By Berenice Boxler.
“You should have done better!” “You should have known better!” Sound familiar? This voice never fails to intervene, especially when things aren’t going so well. It doesn’t help at all, but it returns again and again. Like an uninvited guest determined to cause upset. And it doesn’t come alone. Oh no, it is joined by anger, disappointment and, above all, shame, that unpleasant sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach that simply won’t go away.
Emotional exhaustion can start to weigh down on us and seem as if it will never lift. Yes, there is always something going on; life simply isn’t a piece of cake. But if one difficulty follows after another, it can be really hard to bounce back (again and again) to a balanced inner state once the storm has passed.
Emotions - an all-inclusive package
Christmas is fast approaching. Here’s what I’m hoping for: a dash of light-heartedness, a few bags of boundless joy, a branch of satisfaction and a barrel of acceptance. And if there’s still room in my stocking, I’d like a little bit of patience too. Ah, how nice it would be to only pick the cherries...
However, emotions come only as an all-inclusive package: anger, fear, happiness, boredom, sadness, pride, shame, and so on. As the poet Rumi says: “This being human is a guest house.” All emotions are paying guests who need to be entertained. It doesn’t matter how they are dressed, what their story is or how much baggage they have. They are simply guests, one no better than the other. They come, they stay, and they leave again.
From the outside it’s all very simple: all emotions are equal. An emotion is an emotion, a phenomenon that comes and goes, like the weather. A weather pattern of how we are doing right now. And sometimes there are simply days of pouring rain and heavy clouds. There’s nothing to worry about; this too will pass. However, when we are caught up in an unpleasant emotion, this is not quite so easy: we often feel as if we are standing in the middle of a storm, being blown and thrown around; we cannot think clearly, the thunder pounding, the lightning striking, endless explanations, accusations or insults flying around, and the body prepares to flee or fight. No wonder we’ve found some pretty clever ways to escape the storm: working too much, comfort eating, losing ourselves in TV or other media, going out, shopping, denial (“Everything is fine!”), turning away from reality.
Unhealthy handling of emotions
This running away from the experience – no matter how appealing this turning away may be – is not healthy for the body, is tiring for the mind and, most importantly, provides no protection against the next storm. And another storm will come, guaranteed. It is a vicious circle: no matter how much we decide to do things better or act differently next time, we will once again become overwhelmed. We simply cannot think clearly with the storm raging inside. No matter what promises we make to ourselves, the brain simply cannot function as we would like it to. When we are emotionally overwhelmed, the body runs on survival mode and the cognitive brain is mostly shut off.
And the more we run away and try to escape the unpleasantness, the harder it becomes to open up to the difficulty and to be willing to let the rain pour down on us. Distraction becomes the new normal, which makes it even more difficult to turn away from it and turn towards life as it is happening. But this is exhausting for the body and mind, and as this exhaustion slowly builds up, we may eventually reach a point where everything feels difficult and too much to handle, even a long-awaited dinner with friends on a Friday evening. We are running on empty, feeling drained and overwhelmed. And then it can get really hard to face reality and allow ourselves to feel difficult emotions.
Allow, let be, let go
In my experience – and that of countless other people – the only thing that truly helps here is to open the door of the guest house and to leave it open. “Feelings are there to be felt.” Emotions appear in the body as physiological changes, which we then perceive as feelings. There is physical tension, a knot in the stomach, a tightness in the throat, tears, or, in a pleasant context, even a smile, and then it fades away. Just like that. An emotion lasts only a few dozen seconds, then it is gone. Like a cloud in the sky that is blown away by the wind. Yes, it may be uncomfortable at first, but this impartial observation of the changes in the body is the only healthy way to handle emotions. Only then can they go away again. If the anger, the fear, the sadness last more than a minute or two, it is because our thoughts are feeding on them. “I wish I had...”, “But he promised...”, “What if...?” We humans are masters in visualization, in remembering, in thinking through alternatives, in turning the knife in old wounds. And with this tendency we artificially prolong what is biologically actually just a wave that wants to (and will) subside once again.
This process of noticing the wave – or the gathering storm clouds – is not easy, but it is a skill that we can learn. And then we can ready ourselves to sit through the storm. We can’t stop it, but we can stay firmly rooted in ourselves, have trust in ourselves, and know that the storm will pass. The practice consists in feeling the anger, or any other emotion, in the body (physical tensions, thoughts racing around the mind, a heavy head, etc.), recognizing that the anger probably wants only to cover up the unpleasant feeling of helplessness (it’s amazing how powerless we can feel as grown-ups from time to time...), and then choosing not to follow the first reactive impulses for action, but instead consciously deciding what is really helpful and meaningful now.
Don’t start up your own storm machine...
So much for the theory. In practice, the storm still rages inside, knocking us off our feet, over and over again. And this is where a second practice is vital: when the external situation has ended, avoid extending the inner storm with our very own wind and rain machines. This is also something we can learn. Put simply, the practice could look something like this:
- First, tuning out the inner, often hateful commentator. “Thank you, I got it. Not helpful. I know for myself that wasn’t good.”
- Consciously not letting yourself become distracted and instead reflecting on the situation once more and on where the tipping point was, and why you didn’t notice it. Avoid judging yourself for not noticing.
- Allowing emotions, feeling shame and disappointment. Yes, it’s difficult, but also crucial. The emotions are there anyway, even if we don’t want to feel them. But when they smoulder in the subconscious, they influence our mood and internal weather patterns without us noticing.
- Being a friend to yourself. “I understand that you feel bad. It’s okay. This too will pass. Don’t be so hard on yourself,” or whatever else a good friend would say to you. Another option is to place a hand on your heart, or on your cheek, whatever feels soothing and calming for your body and mind.
- And then imagining how the situation would have gone with a mindful and kind attitude. If this feels good, then rest in this experience and state of mind. And try again at the next opportunity...
Oh yes, and an honest apology is always helpful, whether it’s after two hours or two days. An apology without blame, and without expecting anything in return. Simply because it feels right. And then let go and start again.
Let’s not forget pleasant emotions, such as joy, pride, gratitude or happiness. With these emotions too, we basically do the same: whatever is here, feeling it in the body, acknowledging it, allowing it to be there and letting it go. Not wanting to hold on to it, and having no regrets that this feeling too will pass. Bathing in this warm breeze while it lasts, enjoying the company of this lovely guest. And then wishing it farewell and keeping the door open for the next visitor.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
— Rumi, translation by Coleman Barks