What to do about those unwanted thoughts or emotions? It’s crucial that you first understand what you are feeling or thinking. After naming it, find connections to help you understand why you are thinking or feeling what you are. Here’s an example: if you are feeling fear, what is the fear reacting to? Perhaps you just heard about impending layoffs at work and you’re not sure if you’re going to lose your job? It makes sense to feel fear when you don’t know what’s going to happen.
Now that you know what it is and why it’s there, you can work to change it. How will you benefit by continuing to feel the fear? Perhaps it will help you do your job well. Maybe it will help you update or start your resume, to begin thinking about the possibility of a job change for yourself. Think of channeling that fear energy into doing the things you can to prepare yourself, just in case.
Next, focus on the thoughts that led to fear. It’s likely something along the lines of, “and I’m going to lose my job.” What do you know is true and real beyond a shadow of doubt? Perhaps you received a memo from HR that announced upcoming layoffs. All you know is you received that memo. That’s it. You know nothing more so don’t add to the story: “Oh my gosh! I’m going to be laid off, I’m not going to be able to find another job and I’ll be living under a bridge.” You don’t know that won’t ever happen, but you also don’t know it will. You don’t have any data to support this. Have people lost jobs and ended up homeless? Yes. Do you know beyond a shadow of a doubt it will happen to you? No.
When you put your thoughts through this test, it helps to minimize the emotion that is connected to the thought. Now you can free up some mental and physical space to work on your resume, just in case. It’s ok to prepare for the worst while acknowledging you don’t really know what will happen.
You will likely need to go through the process again and again of asking what is true and real about your thoughts on this very same issue. I like to say, “rinse and repeat” because our thoughts have a way of going back to square one. Just recognize what you are thinking and feeling, and repeat the process.
My neighbor has a home in Morehead City, NC. A fun little beach cottage she and her husband just finished remodeling and it sits right in the path of Hurricane Florence. We chatted at the mailbox last night about holding things loosely and doing the next right thing. Often when faced with some sort of adversity we may freak out, which doesn’t really help us at all. Other times we may try not being bothered in the least, which isn’t actually real. Either option is an extreme and extremes don’t tend to be beneficial.
So what does balanced look like? It’s when we are aware of the emotional impact of whatever is happening but we don’t allow the situation to own us. In my neighbor’s case, she feels the sadness of what might happen but recognizes she doesn’t actually know yet so she is holding some hope that perhaps things will be fine and if not she will then deal with it. Her words, “I’m taking the next right step.”
Closer to home, Anna (my daughter) is going through chronic rejection of her transplanted lungs. I’m focusing on what we know now: she’s fine, she’s humming along living her life even though she is well aware her lungs are failing. This is a slow progression for the time being so no action is necessary at this time. Anna understands this balance of living in reality but not letting her emotions take control. From her blog post in July:
“…yet as with all my fears they turn out to be not so bad and the things that suck are things I never really saw coming. Trust me I know from experience God really meant it when he said “DO NOT BE AFRAID”. There really is no point, it does nothing but get us all worked up, steal our present moments and lock us in a box of fear. Everything I have ever been afraid of happening that has happened was actually okay, there was no reason to get all worked up. And yet God also knew what he was doing when he said it over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over …. okay you get the point. Not being afraid is something I have to constantly remind myself. My latest mantra is the little bit of the song “don’t worry, about a thing, cuz every little thing is gonna be alright” and it is true!”
“Every little thing is gonna be alright” doesn’t mean everything will turn out as we want it to, but whatever it is, we can grow through it step by step.
I frequently talk about Viktor Frankl with my clients. He survived Nazi concentration camps from 1942-1945. His freedom came when his camp was liberated at the end of World War II. A Psychiatrist, he was intrigued by the motivations and actions of himself, fellow prisoners and guards in this unplanned and unwanted research experiment. After the war, he turned his discovery of the power human beings possess to survive horrific experiences into a therapeutic method: Logotherapy.
In the most unlikely of places, Dr. Frankl made a decision to be the best prisoner he could be. He didn’t execute this perfectly as he admits in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning but his intention gave him purpose and the will to survive. He reasoned if he was able to do this in a concentration camp, then anyone can. As human beings, we have the ability to choose our thoughts, words, actions and attitudes.
My circumstances are not even remotely as challenging as Dr. Frankl’s. Still, I recognize I have the same choices. In simple trivial situations like driving behind a slow vehicle I can get upset about it or relax, recognizing I have no power over the driver. I only have power over myself. I know that unhealthy, illegal and unwise decisions will have a negative impact on me and potentially others so I choose to breathe, be calm, and recognize that my impatience is likely my own responsibility for not leaving enough time for the inevitable slow driver, accident or heavy traffic.
The same goes for the more painful situations in my life. It’s important to note, this doesn’t mean I pretend to be fine. Oh, no! We must be real about the emotions we have in all situations whether trivial or intense. Acknowledge your emotions, understand why you feel what you do, validate your emotions then have a conversation with yourself about what to do. I go into this process in greater length here and here.
Remember, you have the power to decide what you think, feel, say and do in all situations. No one decides that for you.
I took a break from everything for a few days over the holidays. It wasn’t intentional, it just happened and it felt awesome! I had to pick up a few dropped pieces afterwards but it was still worth it. Life can get so busy sometimes it’s easy to forget to just be, not do. Sometimes life is so painful we avoid the being so we don’t have to feel; the doing serves as a painkiller of sorts. Some days we need more being and feeling. Some days we need a break from the feeling. Too much feeling can overwhelm us.
