In the Dark Times

I can’t speak for other parts of the globe, but things have been pretty rough in the U.S. There have been horrific hurricanes that have left so many Americans suffering without vital services. There have been political controversies that seem to be rocking us at our foundations. There have been wildfires raging in and around communities in the West. There’s a lot that’s going wrong. There’s a lot weighing us down. There’s a lot to grieve, to mourn, to argue about, to consider. There are a lot of people facing the darkest emotions the human experience has to offer.

What Do We Do With Our Negative Emotions?

We are not taught how to deal with our feelingsUnfortunately, as a culture, we are not very well practiced at those dark emotions. We don’t often actively encourage people to feel how they feel. We prefer that they “pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and start all over again.” We have legends, books, songs, movies, stories, and cultural icons that show us that this is the way. The pause for grief and sorrow must be brief. And then what? Well, I’m afraid for many people, this means an awful lot of stuffing and swatting. We stuff our bad feelings in. When they rise up, we shove them down, often with food or alcohol, really packing them back in there and creating the dopamine buzz that will make us think we feel better. We stuff and we stuff.

We also swat our dark feelings away. We swat them away like they are insignificant as houseflies. “Now’s not a good time. Go away. I’ll think about that later. I don’t want to deal with that now. Oooooh… look, something shiny.” And then we distract ourselves. We distract ourselves with whatever our favorite and most effective distraction is. We distract ourselves with work. We distract ourselves with social media. We distract ourselves with television and movies. We distract ourselves with busyness. We distract ourselves with chores. We distract ourselves with personal drama because outrage often feels better than grief, loneliness, and insecurity. We distract ourselves with pedicures, lattes, and shopping. Swat it away; find something else to do.

And yet, there is only so much stuffing and swatting a person can do. There is only so much the body and the spirit can carry. Because when we stuff and swat, those feelings don’t go away. For stuffers, those feelings just build up.¬†Eventually, many stuffers explode. If you’re not an exploder, I bet you know one. I know a few exploders and have been the recipient of that eventual boom. There’s nothing cheerful about that scenario. What happens to the swatters? Well, the distraction of that one feeling, that one housefly just grows. Eventually it’s a swarm of houseflies (that’s pretty gross) and swatters can’t figure out why they’re having so much trouble getting things done. Why can’t I concentrate? Why do I feel so tired all of the time? Why can’t I seem to make any decisions? Because SO much energy is going into swatting those emotions away. SO much energy is being used to pretend to be okay.

How Can We Process Our Dark Emotions?

There is only one real course of action here, and if you’ve been playing along it will come as no surprise to you. The only reasonable thing to do is to feel those feelings. The only reasonable thing to do is to just freaking surrender for a few minutes, because in all likelihood that’s all it will take to start to feel some relief, to stop feeling the need to stuff and swat. Heck, even if it takes an hour that’s far less time than you’re losing to that feeling with all of that stuffing and swatting.

But I’m afraid if I let myself feel it, I will never feel good again….

If you don’t let yourself feel it, you will struggle to actually REALLY feel good. You may have temporary relief, but that shadow will remain.

But I can’t just break down. I have responsibilities.

Yes, yes you can. Your responsibilities can wait a few minutes while you sit on the floor and cry your eyes out. If it’s kids you’re worried about, maybe it’s time they saw an adult cry so they know that it’s okay. If it’s other adult responsibilities, lists of tasks, things that need to get done, I PROMISE you will be more productive if you let yourself take a few minutes to be genuinely honest with yourself.

But I’m afraid to feel it.

Yes, I know. But you can take it. You were made to experience the whole shebang on this planet, not just the good parts, and not just the shiny objects. You can venture into the depth of it and come out the other side. And every time you do, it will be less scary. You won’t stop having dark feelings, but learning that you can have them, handle them, recover – that’s priceless. THAT will change your entire existence. You don’t have to be afraid, or you don’t have to let your fear stop you from feeling how you actually feel. You are allowed to feel whatever you are feeling and if you finally write yourself that permission slip, things will change.

How to rise higher than you thought possible
But feeling and crying and doing all of that makes me week. 

Oh no my darling one. Allowing the fullness of this life to touch you makes you resilient, makes you whole, makes you a freaking Phoenix. You can never rise to your highest heights if you are always running from the flames.

