Weird But True: The Secret to Dealing With Those Things Called “Feelings”

on May 7, 2012 | in Relationships | by

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Apparently, we’ve all got these things called “feelings” or whatever. (Well, except for my ex. HA JUST KIDDING!)

You can’t see them, and who the hell knows what they really are, but they’re there anyways.

Now in my past life, I thought I knew how to handle these so-called “feelings.” Without a thought, I’d just stuff my face with some Ben & Jerry’s. Or go out and get hammered and call up an ex. Or, you know, go on a completely unnecessary shopping spree. THAT SHIT ALWAYS WORKS!

That is, until I’d wake up the next day and realize that not only was I hungover and feeling like a fatso, but I also just wasted, like, an entire weekend of my life. And also, $236. And I’ve got nothing to show for it except… well, emptiness of the soul.

FARK.

I GUESS IT DIDN’T WORK SO WELL AFTER ALL.

Feelings. I spent at least 22 years running from them– distracting myself with food and mindless television, with guys and with shopping and with booze, before I discovered the secret of all secrets, the BIG FAT THING that had been hidden in plain sight my entire life.

THE SECRET OF ALL SECRETS

In 2006, I sat in the back of a classroom at Gonzaga University, expecting to hear another lecture full of regurgitated textbook information.

Instead, I discovered the secret of life.

I could write for three lifetimes and still not be able to explain what I learned from Dr. Kent Hoffman that semester, but I’ll try for  something simpler. Suffice to say, these ideas come from both attachment theory and object relations theory– made more user friendly and accessible by years of whittling complexity into the simplest possible form.

Today I’ll explain them within the context of a parent-child scenario from John Gottman’s book, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child.

A parent-child scenario? You may be asking.

Yep. Sure, we’re talking about understanding our own emotion coping strategies, but we can’t possibly come to understand ourselves in isolation. As infants, we learn to regulate our emotions based on the strategies we experienced in relationship with our caregivers.

Thus, I present to you “The Checked Zebra Incident”:

[My daughter Moriah] was two at the time and we were on a cross-country flight home after visiting with relatives. Bored, tired, and cranky, Moriah asked me for Zebra, her favourite stuffed animal and comfort object. Unfortunately, we had absentmindedly packed the well-worn critter in a suitcase that was checked at the baggage counter.

“I’m sorry, honey, but we can’t get Zebra right now. He’s in the big suitcase in another part of the plane,” I explained.

“I want Zebra,” she whined pitifully.

“I know, sweetheart. But Zebra isn’t here. He’s in the baggage compartment underneath the plane and Daddy can’t get him until we get off the plane. I’m sorry.”

“I want Zebra! I want Zebra!” she moaned again. Then she started to cry, twisting in her safety seat and reaching futilely toward a bag on the floor where she’d seen me go for snacks.

“I know you want Zebra,” I said, feeling my blood pressure rise.

“But he’s not in that bag. He’s not here and I can’t do anything about it.”

Take a moment to imagine this scenario and ask yourself the following questions:

  • How would have your parent(s) responded to this situation when you were a child?
  • How would you respond to this situation today if you were (or if you are) a parent?
  • Finally, how do you typically respond when a similar feeling comes up within yourself? What are the strategies you use to cope with your own feelings?

Within the context of “The Checked Zebra Incident,” here are the three ways that most of us learn to deal with those weird things called “feelings.”

The Distraction Response: “You’re OK, you’re OK, you’re OK.”

The “distraction response” is everywhere in our society. It’s easy! Just pretend your feelings don’t exist! When the child becomes upset about Zebra, the parent’s response might be something like this:

“You’re OK. You’re fine.”

“It’s just a stuffed animal.”

“Smile big!”

“Look at that airplane out the window!”

“Look what I have for you– ice cream!!”

It’s quite simple, really: if you don’t know how to deal with your feelings, just distract yourself from them. Dismiss them and push them away. Put on your big boy pants and plaster a smile on your face, regardless of how you feel inside. Your feelings don’t exist and aren’t valid.

As an adult, the child who grew up with the distraction response will come to under rely on others and over rely on himself, downplaying the significance of (or presence of) emotions.

The Emergency Response: “OMG OMG OMG!”

The “emergency response” occurs when a caregiver doesn’t know how to deal with the child’s feelings, so she freaks out. She rushes in to fix them immediately. Anxiety. Fear. PANIC.

“OMG SHE’S GONNA CRY, BERNARD!” And the mother rushes in and reacts out of panic.

