Earlier this week, I was frustrated looking to pick a fight. Emotions are high these days; I have been hearing from clients, friends, and loved ones how their feelings are right at the surface. It feels like we are all ready to boil over with frustration, anger, sadness, and for some, an overwhelming feeling of meh. Feelings are coming up that are uncomfortable and logically unexplainable. If something we humans hate (especially those of us with High Functioning Anxiety) is uncomfortable and illogical emotions.
I have been thinking of these messy feelings as a stream we have to cross. Sometimes we can cross the stream of anger or sadness relatively easily. We can figure out what makes us angry or sad and then find a way to cross the stream with relative ease. We can have a conversation, ask for a need, have a good cry, and get to the other side of the stream. And sometimes (I would argue many times) it isn’t that easy; we have to stand in the middle of the stream and let the feelings wash over us before we can find our way across.
To be clear, I am very much a work in progress in navigating feelings in a healthy way. My defaults of denial, repression, and over-analyzation are strong —just ask my husband. But the following is what I know to be true and what I am working on practicing in my life.
Our first response to feelings is usually wrong. We say to ourselves, “I DO NOT WANT TO FEEL THIS WAY! There must be something wrong with me. I need to get out of this feeling as quickly as possible.” So we engage in the following behaviors that usually aren’t helpful.
Venting: We reach out to a friend and just rant about all the ways we are annoyed, tired, exhausted.
Consequence: We don’t feel anything; doing this keeps us trapped in our head. We hang up the phone and temporarily feel better, but it returns later because we haven’t acknowledged the feeling.
Shaming: We tell ourselves, “I should be happy? I have so much to be grateful for.” Or “this isn’t a big deal. Who am I to be sad? People have it WAY worse than me.”
Consequence: Basically, we are shaming ourselves for not feeling anything except gratitude 100% of the time. Gratitude is helpful for perspective, and so we can appreciate the little things in our life—it is not a way to bypass our feelings.
Ignoring: The belief is if we ignore it, it will go away.
Consequence: Ignoring it takes a lot of work and usually involves some form of numbing (alcohol, food, scrolling the news, keeping busy and concentrating on our to-do list, etc.) AND it always comes to bite us in the ass. The feeling comes back with a vengeance, so we pick a fight with our spouse, we yell at our kids, we cry uncontrollably, or we get all righteous with our friends.
Analyzing: WHY am I feeling this way? What is wrong? We analyze the feeling to get to the root of it, in the hopes it will go away.
Consequence: Sometimes, this is helpful. But not all the time. Analyzing can be another form of ranting. It allows us to hang out in our heads and beat ourselves up for having the feeling in the first place. Often, after we acknowledge and allow the feeling, we can then analyze it and get to the root of the issue.
Doomsdaying: We tell ourselves if we acknowledge the feeling, then we will be screaming and yelling at our family or crying our eyes out all day, and who has time for that?
Consequence: This is a justification for ignoring. So the same consequence for ignoring applies here.
We do all these mental gymnastics to get out of the feeling. I did all of those things this week, trying to get out of the feeling.
And then I was walking our dog Watterson (I have my best ah-ha’s walking Watterson). I kept repeating the phrase gentle, gentle, gentle to myself. I would ask myself what I was feeling and up would come a feeling: sad, heartbroken, DONE, frustrated and then my Monger would start in “You should be grateful you have a blessed life.” and I would repeat to myself gentle, gentle, gentle and go back into naming my feelings. Rinse and repeat for a few minutes.
Then I heard myself say, “I feel helpless and heartbroken.” I felt my body let out a big exhale. My whole body relaxed as if I had seen myself for the first time. For one millisecond, I let down all the defenses of justification and rationalization, and my Biggest Fan chimed in and said, “YES. YES. Oh Sweetpea, allow that.” And then, of course, my Monger chimed in with, “Give me a break, heartbroken, you have nothing to be heartbroken about —why are you so heartbroken?” and here is where we go wrong. We start to justify the feeling. We want to explain it. But I kept bringing myself back to “gentle, gentle, gentle.”
To be clear, I wasn’t cured by that dog walk moment. I still have been feeling agitated and touchy—but now, when I catch myself feeling heartbroken, I think to myself, “gentle, gentle, gentle.” And I allow that feeling of helplessness and heartbreak to seep in. I might get some tears in my eyes, I might feel angry and agitated, and I allow it to happen. And then 90 seconds or so later, my body gives me a full exhale, and everything loosens up for a bit.
When I remind myself to be gentle, I am also reminding myself that I am not a robot. I am a human being, and it is ok that this is hard right now.
Years ago, I went in for routine surgery, and I was scared and nervous. Everyone kept telling me this is routine; they have done this surgery thousands of times, don’t be afraid. But it wasn’t routine for me. It was my first major surgery. Yes, maybe the doctor had done it a thousand times, but it was my body that was going to be cut open and required to heal itself over the next few weeks. It was new to me, so of course, I was scared.
Everything we are experiencing is new to us. This year 2020 has been new to us, unprecedented as they say. And from all accounts, there isn’t a light at the end of the tunnel. We are still very much standing in the middle of the stream awash in uncertainty.
I believe this is why so many people in my world are struggling with these big uncomfortable feelings. Our old coping mechanisms of denial, repression, control, and over-analyzation aren’t cutting it. We HAVE to find a different way. We HAVE to figure out how to be gentle, gentle, gentle with ourselves.
This is new. This is uncomfortable. But not impossible. We got this.