Releasing the Charge of Difficult Memories

Sometimes we carry intense emotional memories that continue to affect us today. I am talking about memories that still bring up feelings of shame, guilt, anger, sadness, regret… all the greatest hits of our emotional repertoire.

Some folks get stuck in these memories, where a core story was born that continues to rule their lives—something like, “That’s when I learned no one would ever take me seriously.” Though they know it’s in the past, they can’t help but recall it often, talk about it, feel trapped by it.

Other folks get stuck as well, but have learned to avoid or suppress the memories. “It happened in the past. There’s no point in talking about it.” The problem is that these memories still carry the emotional charge, they are alive for us just as much as the folks in the previous example.

There are a number of therapeutic approaches to dealing with these kinds of memories. Here is one practice I do with myself and the occasional client to work through memories that carry deeply stuck shame, guilt, or anger. (I do not, however, encourage this exercise for traumatic memories, especially if you are not currently in a strong therapeutic relationship to heal your trauma response. The reasons why would be too long to explain in this post but I suspect most folks with traumatic memories will get it when they read through the exercise.)

Step 1: Identify a specific memory that is highly charged.

Specificity is very important, perfect recall is not. For example, something like, “My mom was always critical when I tried to make her happy” is too general for this exercise. Detail brings up more of the emotional intensity and ultimately reveals more important information that helps us to move. You do not have to get all the details exactly, though, because this isn’t about being right or confronting another person. It’s simply accessing the memory as it is currently alive for you. (For the purpose of this exercise, I would practice with something on a 4-5 in the scale of intensity, with 1 being no intensity and 10 being nuclear meltdown.)

Step 2: Imagine the memory as it occurred, in as much detail as you can recall, and record it.

I like to imagine the memory and type out the memory as I’m having it, but that is easy for me. It might be easier for you to narrate the memory out loud and record it. If you can find a person to listen to you and witness, that is even better.

Step 3: Identify a key figure of someone else involved in the memory. Retell the story of what happened, but this time from their perspective. Record this.

If there is a person in this memory who is a “villain” or a “victim” or simply a person who was part of the conflict, imagine what happened from their perspective. This works surprisingly well if you don’t over think it, analyze it, or try to justify it, just re-imagine the scene as though you were “in their shoes” and tell the story as it unfolds. Unexpected details may come out, things you can’t possibly know, or things you do know but finally make sense from this perspective. Don’t censor it—again, this isn’t evidence for a court of law, it’s to help you bring to light your unconscious beliefs and intuitions about the situation.

Step 4: Imagine the memory one more time, this time as though you were a camera or an impartial observer. Record this.

Step 5: Review all of your recordings.

If you have a trusted ally who saw you narrating these out loud, ask them to tell you what they observed.

Notice what is different from each perspective. What can you learn about yourself and the people involved from these different lenses? What does one lens show that wasn’t available to the other? What does this memory and how it unfolds tell you about ways you deal with similar situations today? What are the strengths and limitations of that approach? What would you have done differently if you had all this information?

A femme person in a pink dress opens her arms toward a wave splashing the rocks.

The joy of bringing flow to the unconscious. Photo by Danka & Peter

Step 6: Think about a next step to honor this work.

If you have felt guilt, shame, or anger about the memory, consider if there is some action you could take to bring closure. Perhaps you need to make restitution for harm done, or offer yourself forgiveness for a situation that can no longer be rectified. Perhaps you need to apologize, or to go confront someone after all.

In some cases, I encourage revisiting the memory and imagining what I would do now if I could intervene in the event as it unfolded. Go help that part of you still stuck in the pain and emotions to get out of it. It doesn’t change the literal events of the past, but it changes the ongoing meaning and emotional charge of those memories, which frees you to rewrite the present and create a future.

The Problem of the Successful Coping Strategy

A long time ago, people would tell me I was hard to read. I didn’t understand their problem, and was a little suspicious of what they wanted to “read” and why. For me, my feelings felt profoundly visible and all-encompassing, a shyness and sensitivity that was easily disturbed. A part of me believed the story of shame, that deep down there was something wrong with me that needed concealment—though, after years of deep reflection, I’ve come to believe there is no secret hidden thing. It was shame itself that didn’t want to be seen.

