There’s a lot of shit going on right now. It seems like in every corner of the globe, something is exploding, imploding or on the brink of doing either. Makes you question if Earth or God or whatever higher power you ascribe to is a little annoyed with the human race experiment.
Some people are dealing with the end of the world as we know it better than others. That’s perhaps not particularly surprising. Some people are better at dealing with everything better than others. But what nugget do these magical unicorns have, that maybe the rest aren’t quite aware of.
I feel like I’ve been having the same conversation over and over again. Sometimes it’s with friends or family members. Sometimes it’s in sessions. and sometimes it’s even in my own head. It usually starts with an awareness of something happening, and that something being no good. What follows is a wide range of emotions – anger, frustration, distress, sadness, helplessness, etc. Then there’s the secondary reaction – the anger, sadness and frustration that one would even have to experience these feelings in the first place.
I mean, what the hell man? Why do we keep having to deal with things that are outside of our control and that impact us on this very personal level? Why is the world exploding? Why are things the way they are? Why doesn’t my partner understand why I’m upset? Why is my country failing so miserably to find a way forward? Why are the people around me being such inconsiderate assholes? There is so much pain pent up inside this tightly wound ball of our perspective, screaming at the injustice of it all. It yells out “ARGH! WHY ARE YOU MAKING ME FEEL THIS WAY!?”
And I mean, I get it. The so-called negative emotions don’t feel great. There’s that pit-in-the-stomach sensation that goes with sadness. The antsy, jittery feeling of anxiety. The tingling, heated, throbbing angry sensation. And, my personal least favorite, that gut-punch, spike of adrenaline that goes with fear. I don’t begrudge anyone who isn’t specifically looking to experience more of that in their life. But sometimes we give our emotions just a wee bit too much power. They are, after all, just feelings. They may be strange and complex, but they, in and of themselves, aren’t dangerous. So why do we act like they are?
As a young therapist-in-training, the model on which I was educated focused on identifying and exploring a client’s “emotional avoidance” while encouraging that person to engage in “emotional tolerance”. There are few of us who get any form of adequate emotion coaching or mentoring, so if client’s can emerge from therapy being able to confront their emotions and “feel the feels” rather then avoiding them through drugs, alcohol, exercise, eating, self-harming, ruminating, or depending on others to manage their feelings for them, I would count that as a success. But at the same time, Emotional tolerance can only get you so far. I feel like it’s missing a key part of the picture, and the key part is responsibility. Tolerating or accepting emotion has this implication that the emotion is going to happen to you, just like all this cruddy stuff in the world is going to happen to you, and your job is to just sit there and take it. Accept that the anger is there. Accept that the sadness is there and ride it out.
I think we’re capable of more. Accepting an emotion sounds peaceful, but it also takes us out of the driver seat of our own experience. As if to say that we’re resigned to just watching our lives play out in front of us rather than taking center stage.
What would that mean, then, to take full ownership of your emotions?
For one, it would mean giving up your emotions as excuses.
- “Sorry I was such an a-hole, I was just really angry about something my boss said.”
- “I can’t hang out with you today” (because I’m way to anxious to leave my house).
- “I know you wanted to have sex, but I was feeling too annoyed with you to having any kind of connection.”
- “You hurt my feelings, so I’m going to ignore you and give you the silent treatment”.
For another, it would mean taking a step back, identifying what your tendency is, and then, in most cases at least, doing the opposite thing.
- “My kid is pushing my buttons like whoa and all I want to do is scream my head off and yell at her to go to her room. Instead, I’m going to go sit down with her calmly and connect with her on an emotional level so she understands where the boundary is, and what the consequences are if/when she crosses it”
- “My husband is being a complete grouch. It makes me want to avoid him so his negativity doesn’t rub off on me. Instead, I’m going to approach him, compassionately and empathetically and offer him support – even if he doesn’t ask for it”.
- “My mom is criticizing me yet again and spouting off her wacked-out opinions. I want to snap at her for her backwards ways and uninformed beliefs. Instead, I’m going to accept her as she is, even if she has trouble accepting me as I am, while also affirming who I am, what I like, and what I believe.”
What do you think? Have you ever been able to take a step back from the roar of your emotions long enough to see a different way through them? What’s happened?