Feeling Your Feelings

If you’re ready to try, there’s no official instruction manual, but I can offer you some tips. Next time you feel a big wave of negative emotion, get yourself somewhere where you can feel comfortable, and just focus on allowing it. You don’t have to do anything special, just don’t fight it. Don’t try to talk yourself out of it. Don’t ask it questions. Don’t analyze it. Don’t argue with it. Just allow it. If tears come, let them flow. If you need to make a noise and can do that safely, do it. Just allow it. Notice how it feels in your body. Notice that you are still there, that you haven’t been obliterated. Notice how your body changes as you allow the feeling. Notice how the tension falls away. Notice how the feeling diminishes in time. Notice that you are okay, that you are still whole. Notice that you didn’t have to act on that feeling to have it ease up a bit. Notice that you handled it and tell yourself what an excellent job you did.

If you are in a difficult situation, consider how much easier it might be if you just allowed yourself to feel it for a few minutes. I promise you’ll be alright. If you need someone to talk you through it, I’m here.

How SHOULD You Feel?

Slide1I can’t tell you how many times clients and friends, heck everybody I know has come up against a moment where, when we really dig down a bit, the problem isn’t necessarily HOW they feel, but how they think they SHOULD feel. Let me explain.

There’s a bride preparing for the big day. She’s sure she’s doing the right thing. Her partner is the right one for her, no question in her mind. And yet as she is getting dressed with her sisters and mothers, it’s there, that little twinge that makes her tear up. That bit of sadness that makes her pause for a moment and, if she gives herself enough time, maybe even start to doubt herself. Why am I sad? I shouldn’t be sad right now. It’s one of the happiest days of my life. I SHOULD not be sad; does that mean there’s something wrong? Is my subconscious trying to tell me something? Oh no, what if this is all wrong after all?…

You can see how this could get complicated.

Picture a funeral, one that follows a long struggle with an unkind illness. Picture a caretaker who is exhausted and grieving. Watch that caretaker brush aside the moment of relief he is surely feeling in favor of guilt that he should feel that way at all. He should be sad; he should only be sad. Being anything else means he’s selfish or unfeeling or somehow cheapens the relationship. We’ve now gone from grieving to self-abuse.

This is, I believe, a uniquely human trick: the double layer torture. Because we have the capacity to think about what we’re thinking, we are able to load judgment onto our struggles. Great.

I see my clients and friends do it all of the time. I see coach friends do it too – we’re actually extra good at it because we see it all happening and think that means we should know better: “I thought I was done with this. I KNOW this is just a story I’m telling myself. I can’t believe I’m here again.” Double layer torture is often rooted in some kind of feeling that we should know better, we should act better, that we should BE better people, the kind who don’t have feelings that don’t appear to match the occasion, the kind of people for whom life is simple – black and white, good and bad, right and wrong.

“Well, when you say it that way….” YES I’m saying it that way. Because we are all complicated; there is a whole lot of grey and with all of that complication and middle ground, we are, quite simply, allowed to feel however we feel. You are allowed to feel how you feel. You are allowed to feel how you feel. You are allowed to feel how you feel. And feeling how you feel doesn’t make you selfish, or unworthy, or wrong, or mixed up, or anything other than a stunning and complex human being. You get to feel how you feel without judgment, especially from yourself.

So what to do when these moments happen, when our feelings don’t match with how we THINK we should feel and we’re tempted first to torture ourselves with scorn for that and then to analyze that whole scene to figure out how messed up we really are… what to do?

How about a little compassion? How about taking a deep breath and allowing the feeling to be there, getting yourself a kleenex so the tears can come out without ruining your makeup if it’s your wedding day, allowing the smile if it’s a funeral? How about starting by telling yourself that you get to feel how you feel and it doesn’t make you anything other than human?

Slide2You may be startled to find that giving the feeling that room allows it to pass through, and suddenly it will become just a moment of real humanness rather than an indicator of a lifetime of anything. It will become a passing sentiment rather than evidence that you are who you’ve always been afraid that you are. It will just be a feeling, a feeling that you are allowed to have, and then it will be done. It will be done and you will still be worthy.