To All the Humans Out There
Updated: Feb 12, 2021
As we navigate this confusing and exhausting period of uncertainty, many resources entreat us to practice “sitting with our emotions.” We are told this can open doors to a miraculous future, overflowing with resilience, deep meaning, and spiritual balance. We yearn for this self-understanding, possessed (we imagine) by the enlightened few. But all of us—yes, even you—have the potential to experience emotional growth. So where do we begin?
Perhaps you learned, as many children do, that the best way to cope with difficult feelings such as sadness, guilt, anger, or shame, is to make them disappear. We learn to disavow them until they lose their power, using distraction or sheer force of will. We’ve likely all been told “It doesn’t hurt. You’re fine.” Or maybe “There is nothing to feel anxious about.” But just as avoiding a feared object leads to heightened anxiety over time, suppressing our emotions can cause them to feel increasingly powerful. We then view our anger as too dangerous to express, or too destructive to control. We worry we will be debilitated by sadness, paralyzed by fear.
Fellow human beings, we will encounter ALL of these emotions throughout our lives. Think of them as signals. In the same way as an accidental splash of boiling water creates a burning sting, our response to our environment, or even our own thoughts, can lead to emotional pain. Feelings alert us to our surrounding world and help us identify how events and experiences are affecting us.
Then, by naming them, we can begin heal. Speaking the words “Today I am really lonely and tired of quarantine,” will not, as we may fear, intensify the feeling beyond our ability to cope. In fact, often this identification allows us to respond by choice, rather than reaction. It is a powerful position, indeed, to be able to name our feelings, and no longer fear their presence.
A phenomenon often referred to as “the hierarchy of suffering,” may emerge during this process. For example, we may say “I know others have it much worse right now. I shouldn’t be feeling this way.” In an era when we are repeatedly told to “nurture gratitude” in our daily lives, expressing feelings of anger, sadness, or loneliness may feel self-indulgent, or even, dare I say, ungrateful. But when these feelings arise, we must remember to be compassionate toward ourselves. We need to recognize our pain as valid and worthy of acknowledgement, and avoid burdening our true and useful emotions with the weight of shame.
We can move toward this goal by facilitating a supportive, non-judgmental approach, and being patient. We must learn to care for ourselves as we would a beloved friend, adopting a gentle, questioning tone to ask “What could be creating this feeling right now?”
It may sometimes seem like these emotions come out of nowhere, but with time and guidance, we can learn how to identify the triggers, thought patterns, and behaviors that precede them. Though this is not a simple process, it is an obtainable goal, particularly in a supportive environment with trusted listeners (including ourselves). And as you grow, give yourself grace to stumble and fall sometimes.
You are human, after all.
(Photo: J Reid)