Yet I came to learn that, no matter how vulnerable I felt inside, most folks around me were unable to sense this. I’d learned how to mask my feelings behind a cool, neutral, unreadable expression. There are many possible reasons for this, but I think the most relevant is likely that as a kid I learned that showing weakness or vulnerability was like throwing blood in the water and attracting sharks. Better to not show how hurt I felt so they wouldn’t know how to hurt me.

As an adult, this became an automatic, unconscious, and crippling protection. While I hid my vulnerabilities well, so too were my warm feelings and my desires concealed. When I wanted to connect with someone, as a friend or a potential partner, I felt terrified of letting down the façade and sometimes couldn’t even figure “how to do it.”

Image of a number of people in silhouette at an aquarium, looking at a wide array of sea creatures.

Georgia Aquarium, by Matt Helbig

This was my coping strategy, this mask, and it worked well. Exquisitely well. People came to appreciate things about my neutrality. They could confide in me things that bothered them. And as I entered the adult working world, I could take on lots and lots of responsibility and I never let on when it was too much or I was struggling. I was rewarded for it, but it made me easier to exploit.

Recently I’ve been thinking about the perils of a coping strategy that is too successful. Coping strategies are the habits, practices, and patterns of being we rely upon to manage stress and pain, often with avoiding or minimizing suffering. A colleague recently distinguished these from true self-care strategies, which I find useful—self-care in this context being about tending and caring for the fullness of myself, even things that feel unpleasant or painful.

We know the coping strategies that are obviously unworkable. These are the ones that leave scars, break apart relationships, consume hours of our time and hundreds of our dollars and leave us feeling emptier and more fragile. The ones that create as many problems as they “solve.”

This time I’m thinking of those coping strategies that work too well, but are still merely containing our suffering rather than relieving it. The tendency to smile and say thank you when inwardly you burn with resentment. The hours spent at work, earning accolades and promotions while your inner life empties out and your home remains a cold, terrifying place. That ability to make people laugh and laugh while inwardly you feel you are dying and desperate for someone to care.

These strategies are pernicious and difficult to surrender. I couldn’t say if they’re easier or harder than the less workable ones, and comparison doesn’t matter. The point is that the person experiencing these, even the people around them, might not see them as problematic. Surrendering these coping strategies might feel irrational but also terrifying. They are the hardened exoskeletons formed around a soft, vulnerable interior, but  this protection also blocks deep nutrition and meaningful connection. Indeed, this might be protected even from our conscious selves.

Unfortunately, it is that which is vulnerable that needs liberation from the outworn coping. At some point we need to learn how to take risks, and with whom. My neutrality is not inherently bad, what was problematic was that it had become so automatic it was no longer a choice. Now I can bring that neutrality to situations where it is useful, where my inner responses need containment or time and I need to attend to others. But I have to work harder than I like to share my vulnerability with the people who have earned it.

Book Review – Sex Outside the Lines: Authentic Sexuality in a Sexually Dysfunctional Society

Sex Outside the Lines: Authentic Sexuality in a Sexually Dysfunctional Society by Chris Donaghue

Donaghue’s thesis is essentially that our sex-negative and oppressive society has created sexual dysfunction, and so instead of treating marginalized or “dysfunctional” sexuality, we would do better to embrace sexual liberty and a natural diversity of relational styles. He offers some strong justifications for this argument, pointing toward queer and postcolonial theory to discuss the State and patriarchal benefits of privileging some forms of sexuality and oppressing most others. Drawing upon observations of nature and biology, he illustrates a world that is naturally pluralistic in sex, gender, and sexuality. Those whose sexualities do not fit in the model of nuclear, monogamous, heteronormativity (which includes many straight people!) would find in this book some fodder to questions oppressive sexual norms.

The book, however, reads like a manifesto that largely draws upon his authority as a sexologist and clinician, without the supportive clinical research and applications I hoped to see. He clearly has some axes to grind with other therapists and practitioners who work in the sex addiction model, and while that makes for a lively book, at times I felt he takes for granted that his reader should trusts his judgment, instead of providing the evidence and argumentation to fully articulate and justify his alternative.

In many psychology books that reach wider audience, writers will include case studies that show a client coming in with a problem, the writer applying their theory to the client’s problem, and then showing how the client responded to this application and worked through their problem. Donaghue’s anecdotes are briefer, generally along the lines of: “A client had this problem, so I told them they should think this way instead.” We don’t see how or whether this suggestion improved the client’s life. We don’t have a tangible idea of what happiness and sexual fulfillment looks like in his model—to be fair, his position is that each of us should discover it ourselves.