Find the balance that works for you of feeling and doing. Everyone is different. Our needs vary. I need a lot of being and feeling. I need time to just sit and ponder. In that space emotion rises to the surface. I identify it, understand it, sit with it, decide what I want to do because of it, then let it go ~ until the next time it shows up. Then I go through the same process. The more I allow myself to intentionally be with my emotions, processing them not just swirling in them haphazardly, the less control my emotions have over me.
Make time to find your balance between doing and feeling.
It’s that time of year again, the holidays. As with each year since I started blogging I will post holiday-related topics for the next few weeks. Last week was Thanksgiving for those of us here in the States. Generally I have enjoyed my Thanksgiving holiday but not so this year. There were some highlights: gathering together with most of my children and grandchildren, seeing siblings, nieces, nephews, a few cousins, my mother-in-law and my mom. It was a chaotic experience with many people I did not know and that was not enjoyable. Sometimes I am in the mood for conversations with strangers but this year, not so much. This year, I just wanted to be with family. I definitely felt my dad’s absence and that was part of my sadness.
I experienced the strangling of disappointment and anger taking over inside of me. It sucked me down into a familiar hole. I stayed there for several days. I was less patient with those around me, especially strangers in cars who received eye rolls and shouts of frustration. All of which I’m sure went unnoticed. It felt safer to yell at them. They can’t yell back (or at least I won’t hear them if they do). You know those times when you only want to have one-sided conversations because you are pretty certain a two-way conversation won’t go well? I felt gloomy, eyore-ish, and it’s been hard to get out of it.
I stopped to take stock of the why. My self-care was nearly non-existent while I was away for the week of Thanksgiving. I had been expecting myself to survive on the basics alone and that is not enough for me. On my last day away, I grabbed my husband and our puppy and went on a walk. I griped along the way, getting all that life-sucking poison out. I requested that we leave early (a looming snowstorm sealed that deal for me!) to put an end to this misery. Along the way, we stopped on a pedestrian bridge that overlooked the Roaring Fork River (sounds big but it’s just a stream really, especially in the winter). The clear frigid waters lolly gagged and splashed around huge boulders and scattered tree limbs. Patches of ice formed on the rocks on the downstream side of the bridge while the upstream side, in full sun, remained ice free. Something about that caught my attention. Maybe my heart was like the river. When I am on the downstream side, away from my source for internal warmth, I ice over. It’s harder for me to stay grounded. When I move toward the warmth of my source (in my case, God), the hardness and ice inside of me begin to melt.
But it doesn’t stop there. Ice builds inside of me when I am not getting out on walks, feeling fresh air and sunshine on my skin. I desperately need to soak in nature, do yoga, and spend time in solitude with my thoughts and prayers. Those are my biggies, the most important pieces of my self-care that must be regular ingredients in my life. I had a profound experience of what happens to me when I starve myself. I am working on stabilizing again, turning toward the sun, feeling the ice crystals softening and chunks of ice peeling away from soul. I feel warmth growing again and with it, hope that I will be ok.
Not happy about current circumstances and want to navigate well? You don’t have to just wallow in your misery, you can do something productive. First, clearly identify what you are feeling (anger, sadness, fear…) and the thoughts that are dictating the emotions. Emotions don’t just show up all on their own. They are linked to cognitive thought: you have a thought and an emotion will follow. We sometimes notice the emotion and not the dictating thought so it’s super important to get back to, “Where did this feeling come from?” The reason? If the thought isn’t based in reality, it’s not worth entertaining and neither is the accompanying the emotion. We often feel these not-based-in-reality emotions anyway and develop incredibly unhealthy neural pathways that become ingrained in our brain and feel like a reflex when in fact they are an unhealthy learned behavior that we keep feeding.
For instance: “With this new President-elect, our country is going down the tubes, freedom will be lost, this is horrible!” What is true at this moment that you know for sure beyond a shadow of a doubt? We have a new President-elect. That’s it. We don’t actually know what he will do. We know what he said he will do, but nothing has actually been done yet. Breathe. Remind yourself of what you know for sure. Let go of all the places your mind is going with the “what ifs”. They are crazy-making and completely unhelpful. You can mourn the loss of your candidate if you did not vote for Trump. You can celebrate that your candidate won if you voted for Trump. That’s it. Nothing more. Don’t get too puffed up about all that is going to happen or too depressed about all that is going to happen because–none of it has happened yet. Stay with the here and now and breathe deeply and slowly.
Next, after feeling the emotions based in reality, take a deep breath, splash some water on your face and ask yourself, “Where do I have control? Is there anything I can do about the situation that is healthy, legal and wise?” At the very least, we always have the ability to choose how we are going to react, what kind of attitude we are going to have, if we want to smile and find the joy in our life. Always! Viktor Frankl learned this in a Nazi-run concentration camp during World War II. If he learned this concept in the very worst of circumstances then we can surely do this in our circumstances. I know, if you are reading this, you already have way more freedom and more to find joy in than a concentration camp prisoner.
Now, move on. Surely you have something you need to be doing or could be doing that is productive. Maybe it’s time for a good dose of self-care (something you can do that fills you up in a good way–healthy, legal and wise!). Go for a walk, pet your dog/cat, talk to a friend, listen to music, feel the sun/fresh air, read a book, knit, play piano, write…the list could go on and on. Be good to your body and your mind. Fill up and restore so you can reset. You will deal with whatever happens when it happens and until then, you can take care of yourself, anchor to the present and bring joy into this world in your own unique way 🙂