mean acknowledging darkness and pain in life. It also involves celebrating the joys, the wonders and the passions every day. This is a form of gratitude for all of the good things which life has to offer. From her euphoric anthem to freedom “Giggling Again for No Reason”, to her blissful tribute to vulnerable and joyful living “You Learn” (where she “recommend[s] walking around naked in your living room”), to her love song to her favourite beverage “On the Tequila”, Alanis demonstrates a nature of fun and a sense of comfort with herself. These moments of appreciating joy and living lightly demonstrate a love for life and a sense of adventure which have also become important to me in my development. Allowing myself to experience bliss, to dance without reservation, to make a fool of myself and to go on adventures with my beautiful friends has made my life one of frequent laughter and happiness. In this regard, Alanis has helped me to focus on having more fun in life, her message affirming that I have permission to be comfortable with all aspects of myself. She teaches fearlessness in life and love, a great message for me since I have a tendency to want to isolate and maintain distance. Alanis speaks of similar tendencies in her song “Fear of Bliss”, where she explores how joy can often be resisted due to the potential dangers which it represents: “My misery has enjoyed company/ And although I have ached I don’t threaten anybody/ Sometimes I feel more bigness than I’ve shared with you/ Sometimes I wonder why I quell when I’m not required to/ I’ve tried to be small/ I’ve tried to be stunted/ I’ve tried roadblocks and all/ My happy endings prevented.” Being afraid of happiness might sound like an insane contradiction, but I have noticed that it stems from a fear of exposure and of allowing others in too deeply. Suffering from a sense of unworthiness (which we all suffer from in one way or another) leads to thinking that when you get too close to someone, they will see the ugliness that you try to hide. Self-sabotage is a tool in this form of defensiveness, since too much joy, power or freedom can lead to much more exposure and scrutiny from others. And in this distance from connection, there is also a distancing from joy. Allowing these reluctances to be undone is a part of emotional agency. Allowing life in, in all its messiness and chaos (and ultimately miraculous beauty), leads to amazing new forms of happiness. This is a lesson that I am still slowly learning in my life. In her song “Limbo No More”, Alanis sings about committing to this exposure to all aspects of life, and how it leads to greater joys:
Sense of myself
My purpose is clear
My roots in the ground
Something at last I can feel a part of
Something aligned
To finally commit
Somewhere I belong
‘Cause I’m ready to be limbo no more
This song speaks to investing deeply in all aspects of life: allowing love and joy to flow without reservation, allowing connections to develop, and allowing experiences to be whatever they are. This approach can give rise to heartache, disappointment and loss, but it is also the only way to experience deep, passionate connection, joy, freedom and love. Alanis demonstrates this giddy and unreserved connectedness in love songs like “Knees of My Bees” and “Everything”, and celebrates the power of vulnerability in her joyful song of veneration, “In Praise of the Vulnerable Man”. She shows how she can appreciate the beauty in others and how magical freedom and shamelessness can be in “So Pure” and “No Pressure Over Cappuccino”. And she recounts her emancipation from the constraints of external pressures in the empowering “Unprodigal Daughter”:
I have disengaged to avoid being totalled
I would run away and say good riddance soon enough
I had grown disgusted by your small-minded ceiling
To imagine myself bolting had not been difficult
Soon be my life, soon be my pace
Soon be my choice of which you’ll have no part
Unprodigal daughter and I’m heading for the west
Disenchanted daughter and this plane cannot fly fast enough
Unencumbered daughter, hit the ground running at last
I’d invite you but I’m busy being unoppressed
Each of the songs above point to an appreciation for the joys and beauty in life, and how much can be gained from being vulnerable to deeply connecting with these joys. They show how overcoming the fear of bliss and the fear of being exposed and vulnerable can lead to unimagined wonders. Her message is that lLetting go of stifling thoughts and oppressive ways of being can lead to greater power and freedom in life.