Another missing piece for me is that Donaghue does not discuss in depth what would be considered problematic sexual behavior in his model. For example, he only briefly remarks on incest, rape, and molestation by referring some research that indicates what kinds of societies increase those risks. Important and relevant information to be sure, but he does not situate what is “wrong” with these behaviors within the model he is espousing. If he wants us to reject old sexual mores entirely, then I think it useful to be intentional on what mores will replace it.

I’m probably more cranky with this book because I think his vision is interesting and worth consideration, and find his reframes around certain particular dysfunctions liberatory. I agree with a lot of his introductory work to unpack the oppressive history around Western sexual psychology. I share some of his concerns about the DSM and agree with moving away from diagnosing mental illness as solely an individual problem, instead looking at how problems exist within larger cultural, social, and economic systems. I hope there will be more to come.

Film Response – It Follows

It Follows (2014)

Recently I was home sick for a weekend and decided to catch up on some movie suggestions. It Follows had come up multiple times recently in discussions with a friend, so one night I watched it. The next day, I watched it again. It still haunts me. Note: this is a somewhat dark reflection on the movie, and some details that might be spoilers.

It Follows is a film whose genesis was a nightmare that writer and director David Robert Mitchell had as a child, in which a shapeshifting monster followed the dreamer wherever he went. In the movie, the main character Jay learns after a sweet date and what looked like satisfying car sex that her lover has passed along to her a curse—she will be followed by a nebulous monster, invisible to everyone else but always visible to her, though its forms constantly change. The monster walks slowly, almost constantly, directly toward her at all times. If the monster gets a hold of her, it will kill her, and then start hunting the one who gave the curse to her. The only way out is to pass the curse to another through sex, and hope that they don’t get killed.

The dreamlike quality of this monster and its “rules”—which, will explained precisely in a scene that first appeared over-the-top and later makes complete sense—paradoxically immerse the viewer into the dread and anxiety suffusing mundane reality. The film trains us very quickly to constantly scan the background for people walking very slowly and deliberately toward Jay. Often we are more concerned and attentive than she is, as a few very masterful scenes suggest. We learn we cannot trust the film to communicate danger with the expected tropes of horror camera angles and music. The camera seems dispassionate, taking in all content with equanimity. That person walking could be a random person, or it could be the monster.

The transmission of the curse through sex naturally brings up connotations of sexually transmitted disease and the loss of innocence, but I think the film succeeds in not allowing its symbolism and weight be reduced to those tropes. Jay has had sex before, and she and her friends talk about innocent days of sexual experimentation, when they had no idea what they were doing until adults showed up to instill shame in them. There is a loss of innocence that happens as Jay becomes more conscious of the danger she is in and more calculating about the risks she must take.

It would be easy to demonize the man who passed the curse along to her, but the curse is in many ways like several dilemmas of adulthood: there is no way out without someone getting hurt. If she fails to pass the curse along, she will be killed, and then her ex-lover will be hunted again. If she passes the curse along, she’ll endanger her new lover, and there’s no guarantee she won’t have to deal with this problem again.

This film had me reflecting much on the experience of people with posttraumatic stress disorder: the hypervigilance; becoming alarmed at things others can’t perceive; the disturbing and intrusive images. The deep knowing that you could be hurt at any time, that there is nowhere entirely “safe” where a predator couldn’t emerge at random—It could be a stranger, or as one character says, “Sometimes I think It looks like people you love just to hurt you.”

Adults are curiously peripheral in the film, not sources of strength and support but rather inept, invisible, or themselves sources of potential danger. This could be a social commentary but it also suggests that every person is fallible and part of maturation is confronting that I must be responsible for my life and who I trust with it. Whether to succumb to the horror, to fight back, to pass it along—there is no right option, no choice to forever free one’s self of danger. I think that is the innocence lost in this movie—the belief in a world of safety and easy moral choices.

I think the film illustrates a dilemma trauma survivors in particular have to face, but truly all of us living in the United States (probably beyond) need to wrestle with at one time or another. We do not live in a world where safety is guaranteed, yet we are here and this is the world where our life occurs. How do we manage security and risk without wanting to regress into children seeking a strong adult to keep us safe?