“I’ll get you another stuffed animal right now, sweetie! STOP THE AIRPLANE!!! IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD OMG FEELINGS!! Here honey, have some ICE CREAM!! DO YOU FEEL BETTER NOW OMG OMG OMG!”

Anything, everything, quick quick quick, FIX THE PROBLEM MAKE HER HAPPY– ANYTHING TO STOP THE FEELINGS!!!

This child will likely feel the same sense of anxiety and overwhelm as an adult. She’ll be easily overwhelmed by emotion, swallowed up in it, preoccupied by it.

She’ll do anything and everything within her control to FIX these feelings (even if the fix isn’t ultimately in her best interest), for FIXING is the answer and she cannot rest until the emotions subside and resolution occurs. She’ll come to over rely on others for fixing and/or will want others to over rely on her. She’ll have trouble dealing with things on her own.

The Resonant Response: “It’s OK, little one– I’m here with you.”

Strangely, there’s also a third kind of response (quoted from John Gottman’s book):

“I want him Zebra. I want him now!’

By now, I was getting “do something” looks from the passengers, from the airline attendants, from my wife, seated across the aisle. I looked at Moriah’s face, red with anger, and imagined how frustrated she must feel. After all, wasn’t I the guy who could whip up a peanut butter sandwich on demand? Make huge purple dinosaurs appear with the flip of a TV switch? Why was I withholding her favourite toy from her? Didn’t I understand how much she wanted it?

I felt bad. Then it dawned on me: I couldn’t get Zebra, but I could offer the next best thing—a father’s comfort.

“You wish you had Zebra now,” I said to her.

“Yeah,” she said sadly.

“And you’re angry because we can’t get him for you.”

“Yeah.”

“You wish you had Zebra right now,” I repeated, as she stared at me, looking rather curious, almost surprised.

“Yeah,” she muttered. “I want him now,”

“You’re tired now, and smelling Zebra and cuddling with him would feel real good. I wish we had Zebra here so you could hold him. Even better, I wish we could get out of these seats and find a big, soft bed full of all your animals and pillows where we could just lie down.”

“Yeah,” she agreed.

“We can’t get Zebra because he’s in another part of the airplane,” I said “That makes you feel frustrated.”

“Yeah,” she said with a sigh.

“I’m sorry,” I said, watching the tension leave from her face. She rested her head against the back of her safety seat. She continued to complain softly a few more times, but she was growing calmer. Within a few minutes, she was asleep.

Although Moriah was just two years old, she clearly knew what she wanted—her Zebra. Once she began to realize that getting it wasn’t possible, she wasn’t interested in my excuses, arguments, or my diversions. My validation, however, was another matter. Finding out that I understood how she felt seemed to make her feel better.

Keep in mind that this involves more than offering simple words; it’s a mirroring of the child’s feeling state– a “being with,” an emotional “holding.”

Dr. Hoffman explained it simply– based on years of scientific research and studies, it all boils down to simple explanations that he quoted on our class slides:

“You get what I’m feeling and I know it.”

“Having someone here with me in this bad feeling allows me a way out of feeling bad.”

“Please let me know you get what I’m feeling and that you will wait here with me until things change.”

It’s that simple, guys.

Someone gets me.

I am not alone in this feeling after all.

There is someone here with me– someone bigger, stronger, wiser and kind, to help me make sense of this feeling, to stay here with me until the feeling resides.

Not if it resides, but when.

Not “You’re OK; smile big,” but

“It’s OK, little one, I am here with you.”

. .

HOLY CRAP,

I realized halfway through class– this is what I’ve been missing all along.

This is all I’ve ever wanted; it’s all I’ve ever needed.

And it’s really, ridiculously, insanely simple:

We don’t need ice cream.

We don’t need to be talked out of our feelings, to distract ourselves from them.

We don’t need Zebra.

We don’t need to squelch our feelings with immediate fixing.

The absence of sadness– that’s not truly what we’re after.

All we need is something so much simpler: resonance. We need to know that we are not alone in our pain, that someone actually gets us. The experience of being experienced. The feeling of being known.

Simple holding, deep resonance– a staying with, a being with, a deep safety, a deep trust, that perhaps we’ve never known before.

I want to know 
if you can sit with pain, 
mine or your own, 
without moving to hide it 
or fade it 
or fix it.

- Oriah Mountain Dreamer

And I came to realize that maybe, just maybe, with the help of some larger grace, I could offer this gift to myself.

