It is scary! Truly, terrifying if you think about it – to be open-hearted and willing to love. But I’m not here to aggravate your nervous system. If you go around constantly acknowledging how scary it is to love and lose, to live and die – without a helpful framework of awareness – you’d go out of your mind. I emphasize both the benefits of learning to navigate emotions with compassion as well as the detriment of repression.
It hurts. So, we distract. Occasional distraction is inevitable, especially if you are grieving the loss of a loved one, or you just got divorced, or some other calamitous change just occurred. Those types of losses are outside the sphere of the usual pain we endure and require time to heal and lots of support.
That being said, if you have learned to consistently distract and numb out, you may not even realize that there is another way to be that feels more alive, vital and joyful.
Ongoing distraction can lead to long term despair or chronic pain. Some people distract because they don’t know what the alternatives might be – they don’t have the tools. Some don’t even have a single reference point for joy – addiction (not just to substances – it could be work, shopping or exercise) has become a way of life.
We distract not only to quit thinking, feeling and worrying, but because, as human animals, we pick up on other people’s freaked out nervous systems. (See the work of Stephen Porges.) The strongest nervous system in the room wins, and if you don’t know how to protect yourself by staying calm, you will get hijacked.
Symphony of Emotions
We distract because being human means that we are a symphony – sometimes cacophony – of emotions. A healthy person might feel many different emotions in a day, and when you know how to navigate them, they flow through the body to shift and release. When you learn how to “play” them, one emotion is not considered “better” than another. They are just different notes on the scale.
No Bad Emotions
You might feel grief to some degree every day. Maybe you miss your family or maybe you just got a new job and you’ll miss coworkers. Maybe your dog is going in for surgery. Checking in with your body and acknowledging your feelings, rather than repressing, helps them to move through you like a song, rather than playing the same note over and over.
The more you feel, and the more you grieve, your capacity for compassion will expand. Grief can cut like a knife, but eventually – with time – it leaves the heart spongy. It opens us more deeply to the pain of others. We connect more deeply to the human race as we burn in its fire.
But, few in this culture teaches us how to do sorrow or anger well. Sit coms model reaching for a drink. That may be okay temporarily when swimming in a feeling so large you can’t see the shore. But stuffing feelings as an ongoing habit causes them to explode when you least expect it, and then you’ll feel guilty and stuff them again. Shit show.
Don’t blame yourself. Some of the bravest souls on the planet are battling fierce internal demons that keep them perpetually shut down and numbed out, no matter what is happening.
Walking the Fire
And, some people have been so traumatized and are so sensitive that their trauma has harmed their ability to recover so irreparably that they require the support of medication. (And, in the case of bipolar disorder or schizophrenia medication is imperative!) But I am saying GP’s tend to be quick to prescribe; our culture is eager to recommend the quick fix, when sometimes learning to walk the fire – with support – is more helpful long term than an emotional epidural.
It may be easier short term not to feel emotions, but there are side effects and long term detriments. More shut down = more and more shut down until life feels overwhelming or meaningless. Repressed emotion turns into chronic pain: fibromyalgia, back pain, stomach issues, bells palsy… the list goes on and on. Some people are so afraid to feel emotion – the idea becomes so daunting that it’s easier to deal with physical pain.
Again, have compassion. This process requires support. You need and deserve spiritual and psychological support to get to the other side of the raging river. For some, religion is a bridge.
Don’t underestimate your pain
Life can be hard. Don’t underestimate your experience. Talking yourself out of just how difficult it feels to be human, or comparing your situation to someone else’s, prevents you from seeking help. Emotions fully felt – especially grief – makes the heart grow bigger. But you can’t navigate this dark night of the soul alone.
Doing this human thing well is a practice. In other words, you can’t avoid the contraction of life, but you can learn the midwives’ skills to tide you through the contraction to get to the release. Learning to feel through the contraction makes the release feel all the more heart expanding. Ultimately, regular grieving expands the capacity for joy.