Commentators on the movie suggest that the monster is laughable, as one could simply take a plane across the country and rest easy knowing it will take forever to walk toward you. But that’s the horror again. Eventually It will find you. And what kind of life would you build if you simply ran away each time It did? Instead of living forever isolated and on the run, Jay eventually decides to bring someone she trusts into her dilemma—a conscious partnership of mutual support. Though the film is ambiguous as to whether their fighting back is successful or not, the act of fighting back seems to have empowered her, wisened her, prepared her for an uncertain future.

Loneliness and Emotional Labor

I got walloped by a cold this week and decided to focus on resting and recharging, so I do not have much original content to offer. In lieu of that, here are some links to things I’ve been reading and thinking about. Folks who follow my professional Facebook will have encountered a few of these:

How Loneliness Begets Loneliness – An interview with John Cacioppo about the physiological and social consequences of loneliness. His book on Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection is an excellent read that provides an accessible survey of his clinical research on loneliness, as well as his suggestions for working through it. This interview provides some of the high-level takeaways from the book.

Emotional Labor: What It Is and How to Do It – This is an excellent article by Miri explaining the concept of emotional labor and providing clear definitions of what it looks like and how it largely falls to women and femmes to do it. This is really instructive to pair with the Loneliness article, as so much of emotional labor is about relationship tending and repairing, skills that are necessary to avoid loneliness. Emotional labor, however, may be taken for granted and exploited by less savvy partners and friends, leading to loneliness for the laborer.

Emotional labor is often divided along lines of privilege and marginalization, with the less socially powerful position expected to do the emotional labor for the more socially powerful person. Thus in heterosexual relationships, women are expected to do the labor for men. In other kinds of relationships, people who are working class are expected to do emotional labor for upper class people (such as always being smiling and happy in your customer service job!) and people of color expected to do emotional labor for white people (such as, don’t do your activism in a way that causes me to feel upset or ashamed!).

In relationships where one partner does all the emotional labor, the non-laboring partner is running a huge risk. Should they lose that laboring partner to death or other causes, suddenly they are alone and bereft of social connections, leading to worsened outcomes around mental and physical health.

Romantic relationships are not the antidote to loneliness, as I often say to disbelieving single people. We can be surrounded by people and still feel lonely, if we live with shame and the fear of authentic connection. We can live with someone and feel lonely, if we feel they do not understand or see us. Cacioppo offers a useful framing in his book around the kinds of loneliness and connection, which I will paraphrase as: connection with self, connection with intimate partners, and connection with community.

One might look at emotional labor as a skill to break out of loneliness. According to Cacioppo, one path out of loneliness is to offer altruistic service to another person, extending one’s self without expecting anything in return. It is not simply receiving attention but also meaningfully participating in other’s lives that helps us to feel less alone. I think pairing these concepts, Cacioppo’s thoughts on loneliness and Miri’s thoughts on emotional labor, helps me to see where my loneliness might be coming from an imbalance. Perhaps I am lonely because I am extending myself too much and not receiving anything back, or perhaps because I am not doing enough to extend myself and am too focused on what I’m getting. There are more options, but this is simply a place to start with reflection.

Heroes and Villains

People say, “everyone is the hero of their own story.” A hero overcomes opposition and adversity to win the day, often possessing some great moral virtue or charisma that makes us align with the hero and against those opposing the hero.

What troubles us is when we flip the story and see that the villain is also the hero of their story, and from their vantage, everything the “villain” does makes sense. We might begin to empathize with them, align against the former “hero.”

An image of a cat in a green lawn, behind which is a fence. Beside the cat is a yellow flag with an image of a cat in a space suit.

The first, by Sticker Mule

In the past twenty or so years, a theme has become prevalent in hero stories in which we see the hero and the villain creating each other. Batman explores this in its many iterations, through many tellings and retellings. Sometimes it is The Joker who kills young Bruce Wayne’s parents, beginning the quest that leads toward Wayne becoming The Joker’s nemesis. In Allan Moore’s The Killing Joke, Batman creates The Joker during a botched robbery by knocking him into a pit of chemicals that leads to The Joker’s eternally frozen clownish face.

We are mirrors for each other, and sometimes we don’t like what we see in those mirrors. Sometimes we define ourselves by our opposition to something else, in which case our opportunities for evolution narrow and we become somewhat dependent upon that opposing force to maintain identity.