A favorite author of mine, Pema Chodron, paints a picture of “a mother bird who protects and cares for her young until they are strong enough to fly away”:

People sometimes ask, “Who am I in this image — the mother or the chick?” The answer is we’re both: both the loving mother and those ugly little chicks. We are a poignant mixture of something that isn’t all that beautiful and yet is dearly loved. Whether this is our attitude toward ourselves or toward others, it is the key to learning how to love. We stay with ourselves and with others when we’re screaming for food and have no feathers and also when we are more grown up and more appealing by worldly standards.

- Pema Chodron, Comfortable With Uncertainty

I opened myself up to a larger grace, and I began to learn that maybe I could be both the mother and the chick. Maybe I could hold this pain– compassionately, tenderly, lovingly.  I could make space for it. I could let it be. Instead of repressing or indulging, I could simply sit with this pain and hold it with compassion.

And so day in and day out, this has become my practice, the work of my life.

By staying right here in the midst of my feelings, by offering no solution, I find the solution. By avoiding escape, I find freedom. I’m finding my way out by finally finding my way in.

# # #

John Gottman’s book (highly recommended):

Pema Chodron’s book (you’ll like it if you’re open to Buddhist-like principles and words like “Boddhichitta” ;-) ):

Related posts:

The Time Tested, Tried and True, Totally Weird Way to Deal With Sucky Feelings

One Weird Way to Escape Heartbreak, Loneliness, or any Dreaded Feeling

The “You” Nobody Knows: Lost, Scared, Alone Forever?

[Image by Abdulmajeed Al.mutawee]

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  • http://twitter.com/sarahemily Sarah Goshman

    Ahhhh…. Beautifully said. How hard it is to let other people we love feel pain or fear or other “negative” emotions without trying to “protect” them though… :-)

    • http://www.theunlost.com Therese

      Yes, it can be hard to allow the people we care for experience pain, fear, etc… but in being there WITH them (not just physically, but on a deeper level) and by helping them come to know that, even though the pain is there, they are not alone in it, we may be doing them a far greater service…

  • http://www.JustFindingMyVoice.blogspot.com/ Just_Jenn

    This is SO TRUE! That is all we are looking for in this world – someone to say, “I get it”. It’s as true for toddlers as it is for big kids and teens and adults and senior citizens. I love your idea of being your own mother bird, giving yourself the space to feel. I can even can see myself taking it a little more literally and actually speaking to myself in this way – like when I’m scared and just wanting to scream or complain in my head, “This is too scary! Waah!”, responding to that thought, “Hey – it’s ok, I KNOW you’re scared. I’m scared too. But we can do this thing.” Ok, that all sounds like I’m slightly mentally unbalanced, but I know this kind of inner dialogue will work in my crazy head. :) Anyway – great post as always, and thanks for the Monday morning inspiration!

  • Alygamache

    “I could write for three lifetimes and still not be able to explain what I learned” … no kidding, right? And it’s amazing how much Kent’s class has changed my life because of this ‘simple’ revelation; clearly yours as well. The simple realization of ‘being with’, of being understood, and finally not alone.

    Beautifully said, Therese.

    • http://www.theunlost.com Therese

      Yes, yes, yes. My life has been changed IMMENSELY because of Kent’s class.

  • Fran Med324

    This post Is exactly what I needed to read today. Raw, honest truth. Thanks Therese!

    • http://www.theunlost.com Therese

      My pleasure, dear Cheska!

  • http://afford-anything.com/ Paula from Afford Anything

    What a beautiful post, and exactly what I need to read right now.

  • Akshata

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Your post couldn’t have come to me at a better time. I’ve been following your blog for some time now and loved every one of your posts. I had been feeling particularly low for the past couple of weeks, more so because I didn’t know how to deal with this sadness. And then I got your latest post in my inbox :D Thanks, Therese. If you ever decide to visit India on a whim, i’ll be happy to play hostess.

    • http://www.theunlost.com Therese

      Dear Akshata,

      Your comment about visiting India on a whim brings a smile to my face. I hope one day I’m so lucky!

      I wish you lots & lots of peace-within-your-sadness and peace-within-your-happiness, too– peace-within-whatever-is-here-right-now.

  • http://www.optimisticwellness.com/ Josh Lipovetsky

    Excellent post, Therese. I loved how you drew from the examples, and related it to make it your own. I find that to be a big strength of your writing style. You know how to relate a bunch of pieces from different sources, and synthesize it into a very powerful “whole”.

