There is no right or wrong way to ‘do’ feelings

I’ve had some lovely coaching sessions this week and both during these sessions and just in my general interactions with my friends and family, a theme has come up.

I think we already know that humans are really good at telling each other what to do. Perhaps more surprisingly, it seems we are also really good at telling each other how to feel. It seems to me that women in particular are really good at doing this to each other. I’m sure that most of the time this is well-intentioned. I’m also sure that most of the time it is unsolicited. I know that I do it sometimes even though I hate it when it’s done to me. I think that women probably do this because it make us feel better: it’s often uncomfortable to witness another person experiencing intense and unpleasant emotions, so in an attempt to make ourselves more comfortable we try to make the other person’s feelings go away, so that in turn our own uncomfortable feelings go away.

The problem with this is that it invalidates that other person’s feelings and, if anything, probably only makes their feelings more stubborn. After all, what we resist, persists. Rarely do feelings simply ‘go away’ because somebody suggested that we ‘just quit worrying about it’ or ‘stop being so ridiculous’. Who ever heard of a person feeling more tranquil after being told to ‘calm down’?

I don’t know about you but the last time I was upset about something and I expressed that to someone, all I wanted was to be heard. I can recall a specific time, in the last month actually, when I was angry and upset and I told my sister about it. She listened, she validated my feelings and gave me a hug. And you know what? My feelings dissipated almost instantly. I felt so much better just because I felt I’d been heard, even though the original problem hadn’t gone away.

And it’s even more than that: by telling someone to ‘calm down’ or ‘stop worrying’, we not only miss a valuable opportunity to really listen to them (and thereby strengthen the relationship), we also make that person wrong for having the feelings in the first place. Although unintentional, we shame the person for having their feelings. Perhaps we think that by letting the person indulge in their feelings then they won’t take any positive actions to improve the situation. In reality, the opposite is usually true: shame rarely motivates people to take positive action.

Now, just because a person has a feeling doesn’t mean they have to act on it. And yes, each of us has a certain amount of control over our feelings and certainly over our reactions to them. We can control our thoughts and our body, which in turn impacts our emotions. However, that’s not what I’m talking about here.

I’m talking about missing a moment to give someone an incredible gift: the gift of having our feelings respected and of being truly heard. There is so much in our society that already shames and invalidates women for being emotional beings. Let’s not perpetuate that. We do have a choice and we can lift each other up instead. A rising tide lifts all boats.

So often, by way of our negative self-talk and less-than-self-loving actions, we shame and invalidate ourselves for our emotional natures. And then we pass that on to the women around us when they turn to us for some validation.

So next time someone comes to you upset, just listen. Experiment with simply hearing them and validating their feelings. It is an incredible gift.

And next time you are upset yourself, don’t make yourself wrong for having feelings. There is no right or wrong, only what’s true for you. Show yourself a little compassion and remind yourself that you are ok and you are enough. Already and always.

Working against my body makes me angry. Really, really angry!

Anger. Fury. Rage. Restlessness. Loss of control. Energy surging through my body, urgently seeking an outlet. Preferably a violent one.

This is how I felt about 4 hours ago. It had been building all day. I went to yoga and for the first 30 minutes I felt good, proud of myself for being there, patting myself on the back for committing myself to practice, and quietly smug because I was managing postures that 3 months ago were too difficult, and that were evidently difficult also for some of the others in the class. Then suddenly about halfway through the class, it all changed. It got hard. Really physically hard. I felt dizzy, I felt sore and I felt really, really tired. And I also started feeling annoyed, at myself and at my beautiful instructor Deb (sorry, Deb!). It wasn’t logical. I didn’t think much of it other than ‘don’t give up’. But in hindsight it was a signal, a small bubbling-up of something that was soon to erupt. I kept the self-talk positive and made it through the class. I left feeling pretty exhausted but proud of myself for even making it to a yoga class this weekend.

I came home and showered, all the while thinking of the many many things on the to do list. So many, in fact, that I dilly dallied about which to begin. I pottered and multi-tasked and procrastinated for the next several hours. I was feeling rather stressed. There are a lot of tasks around the house that I’d like to get completed and of course this was an appealing productive procrastination option. As usual, I have a mountain of schoolwork to do, which I was feeling was most urgent. Plus, there are many tasks related to The Harmony Agenda that I really want to do but that keep getting put off due to something else being urgent. I managed to get some grocery shopping done, muffins made and the office half-tidied (this was urgent as I’d begun rearranging it yesterday) but none of the schoolwork had even been attempted. I began to feel even more stressed, as well as rather resentful. Instead of enjoying the pottering around that I had managed to get done, I was stressing about the schoolwork and resenting that I had so much to do. Resenting that I couldn’t enjoy my weekends care-free like I wanted to. Resenting that I was putting off building my blog and my business, the purpose of which is freedom from the stress and workload of teaching, due to the very thing I’m trying to escape.

Then it all just blew up. I felt this violent energy running through my entire upper body and I couldn’t sit still. My husband helpfully suggested that I take a bath or do something else calming (it is self-care Sunday after all), but I just wanted to punch things. Not him, just something. I felt so violent, but with no idea why. I tried the self-talk thing but it was only winding me up more. I thought about all the things that I needed to do that I could productively focus my energy into, but they were all fairly low-physical, high-mental energy activities and I could neither think straight nor be still. I tried punching my bed, and while it helped release some of the energy it just felt so futile and useless. I thought about my recent social media post about personal power and responsibility, telling myself that I should be above this. I should be able to control my emotions, use the energy as fuel for productivity, suck it up and be responsible and get my work done. But at the same time I was thinking about how anger is a signal and I should listen to it, figure out what it was about so that I could address the problem. Surely that would be a truly responsible reaction. So I tried listening to my body, what was it telling me, what was this really about?

A few things came up, but realising them didn’t dissipate the anger. If anything it intensified it. I was warring with myself. Do something productive and release the energy vs allowing myself to work through the emotions and not putting pressure on myself to ‘do’ anything. But I had so much to do and I’d already wasted so many hours of the day with all these stupid feelings. Every minute I stayed angry and not ‘doing’ felt like such a waste. Neither option seemed enough and yet doing nothing wasn’t helping either.

In the end I did both: no pressure to achieve, just physically releasing the energy and allowing my mind to work through whatever it needed to. I began by furiously cleaning the windows in our bedroom, inside and out. Then I violently ripped weeds out of two garden beds until it was nearly dark. My feelings of rage actually disappeared very quickly and, apart from a brief encounter with a spider (yuk!), I fell into a state of flow. I don’t know exactly how long I was out there, I lost track of time. All I know is it worked. I now feel much calmer, much more like my normal non-violent self and able to think clearly.

I’m still not exactly sure what I was angry about but it did mean I had to think about a number of things. There are definitely some things still for me to work through when it comes to life-work balance. Resentment isn’t a pleasant feeling but it is a signal, like anger, that is worth listening to.

In the end, although I didn’t get all the usual self-care activities done today that I’d have liked, and I certainly didn’t get the various other tasks done, I do believe that dealing with and listening to my anger is a form of self-care in itself. In particular, listening to my body and working with it, instead of fighting it, was so useful. Sitting still and deep breathing, or trying to focus on activities that require high levels of concentration might have eventually worked and I’m sure in time my anger would have passed had I done that. But my body was crying out for a more physical response and I’m glad I listened to it. Not only is the garden weeded, but when I worked with my body instead of against it things suddenly became much less of a struggle. This has been the biggest lesson I’ve had to learn over the last ten years and it seems I am finally getting it right more often than not.