Lately I’ve observed a lot of discussion about bullying and abuse, with both “sides” of an issue accusing the other “side” of engaging in this kind of behavior. These discussions are so tricky and rife with miscommunications and egotism. People who are abusive and disruptive to community are so good at leverage the language of being victimized by abuse and bullying. And, people who are truly abusive and bullying are so good at appearing innocuous and likable that their victims are disbelieved.

Sometimes, people can be in conflict with neither being the victim. This happens more often than we want to admit. We can be locked in patterns of mutually hurtful behavior, both of us having completely legitimate reasons to feel hurt and disliking of the other, both deserving of an apology for some things. We are human, fallible, and in a constant state of growth.

Lately I have reflected on defensiveness and justification. Both seem entirely about maintaining the ego—either maintaining the image of myself that I want to believe in, or maintaining the image of myself I want you to believe. When I apologize with justification, I am taking some responsibility for my harm but still trying to make sure you think what I want you to think of me. When I get defensive about your opinions, more often than not it’s because there’s an image of myself that I treasure that your opinions are threatening to expose as inaccurate to downright false.

The more honestly I know myself and openly I express that knowledge, the more easy life becomes. In the short run, this honesty troubles and uproots relationship, but over time my relationships become more intimate, more open, more resilient. I am better able to express my experience without blaming you for it, and hearing your experience without taking it personally. The ego expands to include an honest self-appraisal rather than gripping, white-knuckled, this precious idea of who I want to be.

We take part in many stories, and we’re the hero in very few of them.

Inflated Needs and Vulnerabilities

One expression that’s become common when self-psychologizing is “I have a need for [x].” “I need to be liked.” “I have a need for approval.” Most of us understand what we mean by that—this “need” is unusually forceful and controlling of our behavior. We struggle to hold positions that are not immediately validated, or take actions that upset others, because our “need” is so strong. When we have wounding around these particular needs, they become both inflated and hypersensitive.

Being liked and validated are, to an extent, desires that all humans have in various amounts. We are social creatures, and experiences such as being liked, validated, and approved of are to some extent implicit to belonging. Yet we are also individuals, able to recognize when our relationships and communities need challenging, which requires the willingness to take a stand that may cost us some social currency.

As I explore this in therapy, I find that a “need to be liked,” for example, is only one facet of the problem. Along with that is a sensitivity to being disliked. It seems obvious when written out like this, but the thought was illuminating to me, for it suggests two facets of a problem that may on the surface look singular. Some people truly aspire to being liked, while some people don’t actually care if they’re liked but are really bothered when they’re disliked. 

A blooming flower whose petals are yellow toward the center and bright red at the tips.

Something beautiful. Photo by Paul Morris

More important is that this inflated and hypersensitive “need” for something is akin to a person who is starving yet cannot take in the nutrition they need. We recognize when someone has a “need for approval” (or sensitivity to disapproval) as they seem unable to choose without others’ opinions, or disagree with a person in authority. That person often solicits approval, over and over, in various ways—even putting themself down to invite others to argue with them. One wonders, how much approval do they need before they have enough?

The problem is, though this person is desperate for receiving approval, they never allow themself to take it in. Indeed they may argue with the approval—inwardly or out loud—or become overwhelmed with discomfort. The reasons for this are myriad and unique to each of us.

What this perspective offers, in my opinion, are options on how to work with one’s inflated and hypersensitive needs. In brief:

  1. Recognizing that my “need” is a healthy, normal human need that for whatever reason I have trouble getting met
  2. Practicing being present with and taking in the positive feedback I desperately crave, and not immediately invalidating it
  3. Practicing managing the pain I feel when I feel this need has been invalidated (or my secret fear that I am “not worthy of” the need is validated)

Suggestions for how this could go:

For #1 — When you start getting down on yourself, you might say something like, “It’s okay that I want to be liked/approved of/included, but I would feel the most fulfilled if I could be liked/approved of/included as my true self, even if I say things people don’t agree with.”

For #2 — When someone gives you a compliment, take a deep breath, check in with how your body feels as you hear the compliment, and say “Thank you.” Only “Thank you.”

When you find yourself spinning and needing approval, find someone you feel willing to take a risk with, and acknowledge something like: “I’m feeling a little tender today. Could you tell me something you like about me/my work?” (You might ask for honest critical feedback as well. I’ve learned that people who are honest with me about my faults are also people whom I trust when they compliment me.)

