When I read the book The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, I identified strongly with a character. May, one of the sisters in the book, feels the pain of others so strongly it’s as if their pain, grief, horror, is hers. Attempting to manage all these overwhelming feelings, she scribbles names or descriptions on small rolls of paper and pushes the roll into the crevices of a stone wall she’s built–that way she tries to externalize the pain and get it out of her own head.
I’ve felt something similar over my lifetime, but more selfishly, usually the overwhelming feelings have been my own emotions of pain, grief, or horror. At my most generous I’ve felt a strong urge to help someone else feel less pain. Even that has often been driven by the fact that their emotional pain hurts me. If I can help them feel better, more at peace, then I am more at peace myself.
I want to be an empathetic person, a truly empathetic for the right reasons kind of person. I just want to be able to do it with some balance and flair, like one of those people in a circus flipping from high trapeze to high trapeze in a shiny leotard. (Mine would be aquamarine. With feathers.)
Here was the major roadblock: I didn’t even know I could practice my emotional trapeze technique. I thought I was stuck with the techniques I had at that moment. And being stuck in a constant state of Big Feelings is exhausting.
Better late than never, right? If my life thus far has been in thirds–first third childhood/college/single, second two thirds marriage/divorce–does that make the next twenty years of my life the fourth third? However the math works out, I’m hoping to practice practice practice my way to balance and poise in my emotional state. I want to learn to handle my emotions differently, handle the emotions of others differently. I want to be more authentic in my responses to someone else’s harsh situation and the resulting feelings. This means my motive has to be about them, their pain, not mine.
Knowing how to respond to someone’s emotional upset helps me focus on them, their need, and gets my eyes off my own bellybutton. When we don’t sit with the unpleasant feelings that have rushed in, we won’t process all the way through to closure and acceptance. Here are two similar tools I’ve learned and personalized for ways to deal with the Big Uncomfortable Feelings and Words of life:
Observe those feelings. Feelings come and go. Sometimes they feel like we will never get past them, and maybe there are certain ones we default to because of the way we see the world and the people in it. Without trying to change or judge my painful emotions of fear or sadness or grief and so on, I use a visual image–I am a large rock in the middle of a stream or river, with the water carrying my feelings as it runs constantly over my head and around me. As the rock I notice the feelings as they come rushing toward me, over and around me smoothly. “Yup, there’s my sadness in this situation. There goes my anger at the unfairness of it…and my grief that the situation will never be the way I wanted it to be.” We can sit with our feelings as long as we need to for them to run their course, as they do. It’s calming and somewhat meditative to simply observe them.
In the same way but with a different visual, we can observe the negative words put on us by ourselves and by others. I touched on this in a previous post. The wind is hitting my face, and I see pieces of paper with the negative words I’m hearing, no matter who we may have received them from. Close your eyes and picture the words on the pieces of paper: Foolish. Stupid. Less-than. Too loud. Incapable. No voice. etc.. As the wind blows these notes against your eyes and mouth and cheeks, visualize them hitting but not sticking to your face. Those words of self and other judgment are being swept away by the wind. Keep picturing this in your mind until the words run out and you realize they’ve gone and are now papering somebody’s back garden fence.
Both are simple to do. Either could work for words or emotions. I’m a pretty visual person, so this type of exercise is helpful for me.
The Bring Your Own Beverage Conversation: Do you have repetitive words and phrases in your head or on your lips that label you negatively? Write a list of them. Do you have any big emotions you wish you didn’t have? Write a list. Use your list with either visualization, sitting quietly for 5 or 10 minutes and letting them clear out your mind of the labels, the painful feelings, and help you move forward. How did you feel after completing the exercise?
Remember that you have worth simply because you’re on this planet! #Ihaveworth