The final aspect of emotional agency which I’ll explore is the way in which Alanis demonstrates a study of her own emotional reactions. She looks closely at how her emotions operate, and practices self-criticism but also self-acceptance in seeking to understand how emotions can affect her and how they add to her life. In “So Unsexy”, she shows how her self-image can be tied to the way others treat her (or at least, how she perceives the way others treat her). She examines how subtle messages from the outside can lead to self-loathing: “Oh these little rejections/ How they add up quickly/ One small sideways look and I/ Feel so ungood/ Somewhere along the way I think/ I gave you the power to make/ Me feel the way I thought only/ My father could.” The song highlights how sometimes the way one feels can be out of sync with reality, and how these false thoughts can encroach on the expression of positive aspects of one’s being. She is unable to appreciate the good things about herself because she starts to believe the messages which tell her that she is unworthy: “I can feel so unsexy for someone so beautiful/ So unloved for someone so kind/ I can feel so boring for someone so interesting/ So ignorant for someone of sound mind.” Looking at how these emotions are triggered, and then realigning with truth, is a part of emotional agency. Alanis suggests that these emotions do not define the truth about you, and when they are exposed for the illusions that they are, you can live in the truth of your own worthiness. The song exposes how external pressures can have devastating effects on self-worth, similar to what Alanis demonstrates in “Perfect”, which shows how parental pressure can negatively affect a child. Self-deceptions are also highlighted in “Excuses”, where Alanis delves into limiting thoughts which are offered as excuses for remaining stagnant or disconnected. These excuses for limiting one’s own transcendence and joy again point to a sense of unworthiness: “Why no one will help me/ I’m too dumb, I’m too smart/ They’ll not understand me/ I am lonely, they’ll hate me/ There is not enough time/ It’s too hard to help me/ God wants me to work/ No resting, no lazy.” These are thoughts which everyone entertains at one point or another, and when they become chronic they can have extreme effects on self-understanding. Ultimately, Alanis asserts that exposing and exploring these thoughts is the path to overcoming them: “Bringing these into the light shakes their foundation and clears my sight/ And now my imagination is the only thing that limits the bar in its rise to the heights.” The songs above all demonstrate the power of introspection. Looking closely at limiting patterns of thought and the emotional reactions which are attached to them can open pathways to empowerment. She practices this self-criticism in many more songs, such as “Purgatorying” and “Eight Easy Steps” which each explore self-negating actions and habits, as well as “Precious Illusions”, which details how she once deferred to romance and men in the fantasy that this would give her life merit. In her song “Tapes”, she explores the messages which she constantly feeds herself about her own self-worth, especially in the realm of romance:
I am someone easy to leave
Even easier to forget
A voice if inaccurate
Again, I’m the one they all run from
Diatribes of clouded sun
Someone help me find the pause button
All these tapes in my head swirl around
Keeping my vibe down
All these thoughts in my head aren’t my own
Wreaking havoc
I’m too exhausting to be loved
A volatile chemical
Best to quarantine and cut off [...]
I’m but a thorn in your sweet side
You’d be better off without me
It’d be best to leave at once
These thoughts, constantly repeating like tapes, lead to the long-term inability to reach deep connection. Replacing these negative messages with empowering and nurturing ideas is a step towards fostering stronger bonds with yourself and others. Here, Alanis reinforces the age-old idea that loving oneself is a necessary ingredient for effective living.
In this light, she writes love songs to herself which demonstrate an approach of kindness and appreciation for every aspect of her being. Her song “UR” is an autobiographical reflection which lovingly refers to many different parts of her personality. She looks at the events of her recent past and considers how they have affected the person who she is, writing with tenderness about her challenges. “Orchid”, “Thank U”, and “That I Would Be Good” are similar explorations of various aspect of her nature, giving herself permission to be imperfect and to appreciate the parts of herself that she might once have been ashamed of, and ultimately affirming the goodness of her being. The songs gently expose and affirm parts of herself that she had been uncomfortable with, and give her the platform to accept every aspect of her humanity. She sings in “That I Would Be Good”: “That I would be loved even when I numb myself/ That I would be good even when I am overwhelmed/ That I would be loved even when I was fuming/ That I would be good even if I was clingy/ That I would be good even if I lost sanity/ That I would be good whether with or without you.”