    • http://www.theunlost.com Therese

      Thanks Mr. Lipovetsky. A big strength of yours seems to be your keen insight…

  • N8wind

    You can find the same wonderful principle in this highly recommended book: Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall B. Rosenberg

    http://www.amazon.com/Nonviolent-Communication-A-Language-Life/dp/1892005034/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1336421267&sr=8-1

    • http://www.theunlost.com Therese

      Cool, thanks for sharing. The wonderful thing is that once you begin to understand this concept, you see it everywhere, just explained through different frameworks and lenses.

  • Josephine

    Therese, I love this post and I love your blog! The question I have for you is, once you’ve validated yourself and you know the pain you’re feeling is ok, how do you move on? How do you manage it so that it’s not overwhelming and so that you can solve problems from a rational place? I find I try so hard to tell myself it’s ok, and I talk to other people who tell me the same, and yet I still spend so much of the day in pain mode. I’m living abroad right now with the kind of wonderful boyfriend I said I always wanted, and yet I miss my parents, miss my friends, miss the familiar streets and places, am in distress. How do you deal?

    • http://www.theunlost.com Therese

      Dear Josephine,

      “Once you’ve validated yourself and you know the pain you’re feeling is ok, how do you move on?”

      Good question, to which I will answer with another question:

      What would the answer be if your pain was a baby bird?

      Is there a timetable for how quickly the chick has to “move on” from its pain? Can you rush it into feeling better?

      Or would you sit with it for as long as it takes, even though that’s kind of sucky?

      And another question:

      Is having the intellectual “knowing” that your pain is ok… is this the same thing as having the “experience of being experienced?” Sticking with the baby bird example: no matter how many times you tell the baby bird that it’s held safely in a nest, resting tenderly beneath its mother’s wings, does this make any difference if all the bird can see are branches and the steep fall below?

      And one last question:

      Can you take rational action, physical steps to get out of the pain, while at the very same time allowing it to be? Do the two have to be mutually exclusive or can they coexist simultaneously…?

      Finally, patience.

      Patience with the pain and patience with the process. Because that’s what it is: a process, and it often takes time. You can’t see your way out right now, so be patient. Be compassionate with yourself and with the process. Know that whether you know it or not, you are supported and guided by something so much bigger than yourself. Faith.

      There are no easy answers… (until there are.)

      <3 <3

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  • http://twitter.com/LesliDoares Lesli Doares

    Our own feelings can be scary because of the way others react to them. You gave a great explanation of three options. Feelings don’t need to be “fixed”. They don’t even need to be “understood”. What’s needed, as you so helpfully explained, is for them to be acknowledged. Trying to talk someone out of their feelings, or distract them away, is actually very disrespectful. This is true whether you are two or seventy-two. Thanks so much for sharing.

    • http://www.theunlost.com Therese

      Whether we are two or seventy-two, it is true indeed :).

  • http://www.simplemindfulness.com/ Paige – simple mindfulness

    I think this issue is much of the reason that teens feel like their parents don’t listen to/hear/ understand them. Seeing our kids in pain makes us want to make it all better. Being with the pain seems like the last thing we should do but it’s actually the best thing we can do, as you’ve so beautifully described.

    I also love Pema’s book, The Places That Scare You, which continues the work of being with our “negative” feelings.

    I learned to stuff my feelings at a very early age because expressing them wasn’t safe in our house. This led to a variety of physical ailments that I didn’t figure out how to heal until I learned how to manage my thoughts and feelings with yoga and meditation.

    It’s so awesome that you’ve figured this out when you did and that you’re spreading the word. You obviously understand the whole concept very well. Major kuddos to you, Therese!!!

    • http://www.theunlost.com Therese

      Thanks, Paige. Learning to “stuff” your feelings is soo common. I’m glad you’ve found ways to work through this.

      Learning what I learned was a MAJOR turning point for me– I discovered a new possibility that I’d never really known existed before. That said, the process of actually BEING with my feelings is just that– an ongoing, never ending process :)

  • http://nochnoch.com/ Noch Noch

    that’s so weird. that’s how my fiance calms me down when i have a panic attack
    Noch Noch

    • http://www.theunlost.com Therese

      It works, doesn’t it ;-)

  • http://darbyandjoans.blogspot.com.au/ Joan

    Very impressed.

  • http://twitter.com/downfromtheledg down from the ledge

    I don’t know how to do that yet; just let it be. I know the world won’t come to an end if I have to sit with feeling sh*tty instead of stuffing it down, but I would do just about anything to escape my feelings.

