This is part 2 of a 3 part series. If you'd like to read the series in its entirety, email me at email@example.com and I will happily send it to you.
Find appropriate and safe outlets for your strong emotions & practice self soothing.
I believe that we, as a culture, are easily provoked to strong feelings and have done little to develop skills of working with and through them. Further, I believe that we have bought into the lie that we are soothed by what are actually distracting forms of stimulation. We turn to mmorpgs, the news, social media, Netflix, whatever online game we are currently playing, YouTube, or a thousand other places when we need to “come down.” We tamp down our feelings with food or drugs, spending or excessive internet surfing or we rant and rage, pouring them out onto those in our path.
What I believe we really need is a developed ability to express our emotions in safe and appropriate ways, to have witnesses to our affective realities who can hear us and hold space for us, and to develop skills that allow us to soothe ourselves. Mr. Rogers frequently said, “Whatever is mentionable is manageable.” What I believe he meant by this is that the simple act of speaking our emotional truth makes it such that we can begin the hard work of managing it. If I forego a mentionable recognition of my feelings I am apt to act upon them or project them onto you unconsciously. This happens frequently in social networks where reactive emotional interactions rule the day. Instead of attempting to rid ourselves of our strong feelings by trying to convince, “school,” or rail at others, how might it look and feel if we simply named our feelings to our selves and, possibly, a trusted other. “I feel so horrifyingly angry right now!!” “I feel so powerless that I cannot imagine how to move forward!” and other such statements actually connect us to our selves and our experiences. From there we can determine what we need to actually soothe and “calm down” the strong feelings inside of us. This, in turn, grounds us and makes us healthier humans and better neighbors more capable of responding with truth to power. *
This way of “mentioning” also forces a pause from which we can find ways of actually soothing our selves. Different from distraction, self soothing aims to calm and regulate the self. Actions like deep breathing and prayer or meditation may work for some of us while others may prefer creative exploration (making something, listening to music, playing an instrument) or physical activity like stretching, yoga, or walking. The goal is a sense of stability not necessarily a sense of perfect calm. When we soothe ourselves we are able to trust we can care for ourselves or at least know what would be helpful to ask fro from others. This makes us capable of handling the difficulties we are facing and allows us to escape from the tyranny of expecting other people or things outside of ourselves to care for our selves. It also makes us calm enough that we can begin to hear our deepest longings, needs, and concerns. When the body is deactivated from threat it can step into the place of experiencing the stress as a challenge to manage effectively.
Some simple ideas for dealing with strong emotions and practicing self soothing:
Do a feeling dump. On a blank piece of paper write as many of the feelings as you have had this week as you can remember. Spend no more than five minutes doing this. Look at the list and circle the strongest of these emotions. Consider what you need to express and release these feelings? Do you need to run/walk/swim/stretch/do something with your body? Do you need to sing/play an instrument/pound on a drum? Do you need to draw or journal? Do you need to talk? Do you need to create a ceremony of some sort to release the feelings? Do you need a sacred space to contain you? Find these avenues and pursue them. If you can’t find them, ask for help to do so.
If you have a safe friend or two and you’d like to practice “mentioning,” set aside a time and place that is quiet and free from distractions. Allow for at least 10 minutes per person attending. Tending to quality eye contact give each person 5 minutes to answer the following prompts. “I feel…” “I wish…” “I need…” Set a timer for each 5 minutes and respect it. At the end of each person’s sharing take a minute to simply hold their sharing in the space between you. No comments or feedback, just holding the attention toward the person’s words. Move to the next person and do the same. At the end of the time find a way to affirm and validate each other as people.
* If we are bereft of safe places to process or trustworthy witnesses to our difficulties, there are some reliable places to look. Therapists are obvious choices (and exist in every shape, color, and “creed,” some even offering free or low fee services). So are pastors, priests, imams, and spiritual directors. Support and therapy groups exist aplenty in most cities and can be accessed by a call to county mental health agents or local churches, synagogues, and mosques. The key is to find someone who listens more than speaks and who directs you more to finding your answers than to converting you to theirs.
Be the change.
While we can never actually go down the drain there are many people and groups in our country that live in near constant threat of doing so. Many of these humans have been specifically threatened and mocked very publicly these last 18 months. While we all have reason to feel afraid at times, the repeated labeling, belittling, and direct threats toward people of color, Muslims, individuals with different abilities, women, trans, and gay individuals has had a large scale impact on feelings of worthiness and safety within these communities. We all have the ability to to make small inroads into restoring these individuals’ sense of worthiness and belonging. Without seeing ourselves as saviors (see note below about owning our privilege) we can reach out to those who are hurting in respectful, sensitive, and honoring ways, always listening and learning before acting. In order to do this we must begin with acknowledging the ways in which we are part of the problem and then seek out ways to be the change.
In terms of more systemic and large scale ways of being the change, it is important to give ourselves plenty of time and space to effectively discern where our efforts might be best utilized and with whom we might most efficaciously partner. Sometimes, when tensions are high and unrest is great, we leap ahead of ourselves and over-commit to too many efforts or sit paralyzed not certain where to invest ourselves. It would benefit all of us if we each worked hard to push through this reactive over- or under- response. While we are discerning which larger causes to give ourselves to we can take small with actions that cost very little. We can make eye contact or small financial contributions. We can write letters to people of influence. We can seek balanced, reliable information and data in order to be well informed. Above all we can take steps to understand our privilege, working to remove the log in our own eye that blinds us from the way in which our system of domination, heirarchy, and elitism favor some and pull down others.