I’m trying out a new person in my life. So far he seems amazing in all the important ways. However, the other day he made a comment that reminded me of my toxic ex. It triggered me more than I wanted it to. My instincts told me to run away as fast as I could, “do not repeat the past!” This is the first and only red flag. This feeling settled itself in my gut and began to poison my body until I was ready to take action. There are a number of ways I could act. I could run, as my fight, flight or freeze dictated. I could decide to continue to suffer or, in an act of bravery, I could talk to the person about it.
In order to talk to the person, I would need to know exactly what was going on with me. In telling him, I would have to be clear, honest and not accuse him of anything. His behavior was not my favorite, but it wasn’t the problem. The problem was my reaction. I did not want to feel this way, especially about this person, who had done nothing to warrant such a drastic reaction. I wanted to be present, not lost in my past experience.
I am a person who loves physical contact. It makes me feel safe and comforted. When I have to have a challenging conversation with someone it really helps to touch or hold hands. It makes me more confident that the person is present, listening and interested in what is on my mind. I was lucky enough to find myself in this person’s arms an hour or two after my overwhelming emotions began. Had I acted on my flight feelings, this opportunity would not have occurred. Rather than running from the feeling so it could “no longer effect me,” I paused to explore what was really going on. There was a lot going on, but not all of it needed to be brought to light in this moment.
I realized that the feelings were not about him, but about the person from the past and despite that, I was still experiencing them. My feelings were beginning to take over my body, creating tension and nausea. It was time to share. I had to do it in parts. First, I said, “I’m feeling off and it doesn’t really have to do with you.” I paused after this and waited for his reaction, which was to comfort me physically. Just what I needed. After a little bit, I got up the courage to tell him the rest of my story. The key in my telling was to express my feelings and not focus on his behavior, but just to share. Fortunately, he likes to ask clarifying questions and I was able to express myself clearly. He summarized, “you’re feeling like you want to run, but you don’t want to. What can I do?” My new hero! I told him just to keep holding me and maybe a little tighter. I like to be squeezed.
What may appear to be a communication miracle can also be broken down. You may not always get such positive responses from the person you confide in, but you have options! You can give them feedback about this, tell them what you would like, try a different approach to your sharing or just take it as information about the other person. Everyone has a different emotional agility skill set. Some people take longer to process feelings than others.
Here is the break down for overcoming uncomfortable emotions. Also see The New York Times Article on Emotional Agility.
1. Feel It.
This is challenging for most of us. We’re conditioned to stuff our feelings and make the world “easier” for everybody by not feeling. But stuffing a feeling does not make them go away. Guy Winch, Ph.D. introduced me to a beautiful concept he calls emotional first aid. If you get a cut on your leg you may not be in a place where you can clean it. So you put a bandaid on it until you get to a place that has cleaning supplies. You would not continue to ignore it and pretend it didn’t happen. You would not expect the cut to disappear or stop hurting just because you covered it up. Some wounds fester when left alone and create more pain and suffering. Why do we think it is okay to do this with emotions?
Feel your emotions. Acknowledge them. Hear what they have to say and allow them to affect you when you have the time and space to do so. (Make time- or you might get gangrene!)
2. Show It.
Feeling emotions is step one. Showing them can be even harder, but it is the cleaning process. Feelings need to be rinsed, like a wound. Find a place to express yourself. I, personally, love a good car cry or scream. Some people prefer the shower, others their pillow and if you’re lucky a friend or loved one’s shoulder. Sometimes a good gym workout can do it too, kickboxing or Jiu Jitsu. Practicing self defense moves also works for me.
3. Name It.
Once the feeling is out there, it makes it easier to identify. It’s no longer hiding in the shadows. You brought it into the light and now you can name it. You can recognize it for what it is. This can still be hard. Feelings can be slippery. Anger can quickly turn to sadness and sadness can become shame. Naming feelings make them easier to share. It can also give you clarity about what you want or need to feel better. Shame is a tricky one. But you’re in luck because step 4 is the best cure for shame.
4. Share It.
Brene Brown taught me that shame cannot survive being shared with an understanding and empathetic person. It is the only way to overcome it. It is secretive. It will do whatever it can to survive and that means keeping you from sharing. It can also be tricky because you must share your feelings with a safe person. The wrong person could easily deepen the feelings of shame, but the right person could free you from such feelings. Look for more on how to identify safe people in your life in future blogs.
5. Watch It Go.
We often don’t make time to reflect on emotions. Generally, we are relieved to see them go. But we can learn lessons from them and make conscious decisions about how we would like to act next time they come around. I’ll talk more about this next week.