We are going through terribly uncertain times as a planet. It can feel terrifying, painful, and overwhelming. In writing this today, I don't intend to provide any answers. I don’t intend to give you anything from a psychology textbook or an empirically validated research study. More so, I am reflecting on a question I have been asking myself a lot over these past few weeks…
“What do I really need right now?”
This question has not been easy to ask myself and it is something that I have continuously had to come back to. Here are three things I have found that we all probably need more of in this scary and uncertain time.
1. Give yourself permission to feel whatever you are feeling.
It can be so easy in times of crisis and chaos to want to stuff down and ignore your feelings. The natural response may be to clench your teeth and just try to push through to the other side. Another way is to distract yourself from truly connecting with and feeling your emotions by thinking more, working more, or binge-watching a show. While these may be temporary ways to push away feelings of fear, anxiety, sadness, anger, or overwhelmed, you may notice that the feelings come back even stronger.
I like to believe that we can’t problem-solve our way out of our emotions. Intense emotions need to be fully experienced, validated, and completed. Imagine a roller coaster ride where as soon as you get to the top of the big hill, you stop the ride and the set of cars are sent back to the starting point. This is what occurs when we try to control or stop our emotions through avoidance, distraction, suppression, or numbing. Allowing yourself to feel and fully experience these intense emotions will allow you to “complete the ride” and be able to return to a sense of groundedness, centeredness, and calm.
Accepting and inviting one’s emotions can be incredibly challenging because we have likely learned the opposite. Emotions are seen as weak, immature, unproductive, irresponsible, unstable, or crazy. We have learned these rules and in order to begin to learn how to connect with your emotions, you’ll need to provide a nurturing, comforting and validating environment for them to be felt. In essence, you’ll need to clear the runway to allow these planes (feelings) to land. Typically, I notice my default internal dialogue around my own emotions sounds something like this:
“Stop! If you feel ____, you’re going to lose control and it will all unravel from here.”
“You can’t let them see you feeling this way, you’ll be a burden. They won’t like it.”
“Come on! Stop crying, this is pathetic, stop being weak! Pull it together.”
These are incredibly harsh and invalidating, and yet we have learned this way of communicating with ourselves. Being critical and demanding during times of feeling intense emotions doesn’t allow much room for these feelings to be truly connected with and expressed. So what would it sound like to truly validate and be with yourself around these difficult feelings? For me, it would sound something like this:
“It’s okay to feel _____. It’s okay to cry. It makes sense to feel this way because…”
“I can see you’re really struggling and that it’s difficult to feel this way.”
“You’re human. You’re doing the best you can right now, be gentle on yourself.”
When reflecting on all of this, I really like what the late John Bradshaw, a renowned family therapist, said about fully feeling and expressing our feelings:
“Our sadness is an energy we discharge in order to heal. Sadness is painful. We try to avoid it. Actually discharging sadness releases the energy involved in our emotional pain. To hold it in is to freeze the pain within us. The therapeutic slogan is that grieving is the ‘healing feeling.’”
2. Notice when you are concluding too soon.
It is natural when you’re feeling intense emotions to think and believe the worst will happen. It’s really easy to scream out in despair, “It’s all over!”, “What’s the point?”,”This is the end!” or “Oh no, I’m doomed!” Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and utter despair can lead to these definite and absolute conclusions. There is an old parable I find to be helpful when I notice myself feeling and thinking in these polarizing and absolute ways.
There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.
“Maybe,” the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses.
“How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.
“Maybe,” replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy for what they called “misfortune.”
“Maybe,” answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son's leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.
“Maybe,” said the farmer.
There are a lot of different lessons that can be taken from this story. This simple parable helps to bring awareness of our ability to create meaning and not make sweeping generalizations or catastrophic conclusions. It can help to find a sense of groundedness and centeredness amongst the overwhelming tides of chaos.
If you notice you are concluding, be gentle on yourself. Simply notice it and allow it to slowly pass on by like a leaf floating down a stream.
3. A time of crisis can help you clarify your values and priorities.
I watched the movie, The Last Samurai again last weekend and it really hit me. I didn’t expect it to speak to me and relate so much to the time that we find ourselves in. Without spoiling the movie, the film centers on a warrior (Tom Cruise) whose life is focused on dominating others, gaining power, and feeding his addiction. However, when he faces a time of crisis, uncertainty, and near death, he experiences a transformation. You begin to see him during his own “quarantine” begin to shift his focus, values, and priorities to other things that he realized are more important to him. He begins to center his life around service, learning, and a sense of inner peace. It is a beautiful story of how we can find ourselves in the midst of feeling like we are losing everything.
The Last Samurai beautifully depicts how times of crisis and chaos can help us clarify what is most important to us and where we really want to spend our time, energy, and attention. And since the quarantine limits our ability to go out and do things in the external world, it can be a time for inner reflection, discernment, and deepening our connection to our inner world. It can provide the opportunity to look inward and consider things you are normally too busy to consider. Crisis and catastrophe can be a wake-up call to ask the questions, “What am I doing this for? What is it that I really want? What is most important to me?”
I spend a lot of time with clients helping them take a step back and clarify what they really want to experience in their life. As clients begin to ask new questions of themselves, the process becomes incredibly powerful and can completely change the trajectory of one's life.
Xavier Heditsian, MA, LPC
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