F is for Feelings (and Fight, Flight, Freeze)

Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. –Victor Frankl

For a species that has been gifted with the ability to name and express our feelings and needs, we humans sure are terrible at it. Instead of allowing ourselves to feel, we do everything in our power to not feel. We eat. We run. We nap. We bully. We hit, yell, scream. Withdraw. We reach for a bottle or a pill or an edible.

If we grew up getting the message that it’s not okay to have feelings and emotions, we might not even know what we are feeling at any given time, other than to know we don’t like it. I can remember being a very emotional 15-year-old (like most 15-year-old humans), and my dad saying to me “We do not have emotions is this house, young lady.” His solution was to take my concerns to Jesus through prayer. That solution never really worked for me, though I tried mightily. Others of you, Dear Reader, may have heard similar messages. Something like “stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about” or “boys don’t cry” or “big girls don’t pout.” All messages designed to help our caregivers/parents feel more comfortable but none of which did anything to get to the heart of the matter:  what we were feeling and more importantly why and what could be done.

Fortunately, The Center for Nonviolent Communication has published a list of Feelings divided into two categories:

  1. Feelings when my needs are satisfied
  2. Feelings when my needs are not satisfied

They have also published a list of needs to which we can refer when we are having feelings about unsatisfied needs. For example, if I wake up irritable, and I sink into a morning mood of anger and despair for no clear reason that I can determine on my own, I might look at the needs inventory in order to figure out what I need in order to change my feelings. What need is not being met?

I help clients walk through the process of identifying their feelings, encouraging them to sit with their emotions, to (as my own therapist used to tell me) invite the feelings in for tea and get to know them. I help my clients figure out what they need based on their identified feelings. We also work at sitting with the feelings, getting comfortable feeling uncomfortable and recognizing that feelings come and go and don’t actually hurt us. Feelings are based on thoughts and stories we create about those thoughts.

One example I use often and one that most people, especially Gen Z, seem to related to best is not getting a response when we send a text message. The most common assumption about text silence is that whomever we are waiting for a response from must hate us. Think about it . . . what assumptions and stories do you create when you don’t hear back after sending a text message? Some of us, a few, just figure their person is busy and get on with their day. Others struggle. Some people spiral and assume the absolute worst has happened: death, break ups, hatred, that somehow in the matter of a few minutes or an hour that they have lost the love of their nearest and dearest. Tragically and irrevocably.

We engage in this behavior because as human beings, we are wired for danger and anxiety. Anxiety kept us safe on the savannah. Worrying about danger, real or imagined, kept us from being eaten by lions or from being kidnapped by the strangers who live downriver. Our danger alert systems, our fight, flight, (fawn), and freeze responses are overly well-honed for this current world, and so overreact to smaller, non-life-threatening, perceived dangers.

Sometimes we seem to be held captive by these fears and anxieties, immobilized by imagined dangers. How can we overcome them? How can we learn to not make up stories and to not believe the worst-case scenarios that sometimes feel overwhelming?

Mindfulness helps. Meditation helps. Simple strategies such as slowing down enough to breathe when we start to have an uncomfortable feeling, giving ourselves enough time to choose our reaction. We can choose how to respond. If. We. Slow. Down. And when we have choices, we have power. We have control. We no longer feel like victims, buffeted by our emotions. We learn that we can feel uncomfortable feelings and not be undone by them. We can learn to not automatically think (and believe) the worst-case scenario.

But it takes practice.

Just like those I work with, I’m not always adept at being able to identify my own feelings and needs. Like most folks, I am eager to chase away the uncomfortable feelings—I’d rather not sit with anxiety or anger, bewilderment or burn-out. And like everyone else who is human, I get really good at developing strategies for not feeling my feelings.

One helpful strategy that nearly always works, I learned from Buddhist meditation teacher and psychologist/author Tara Brach. The technique is called RAIN and stands for Recognize, Allow, Investigate, and Nurture. In short, we first recognize we are having an uncomfortable feeling and we allow ourselves to feel it, instead of chasing it away, getting more comfortable with being (temporarily) uncomfortable. Eventually we learn that the discomfort will pass. Then we can create some space around the feeling and investigate it—how familiar is it? How big is it? When did we first feel it? How old is that feeling? Where in our bodies do we feel it? Focus on that part of our body and breathe into it. Ask yourself, what do I need in this moment to feel better?

Finally, we nurture ourselves. Hold our hand to our heart and press, releasing dopamine and oxytocin, happy hormones to counteract the adrenaline and cortisol the anxiety and fear produce. We can nurture ourselves.

We can learn that feelings come and feelings go and we don’t have to be held captive by them.

P is for . . . Pause

PP is for so many things. Pam for starters. Without P, there would be no me, or at least no me as we currently know she. 🙂 (P could also be for Poet).