For #3 — To be honest, this one is too big for a blog post, and depends on what arises in you when your secret fears are confirmed or your deep need shrugged away. Perhaps a good place to start is to think about what you’d like to hear in those circumstances—ideally when you’re relatively calm and in a good place. Asking for help effectively when we’re already in the middle of great pain and feel invalidated is incredibly difficult. Some ideas: write a letter to your wounded self that you can read when you’re in the midst of your pain. Or write some tips and pointers and give them to trusted people you can call when in the middle of it.

Another option is to practice what in Internal Family Systems is called “unblending.” Recognize that the pain you’re feeling is a part of you that carries this wounding and vulnerability. It is not the entire truth of you. Inwardly acknowledge that part, let it know you are here and listening, and see what it needs.

What is in the Way?

Recently I was in a class that offered an exercise to write down my desires and vision of my goals, and then to write down about what I see as “in the way.” I had this “A-ha!” moment that is vulnerable to share, sounding perilously close to the kind of thinking I used to make fun of in my more cynical days.

When I think of “what’s in my way,” I imagine a path that’s impossibly blocked off, and I feel discouraged and defeated. When it comes to practical goals, any number of things could be “in my way.”

  • Someone who desires intimacy might feel that what’s in the way are the risks of rejection; previous betrayals; transphobia; and so forth.
  • Someone who desires meaningful work might feel that what’s in the way is financial insecurity; fears of failure; ignorance about what work is available; lack of support; and so forth.

In the past, I let my fears and these risks deter me from taking the steps I wanted. I imagined the risks or met setbacks and interpreted them as a judgment that my desires were wrong or impossible. But the desire didn’t go away, it simply festered and sapped the joy out of living. Only when I started moving toward my desires and dealing with the problems as they arose did I start to feel a sense of true purpose.

I still failed. I experienced shame and embarrassment. I met frustrating circumstances and found ways to avoid important tasks until I realized that avoidance was another layer of this problem. But still, moving forward, meeting these things as they arose, my life became deeper and richer.

Getting back to what’s in my way. During the class, my brain suddenly changed the statement into “what’s on my way” to desire. All of these things I consider barriers are only that if I am unwilling to meet them and work through them. If I think, these are the things I must meet on the path of desire, then are simply the tasks I must accomplish on my journey.

Image of a snowy path on which a person in red flannel walks, between large pine trees. In the distance is a mountain.

Photo by Megan Lewis

In fairy tales, the girl escaping the wicked woman encounters the creaky fence, the tree that wants pruning, the cat that wants milk. They are on her way to freedom, and caring for them slows her down, but befriending these obstacles turn them into her allies for escaping her tormentor.

If we accept that we’ll meet obstacles, opposition, and setbacks, then it’s not so painful to work through them. Some of these obstacles, opposition, and setbacks are bigger and far more dangerous than others. Not all of them are about emotional pain and personal belief, some are systemic, some arise from people who are threatened by our goals.

Yet many things may meet us on our way to desire. We may find people who love our goals, who are ready to support us. We may find unexpected reserves of strength and joy. We may find our aliveness.

Offering Okayness

Some folks who struggle have been convinced they are broken and need fixing. This often appears to come from the rational mind, completely lost amidst overwhelming and conflicting feelings and striving for order.

Emotions are not rational. They have reasons to exist, but not ones that the rational mind grasps. We have to learn to relate to the nonrational world on its own terms, not to demand it work on the mind’s terms.

I am exploring the process of validating, or offering “okayness”, to my emotions. This is in many ways the opposite of “fixing,” and closer to Tara Brach’s process of Radical Acceptance.

In a practice of offering okayness, we turn toward all the feelings and offer them acceptance and safety. This is harder than it sounds, and some of my readers have already tuned out. For the rest of us—instead of trying to understand “why I feel this way,” or trying to decide which of my conflicting feelings are the right ones, or making feeling-based choices while in upheaval, it’s a process of sitting with the storm of emotion.

As always, I like to start by connecting my feet to the ground and sinking my awareness into my body. Some of us struggle to feel anything, but if you’re in a state of emotional overwhelm, you probably have some contact with the physical layer of your emotion.