Mostly, Alanis has demonstrated to me someone willing to love, and love deeply. She has committed herself to connection, upliftment, intimacy and romance in ways which are simultaneously challenging and miraculous. She has “see[n] life as an oyster” as she recounts in “Offer”. And this is something that I have aimed to do, with my loved ones, in my work and in my writing, in the projects I take on and in the moments of leisure and silliness. I have aimed to be authentically me, and to dive deeply into the people who I am blessed to know and love. I have been relentlessly clingy, awkward, over-the-top, cheesy, disastrously passionate, painfully upfront and nauseatingly affectionate. And my goal is to become even more so in future. Even though I’ll be imperfect at it, even though there will always be reservations and baggage, and even though I’ll fail many, many times as I have in the past, I am learning to love totally. Alanis sings in “You Owe Me Nothing in Return,” a song which has significantly affected my understanding of love:
I’ll give you countless amounts of outright acceptance if you want it
I will give you encouragement to choose the path that you want if you need it
You can speak of anger and doubts, your fears and freak-outs and I’ll hold it
You can share your so-called shame-filled accounts of times in your life and I won’t judge it
And there are no strings attached to it
You owe me nothing for giving the love that I give
You owe me nothing for caring the way that I have
I give you thanks for receiving, it’s my privilege
And you owe me nothing in return
You can ask for space for yourself, and only yourself, and I’ll grant it
You can ask for freedom as well or time to travel and you’ll have it
You can ask to live by yourself or love someone else and I’ll support it
You can ask for anything you want, anything at all, and I’ll understand it [...]
You can express your deepest of truths even if it means I’ll lose you and I’ll hear it
You can fall into the abyss on your way to your bliss, I’ll empathise with
You can say that you have to skip town to chase your passion and I’ll hear it
You can even hit rock-bottom, have a mid-life crisis and I’ll hold it
And there are no strings attached to it
This form of intensely unselfish love, where one loves and lets go at the same time, has been something I have worked to show in my life. And it has offered me countless rewards. Even though I can never truly separate all selfishness from love, I have aimed to do so as far as possible in every relationship. Alanis demonstrates love that is enrapturing, unbounded and deeply affecting. She often points to the interconnectedness of all people, and how micro-level connections or disconnections can have macro-level consequences. Songs like “Underneath” and “Symptoms” highlight this sense of interconnectedness, and show how loving oneself and others is essential for building the type of world where freedom, joy and connection are the common mode of being. This is not to say that disconnections will not occur and that limits to love will not arise, but through the practices of emotional agency these disconnections can be processed and learned from.
So at the threshold of this denouement, I feel a calling to renew my commitment to connection and to the upliftment of myself and the world. I am grateful for the emotional growth of the current phase in my life, and I look forward to the coming phase. What I notice fading in the approach of Havoc is the sense of shame and inadequacy which I used to hold about my life. Especially my serial ‘failure’ at relationships. What I am learning now is that each of us shows love in our own way, and that love does not mean control. So even the sense of failure which I used to feel was an illusion, because giving and receiving love wholeheartedly cannot be measured merely by the end-result. With her first single from Havoc, “Guardian”, Alanis demonstrates a fierce form of love which endures despite the baggage, and which rages in the face of fear and uncertainty. This love is not only shared with the people in her life, but also with herself. She sings: “I’ll be your keeper for life/ As your guardian/ I’ll be your warrior of care/ Your first warden/ I’ll be your angel on call/ I’ll be on demand/ The greatest honour of all/ As your guardian.” Even when many of us have been conditioned to consider ourselves unworthy of the love we are surrounded by, and even when we hold idealised notions of who we need to be or who our partners need to be before love can flourish, these constraints do not define that underlying connection. I see this quest towards emotional agency as a movement into deeper love and appreciation for the people and things which give my life meaning. Being connected to my emotions allows me to take ownership of the space I am in, and to allow myself to grieve, celebrate, apologise, disagree and love in ways that are strengthening and authentic.
Alanis speaks of the process of taking charge of your own healing after difficulty and disconnection and starting to see yourself in a new light after old definitions become stifling, showing how extremely challenging but also how necessary emotional agency can be. She sings in “Not As We”, a song about the uncertainty of recovery after hardships:
Reborn and shivering
Spat out on new terrain
Unsure, unconvincing
This faint and shaky hour
Day one, day one, start over again
Step one, step one
I’m barely making sense
For now I’m faking it ‘til I’m pseudo-making it
From scratch begin again, but this time I as I
And not as we
Gun shy and quivering
Timid without a hand
Feign brave with steel intent
Little and hardly here [...]
Eyes wet toward
Wide open, frayed
If God’s taking bets
I pray he wants to lose
Having started my year with so much tumult and insecurity after some very painful disconnections, this song has been especially significant in helping to bring me back to myself. I feel more equipped to deal with hardships, fears and my own failings in future.
Emotional agency involves recognising and affirming the darkness, reaching for and celebrating the light, and understanding how emotions interact with your thoughts and actions so that you can make better choices. These three aspects all require vulnerability and courage, and can lead to amazing levels of connection with yourself and others. Alanis has been a symbol of courageous living to me, and I look forward to starting a new phase of my life while being blessed with new music from her.