    • http://www.theunlost.com Therese

      The important (& necessary) thing is that you have that awareness…

      I can’t always let my feelings “be,” either. It’s no easy task– like I said, it’s the work of a lifetime :).

      So in the meantime… maybe we can let THAT be… that inability to sit with our feelings. If this is what’s true for us right now, so can we sit with THAT?

      At a conference I was at today, Meng Tan of Google spoke about managing emotions. He suggested “talking” to yourself (i.e., your emotion)– sounds corny? but I really like what he offered up:

      “[Emotion],

      I allow you to be present, to come & go as you wish; I am kind, gentle, and generous toward you.”

      In this specific case our emotion might be the INABILITY to be present– the need to escape– a numbness or whatever it might be. Can we allow ourselves to be exactly as we are?

      And if we can’t, then can we allow ourselves to be the person who can’t allow ourself to be exactly as we are…

      and so on and so forth ;-)

      Wherever we’re at right now, whether we’re able to “accept” ourselves and our feelings or not, can we come to embrace that at some level…

      That is the work. Gotta start somewhere… gotta start exactly where we’re at right now ;-)

      • http://www.theunlost.com Therese

        Also, it’s no surprise that many of us can’t “sit” with our feelings.

        To the extent that we experienced our own feelings as being “known” by another as infants, we can come to know and experience our own emotions. We had someone bigger, wiser and kinder there with us to show us that our emotions were safe, that we weren’t alone, and to help us organize these feelings. In this ideal setting, we come to trust and we grow up with an ability to sit with our own feelings (and those of others).

        But this is the ideal, and most of us don’t get the ideal. So to the extent that our feelings were NOT “known” by another, we find ourselves unable to sit with our own– no one was able to “go there” with us; to help us regulate them (this is no one’s fault– no one was ever there to help them regulate their own feelings either, and so they never learned to sit with their own emotions.). We cannot trust that it’s safe to go there because we never had anyone to “go there” with us, and we don’t know how to handle it on our own. It’s too painful to go into this pain all alone, and so we don’t.

        We come to know ourselves through being known by another.

        “The knowing of oneself, through being genuinely known by another, is at the core of emotional health.”

        • http://twitter.com/downfromtheledg down from the ledge

          And so what if no one “knows” us? It sounds like a lofty ideal, because few of us in our own brokenness are capable of giving others what they need. We can’t get around being dependent on others, and yet I hate that dependency, because people disappoint. We can’t get what we need from others, and therefore don’t know how to give ourselves what we need.

      • http://twitter.com/downfromtheledg down from the ledge

        This goes back to Tolle’s work as well….accepting whatever is, right now, in this moment, instead of perpetually fighting against life. I think our fight-or-flight, anxiety-driven culture fuels this sort of ‘fleeing’ from the present, the escapism, the refusal of right now for what could be or what should be or what might be better. Acceptance. That’s where it’s at.

  • http://www.thelastbrokenhome.com/ Adam Alvarado

    Damn, I think the only thing I learned in school was a surveyor’s-specific mental map of the party spots. Bravo on getting something else out of your four years. Sweet article too…

    • http://www.theunlost.com Therese

      Yeah, I got lucky with college– this class actually changed my life ;-).

  • Jessica

    I’m going through a really rough time right now, and this definitely helped me out. I’ve been struggling to express that this is what I need from people close to me, but I didn’t think about doing it for myself. Instead, I’ve been stuck in this cycle of feeling bad, then feeling guilty about feeling bad and being really mean to myself…which of course makes me feel worse! Thanks for a very helpful perspective.

    • therese

      Hey Jessica,

      I’m glad this perspective has helped. I know it’s helped me tons & tons & tons. Doing it for yourself is essential– although (paradoxically?) sometimes on order to do it for yourself you have to open up to help as well, to something bigger than yourself. We can’t do it completely on on our own.

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  • Caitlin

    Hey Theresa,

    thank you, thank you, thank you!!..by devine grace I found you tonight. Time to call it a night, but I can’t wait to start reading your wonderful words again tomorrow! You’ve been balm to my aching heart. All my love precious gal, Caitlin xoxo

    • http://www.theunlost.com Therese

      Best comment ever, Caitlin. Thank you <3

  • http://TheInvisibleOffice.com Erica Cosminsky

    I’ve really enjoyed the Unlost Year of Enough interviews and I knew I had to click over and read these. I also love Pema Chodron’s writing. Looking forward to grabbing these other books!

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