How to handle messy emotions
Halloween is one of my favorite holidays, especially because one of my favorite memories is going to school and sticking my hand into those paper bags that were supposed to be ‘brains’ but were actually spaghetti.
Which, coincidentally, is how I like to think about messy emotions.
Getting into those funks where you’re dealing with emotions that seem way outside of your capability to handle is exactly like sticking your hand into a paper bag, thinking it’s one thing, and it happens to be something else that feels like extremely slimy, very cold noodles.
You just don’t know what to do with them.
Which is what we’re going to talk about today. What the hell DO you do with them?
First, let’s talk about common advice that will steer you in the wrong direction.
Common advice like:
Get over it
Push past it
It’s not important
Don’t feel that way
Take emotion out of it
If any one of you has ever followed this common advice–like I used to–then I’m sure we can all recall how when we did, those messy emotions came back with a force that was like the light of a thousand burning suns.
But it’s important to understand: why does that happen?
Let’s think about it.
Recall the last time you had a ‘nagging’ feeling about something. We all know what this feels like.
It pokes us, pushes us, prods us.
We ignore it.
But just because we ignore it, the nagging feeling doesn’t go away.
It gets STRONGER.
Because it wants your attention! It’s trying to tell you something important.
The same is the case with tricky emotions.
Before those emotions blew up, they had a very important message to deliver to you. A message that, if listened to, would actually melt the emotion away like butter.
So how does this work?
One of the most important principles when it comes to emotion is that it DEMANDS TO BE FELT. We have to thrust our hands into the spaghetti-filled paper bag.
But here’s the key:
Just because emotions demand to be felt, they don’t always demand to be acted on.
And this is important. Because those moments where you feel self-doubt, for example? The problem is not the self-doubt. It’s that you notice the self-doubt and then freak out about the self-doubt, then go into a downward spiral of self-doubt, and now that self-doubt becomes really REAL and you feel so paralyzed you can’t do anything.
The problem is you believe self-doubt is ‘reality’ when that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
“Doubt” can actually be helpful, hence its demand to be felt. Doubt can mean that you’ve taken a wrong turn. Doubt could mean that you need more information. Doubt could mean that there’s something off in your thinking. Doubt does not just come out of hiding, choose a victim, and torture you for the day.
It has a real PURPOSE!
So FIRST STEP: Feel the feelings. Or, if this metaphor makes you giggle like me, get into the slimy spaghetti.
Which brings us to our next step…
What’s the message from the feeling?
What is it saying? What is it NOT saying? In what direction (or no direction) is it pointing you?
Here’s a great example of what this looks like in practice:
Recently, I was staying at an Airbnb in Denver. The people seemed nice, and I had 2 nights booked there. My first night, I was dead tired from traveling all day so I came home early to go to bed.
Sometime in the very wee hours of the night, I was half asleep…
…but positive I heard the door to my room open.
I didn’t open my eyes, so I didn’t know exactly what was happening.
But I felt something.
And then I fell back to sleep.
But when I woke up…
Every single hair on my arms was sticking up. My internal alarm system said: “Get the hell out of here.”
It didn’t matter I had another night booked. It didn’t matter that it was 7:30 in the morning. I orchestrated my exit strategy and felt like I escaped from what could have been…I don’t know.
But THIS is what trips people up.
People think because the nature of emotions “excludes facts” that they’re not real. And yet, they are as real as the rocks and the trees. They are more reliable than facts. If I had looked “at the facts” of my situation, the facts were, that I was in a safe location, at a beautiful apartment, with nice people, and no evidence that something strange happened at 3 in the morning.
However, a completely different operating system held the truth, which was, for lack of a better term: GTFO.
And this is why the paper bag filled with spaghetti is hard to deal with. Emotions are not always accompanied by solid, hard facts. In fact, many of us are taught to block them out. We don’t even feel them.
But they are crucial compasses to navigate your life with. And once they become your trusted allies, fear dissolves and what’s left is information that is finally allowed to present itself to you and guide you in the right direction.
So here’s your exercise for today:
1) Feel the feelings. No matter how strange, out of left field, completely kooky they are. Just FEEL them. You don’t have to act on them. Doing this step alone is extremely therapeutic, and usually accompanied by a feeling of relaxation.
2) Extract the juice. Do they mean something? Nothing? (If it means nothing that is JUST as valuable a piece of information than if it meant ‘something’). Is there a certain direction it’s guiding you in? There is likely a hidden treasure trove of many insights from awareness of just one feeling.
Reply back to me: what did you learn? What was interesting/scary about the exercise?