I’ve started and restarted and erased and deleted this P blog so many times the past few days. In my initial list of Things to Write About for this letter-a-day blog, I had down Practicum for P. After all, I am supposed to be starting my six-month practicum for counseling this quarter. But I have encountered a few roadblocks/difficulties/imPediments along my way to practicum and have thus lost my enthusiasm for that particular topic.

Of course, there’s Prince. Sad to see him die at such a young age, and it’s always tragic when someone of his talent leaves this planet too soon and so unexpectedly. That said, I evidently lived under a rock in the 80s and have only a few vague memories of his music—mostly related to aerobics class. I am sad to have missed his important musical legacy.

Sadly, I was preoccupied with fundamentalist christianity at the time, where the Prevailing ideologies leaned more toward burning Prince albums than listening to them (I never did Participate in such an atrocity, thankfully). I owned Amy Grant and Keith Green albums instead. And when I left the church I immersed myself in “women’s music” ala Meg Christian, Tret Fure, and Cris Williamson.

P could be for Pause, I guess. I thought for a bit about writing P is for Pfrustration (you know, like Pfizer. The P is silent) since that has been my overarching emotion of late. I’ve had to take many a Pause recently, reconsidering my reactions to this and that, thinking long and hard before sending reply emails. Pondering Possible reactions Prior to Posting Pernicious Perspectives on social media sites. The sacred Pause can be Positive for Preserving ones reputation and dignity.pause

Pausing takes Patience and Practice, things I’ve become better at since starting my training as a mental health counselor.  I’m nowhere near Perfect as anyone who knows me can attest. But awareness of the Pause, knowing that it works, is in and of itself Powerful. There’s no going back to a state of unawareness. Every time I react without pausing, I remember a little bit sooner the next time I want to overreact. My ability to stop and reflect, to think about other possibilities, reactions other than annoyance, rage, irritation, anger improves.

I was listening to a Tara Brach podcast not long ago, and she told a story about a compulsive thief, a guy who had been in trouble many times for his need to steal and pilfer. He made the Pause work for him and used that space, those few seconds, to remind himself that he could choose to walk away. If he changed his life by pausing, I can too.

 

 

 

L is for Letting Go

L

(disclaimer–I’m not a Buddhist nor an expert on such things. The following information is simply my take on a Buddhist concept. Please explore the links provided for more (and better) information. Also, we are taking a break from the running theme).

I’ve been listening to a lot of Tara Brach lately, mostly at night before I go to sleep. A Western Buddhist meditation teacher and clinical psychologist, she has a soothing voice, and as riveted as I usually am by her talks, I generally drift off before she’s half way through. When I wake up at three a.m. with the next hot flash, I restart the talk and listen some more until I drift off again. I am pretty sure lulling me (or anyone) to sleep is not the intention of her talks, but they beat taking pills, and I always pick up a morsel or two of wisdom.

Letting Go is a recurrent theme in her podcasts from the Insight Meditation Community in Washington DC. Letting go of expectations. Letting go of control. Letting go of desire. In the last podcast I listened to (from 2014), she talked about how expectation blocks true intimacy—when we have expectations of other people, situations, experiences, we miss out on what is actually happening in the moment. Instead we are focused on our own fantasy about what we want to happen, and we miss the opportunity to authentically experience the other person in the here and now. We forfeit the opportunity to meet people where they are because we expect them to be different, to meet our own needs.

I know it might sound kind of like hippie dippy voodoo shit, but I’m trying to put the theory into practice in my life. Last week, for example, I started a new quarter at school. I have some pretty high expectations about my classes, the instructors, and my classmates, as well as for my own performance in said classes. But what I discovered this week was that my expectations interfere with reality and serve only to make me miserable and take me out of the moment. Until I let go of my expectations of what I thought the class should be, I couldn’t fully participate in the class as it actually was. I was a wreck. Once I let go, everything improved. And trust me, Letting Go was no easy task.

Suffering, according to the Buddhists, occurs when we ignore reality, when we have expectations or desires. To avoid suffering, we need to Let Go. Tara tells a story about a guy who falls over a cliff and grabs onto a small branch on his way down (there’s always a branch), and as he dangles precariously over the jagged rocks, he calls for help. A voice commands him to Let Go. He asks, “God is that you?” “Yes,” the voice replies, “Let Go.”

The man calls out “Is there anyone else there?”

Letting Go is hard and scary, but sometimes the only thing we can do is to drop down into the abyss. There’s a true story (a book called Touching the Void) about Joe Simpson who was mountain climbing and fell into a crevasse, breaking his leg in the 150 foot fall. He couldn’t climb up out of the crevasse and after days of struggling, he finally realized that his only chance at survival was to Let Go, to drop down into the abyss. So he did. And he found a tunnel that he crawled through. The tunnel led to a town. He survived.

Give it a try. Let go. See if you don’t suffer a bit less and enjoy the moments a bit more.

Loosen your grasp. Let
It go, and in the release
find deliverance