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Relational Reflections: Yes, another blog, and this one’s from Dr. Nadine and Dr. Zan at True Heights

When Feelings Sneak up on You, Resist the Urge to Escape

Dr. Zan’s Thoughts:

I am hot on the heels of an amazing trip to Asheville, NC, where I spent quality time with dear friends who were neighbors until a couple of years ago. Their move was something I had time to anticipate and prepare for in advance; yet, when it was time to say “good-bye,” it was still emotional and produced a sense of loss. On the one hand, I think it is totally understandable that I would continue to have powerful feelings in the face of a transition--a change in my access to special people--and yet, don’t we often forget to give ourselves the time and space to feel our feelings as they arise? Having the opportunity or ability to anticipate an event can be useful; however, we cannot presume that anticipation and preparation is a substitute for genuine emotion that arises in the moment.

Sometimes our feelings catch us off guard. We are surprised when tears spring to our eyes as we watch a Memorial Day parade honoring our veterans or when we find an old photograph or when a child does something endearing or when the beauty of nature overwhelms our senses. When we are surprised by emotion, a reflexive response can be to suppress it--to pull ourselves right back into check, to restore composure and stoicism. (Or maybe that’s just me?--Please let me know!) Yet, what would happen if we didn’t scramble to compose ourselves? What might we experience if we simply allowed ourselves to be present to any feeling that showed up? And then, what if we let that feeling linger just as long as it needed to? I can practically hear my teenager’s reflexive response--AWKWARD! But is it? Does it need to be? Could we actually learn to tolerate the presence of emotion without scurrying past it or pushing it away? Could we, as we like to say in Mindful Self-Compassion training, “turn gradually toward” the feeling and its expression without needing to make it anything different than it is?

In the second  Relational Reflections blog Dr. Nadine and I ever wrote, we explored the notion of “Yes, and…” as opposed to “Yes, but…” with the “but” tending to limit while the “and” allows for expansion. I’d like to revisit that idea now as I contemplate the simultaneous complexity and simplicity of human emotion. For instance, yes, I am sometimes sad that my friends no longer live up the street from me, and I am delighted to have a beautiful destination where I can visit them. Yes, we don’t get to see each other as frequently as we once did, and when we do share time, there is an opportunity to have a sleepover, allowing for the intimacy of late night chats and pre-shower morning coffee conversations that naturally soften defenses. Yes, there are some day-to-day details that require catching up, and there are new opportunities on visits to share time getting to know and enjoy additional members of their family--making us feel even more interconnected as we too are incorporated into the extended family.

You can’t always be fully prepared for how you are going to feel in a given circumstance. And even if you are, you will likely find yourself needing to wade through some emotion, rather than circumventing it. You might find yourself getting a bit stuck in the muck. But why fight it? This muck is part of the human landscape. And maybe, just maybe, if you take the time to notice, there is value and learning in every step. Besides, if you can focus on one step at a time, you are much less likely to fall. But if even if you do stumble and fall, I’m guessing you will find someone nearby to offer a hand.

Dr. Nadine’s Reflections:

Hoo boy.  It took me a long time to realize that emotions weren’t something to be suppressed.  I don’t remember lots of my early childhood feelings, but I do remember the ones that were attached to big events.  For example, I remember the excitement of running down the stairs at Christmas to see if Santa had arrived overnight, leaving packages for us kids under the tree.  I also remember accidentally breaking a chip off a vase that I thought was a cherished possession of my mother’s. I cried, filled with remorse and fear of some retribution which, by the way, never came.  It was an accident, for which I was immediately forgiven. (To this day, my mother has no recollection of the egregious event—apparently it was only BIG in my mind.) These were all emotional reactions that were sanctioned and accepted, publicly recognized and approved.

As I got older, and moved into my early teens, I was more conscious of the emotions that I was feeling, and I was also more aware of which ones were acceptable.  If you really think about your own history, I’ll bet you can identify reactions you had that you knew weren’t “allowed”, and I would guarantee that you found a way to make them go away.  I was actually quite proud of the fact that I developed a stoic presentation in response to genuinely unsettling events.

But the thing is, that’s not really who I was.  In fact, as I progressed through my adulthood, life found a way of challenging my erroneous notions of emotional expressions (or lack thereof).  My doctoral training as a psychologist propelled me into fully examining myself, and in doing so also pressed me to recognize the subtleties of, and the range of, emotions I was experiencing.  At that time I was surrounded by a group of loving and like-minded classmates, known now as the “Fine Friends”, who helped me admit my feelings, and not judge myself for them. They accepted all of me, and gave me permission to do the same.

I’m blessed to have my Dear One be that same type of loving human being, who is unafraid of his range and intensity of emotions.  He channels that into his singing, mining for the depth of expression to do justice to the piece of music he’s performing. So he’s able to welcome and embrace my giggles, my tears, my frustration (which I’m currently experiencing as my kitty is sitting on my computer keyboard), my excitement, my anger, my confusion, my surprise, and the myriad of other emotions that I’ve discovered I have.  They are definitely NOT all pleasant, and those are often the ones that aren’t usually acceptable to ourselves or others. And let me remind you that some of us have trouble with positive emotions, too. Feeling good isn’t always acceptable for us and can generate a lot of fear of “waiting for the other shoe to drop”. But (and I do mean but instead of and), won’t you consider Dr. Zan’s invitation to embrace all of yourself, and “turn gradually toward” all the feelings that you have.

I so appreciate hearing Dr. Zan’s description of recognizing her sense of self, showing up in the expression of her feelings.  She’s bidding us to respond to the call to action and charging us to embrace the totality of who we are—the parts of us we love and the ones that make us squirm.  We are “larger than the sum total” of our parts. Our emotions make us human, and contribute to our shared humanity. Won’t you consider joining our shared experience?

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