Two major themes around feelings have come up in my therapy practice recently which a number of my clients are wrestling with- 1) Pushing past fear and 2) Figuring out what to do when feelings arise. My guess is that you, dear readers, may also be stumped by these feeling-based quandaries in your own lives, so I will give a primer on each which I hope you will find useful to your own situation.
Feeling Quandary #1- Taking on Fear
“I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing that I wanted to do.” Georgia O’Keefe
I found this incredible quote last month when I was in Santa Fe, New Mexico visiting the Georgia O’Keefe Museum which I highly recommend going to if you happen to be in that area. I am a big Georgia O’Keefe fan- I love the fact that she was so independent, feisty, and that she charted her own path in life by following her passion- creating timeless and beautiful art- on her own terms.
What struck me most when I read her quote was that she lived with a great amount of fear (like so many of us) and yet she didn’t listen to it by avoiding doing the wild, courageous and creative things she wanted to do. Or in therapist parlance, she chose to NOT LET HER FEELINGS GUIDE HER BEHAVIOUR. This is something I discuss with clients regularly- not letting feelings such as fear or anger guide your actions on a daily basis.
I feel it would be best to explain this principle with a real-life example:
Sherry came to see me because she was plagued by anxiety and found that she worried about practically everything in her life and she was sick of it. One area, which she found particularly bothersome, was work. She was a chef in a very popular and busy restaurant where she was constantly run off of her feet. She was stressed by the juggling act she had to perform while working: making sure she got the orders from wait staff correct, timing dishes so that people who ordered first got served before others, managing kitchen staff, and coming up with a new menu every night.
She told me that many times during a work shift, she would become highly anxious and start to panic by telling herself, “This is too much. I can’t handle it all.” Then inevitably, she would make a mistake and mess up someone’s order and feel even more upset. In other words, she was letting the feeling of FEAR guide her actions. She looked pained when she told me that she absolutely loved being a chef and had dreamed of running a kitchen for many years, but now that she was actually doing it, she wasn’t living up to her expectations because of the huge amount of fear she faced whenever she went to work. She wanted to know how she could get more enjoyment out of her work and let go of a lot of the fear around it.
I am happy to report that she was able to achieve her goals and it was a direct result of making a conscious decision every time she went to work to not let fear stop her from enjoying her craft of producing tantalizing, delicious dishes for other people’s dining pleasure. I asked her to write a pro and con list during one session about her job and she was pleasantly surprised to see that there were far more ‘pros’ on the list than ‘cons’. In fact, the only ‘con’ was that she got fearful and anxious sometimes!
What helped her really turn things around in the end was this idea:
Fear is just a feeling. I don’t have to let it guide my behavior at work.
Then I suggested that she become mindful of fear when it popped up at work. When she felt the first twinge, she said to herself:
Hello fear. I acknowledge your presence. You are welcome to hang out here, but I’m not letting you guide my work. I am the one trained as a chef, not you. Let’s leave that job to me, thank you.
In this way, over time, she was gradually able to make friends with her fear, allow it to be there, but not to let it run the show. Just like Georgia O’Keefe, she felt the fear and kept on doing what she loved to do.
Feeling Quandary #2- Figuring out what to do when feelings arise
The second issue coming up for many of my clients is how to handle various feelings when they bubble up unexpectedly. I include myself in this particular quandary as well, as I often find myself completely stumped by intense, unexpected feelings and become quite unnerved as a result. The only reason I feel I have some wisdom to pass onto you, dear readers, is because I am doing my best to study the teachings of Buddhism and am engaged in a daily practice of mindfulness, which has drastically turned my life around for the better. So to save you hundreds of hours of study and reading, here’s a summary of what I have learned about ‘what to do’ when a powerful feeling arises seemingly from nowhere:
You Don’t Have to DO anything with the feeling
Sound simple? Yes, it is in theory. However, in real life practice, this can be a difficult concept to grasp and practice on a regular basis. Let me illustrate how this works by providing an example:
Susan came to see me to work through her grief a few months after her mother died suddenly and totally unexpectedly after a heart attack while picking tomatoes in the garden. They were incredibly close and Susan alternated between a state of complete disbelief and overwhelming grief and sadness at the huge loss she was facing.
As you can imagine, Susan was in very intense emotional pain for the first six months after losing her mother and sometimes felt that the grief would kill her. I’ve sat with many women grieving various tragic losses, and I feel so bad for the intensity of their suffering. From my vantage point, it’s like watching someone on a roller coaster ride of emotion- one minute they are sobbing uncontrollably, and the next they are enraged that this loss had to happen in the first place.
With Susan, my job was to bear witness to all of her emotions, stay with her during all of the ups and downs, and normalize every feeling as it arose. A year after losing her mother, as she sat reflecting on what it had been like for her, she told me that the hardest part (besides losing her mother of course) was learning to just sit with her feelings by acknowledging them, exploring them, and then letting them pass. She noticed within herself the desire to DO something with these feelings such as: repress and deny or fight them.
From my experience, Susan’s reaction to her feelings about losing her mother echo how many of us approach intense emotions in Western culture- we feel the need to get busy and do something- anything- with those pesky emotions to gain some sense of control. But this is where I believe Eastern cultures have much to teach us- that sometimes life becomes a whole lot easier if we choose to let go of DOING and focus on just BEING.
In Susan’s case, I encouraged her to sit with the sadness when it welled up in her, embrace it by shedding tears; even shaking as she sobbed. Her instinct was to be in her rational mind and minimize the sadness by telling herself she didn’t need to ‘act like a baby’ and that she should ‘toughen up’ and march onward in her life. This turned out to be very difficult for her- to surrender to a feeling she saw as representing personal weakness- and to instead, embrace it wholeheartedly, with compassion for herself and her suffering.
However, as the weeks and months passed, she got more comfortable sitting with her sadness and letting herself cry as much as she needed to. She then noticed how much lighter she felt as a result of doing this and has carried on this practice into other areas of her life as well.