Here is my current map of mental-emotional anatomy: At bottom is the emotion, the physiological experience that we codify with one word: “sadness,” “fear,” “anger.” We access that through what’s happening in the body—tightness in the heart? Heaviness? Tension in the back? Flushed cheeks and clenching hands?

Then there is the layer where emotion meets mind in an interpretation, commonly called a feeling: “I feel I want to run away,” “I feel threatened.” In the past I would discourage people from using feeling language, but that is a losing and perhaps unnecessary battle. What is important is to recognize that “I feel” is an interpretive strategy that makes sense of the emotion, not necessarily the truth of what’s happening.

Then there is the mental layer, which is often about analysis and planning: “There is no reason to feel this way,” or “What am I supposed to do about this feeling?” or strategizing, thinking, thinking, thinking.

Image of a white man who seems pretty okay, sitting on a rock outcropping overlooking a river valley and a mountainous horizon at sunset. Photo by Kalen Emsley.

Image of a white man who seems pretty okay, sitting on a rock outcropping overlooking a river valley and a mountainous horizon at sunset. Photo by Kalen Emsley.

So first notice yourself in the mental layer, and with every deep breath in and out, invite your awareness to drop a layer deeper. Instead of trying to solve the feeling, allow the feeling to be articulated. “I feel I’m in danger.” Then, as best you can, let that feeling know that it is okay.

“It is okay that I feel this way.” or “It is okay for this feeling to be here.”

Then notice another feeling, and offer okayness to that one.

After a few minutes, you might be able to drop even deeper to offer okayness to the emotion itself. “It’s okay that I feel scared.”

Spend at least a minute to five minutes doing this. What I experience is both relaxation of intensity and a sense of warm expansion. The emotions do not go away so much as they shift energy in a way that feels easier.

Notice, too, how this offering of okayness differs in experience from the attitude of “fixing” and “figuring out,” which often increases my feelings of tension, constriction, and irritability.

When the feelings have settled, then you might decide the next step.

We Heal Together

We are wounded in relationship and we heal in relationship.

Shame says, “You are alone. Your problems are unique. You are broken. You are bad.”

As we sink beneath the surface explanations, the blame, the constant stories and analysis and begin to touch the heart of the pain and wound, we find a river feeding into the collective pain of our family, our communities, our larger circles.

As we claim and name this pain, we break the bindings of shame. We discover, “We are together. Our problems intersect. Our healing and freedom is bound together.”

We will not fully love ourselves so long as there are people we consider unlovable.

We will not find safety if we live in fear of others.

We will not feel security so long as there is hunger.

Image of a circular crossroads, surrounding which are trees of various colors. In the center is a person laying as though wounded. Image by Martin Riesch.

Image of a circular crossroads, surrounding which are trees of various colors. In the center is a person laying as though wounded. Image by Martin Riesch.

These thoughts might engender despair and anger, for how can we ever find happiness if the world must be made right first? It’s easy to feel not enough. And yet there is a flaw in this, the idea that happiness is a destination at which we arrive when the circumstances are right.

Happiness and joy arise from living what we value, accepting what arises. Our wounding leads to our work.

When I grow tired of making myself smaller and putting my “bad” parts in cages—when I find that bringing those parts to consciousness and finding what is beautiful and worthy about them feels so much more empowering—then I look out and wonder, why do we put people in cages?

As I uncage myself, I realize if I want to continue to grow, I must also work to uncage others. There is no single, correct way to do this, but it is the work.

Humans are strange creatures, not solitary like a turtle but not social like a bee, existing somewhere in the in-between of needing solitude and connection. We are interdependent, having our own private struggles and gifts but needing each other to fully do what is possible.

At a certain point, we get tired of nursing the private pain of being told we’re worthless, unattractive, and we realize the problem is not us but those forces that keep telling us these things. At a certain point, we notice that being divided from each other, made to compete with colleagues at work, allows our employers to keep heaping more work and expectations on us without resistance.

Being in community is hard and sometimes exhausting, particularly when the geographic and economic terrain of living seems so hostile to allowing the time and energy necessary to do that work effectively. Yet being in solidarity is a choice that helps us to transcend the shame and suffering of personal struggles. We experience a greater sense of power and love when we allow our struggles to interlock. We break out of the stifling sense of personal responsibility, that somehow I have to fix all the problems in the world.

Of course you feel you’re not enough for that task. It’s not meant to be a one-person job.