When I went through emotional intelligence coaching, I understood being told I’m dramatic is code for, “Your feelings make me uncomfortable.” It’s not a message about me at all, it’s a message about the person with whom I’m interacting.
As a child, I believed I exaggerated and I was too dramatic. I pushed my feelings down and hid them. I didn’t respond to my own distress. I didn’t ask for help. I trusted no one with my real emotions. I taught myself to become stoic and uncomplaining, to focus on the positive, to carry on no matter what.
My feelings became my enemies. I was deeply ashamed of them. They were bad and wrong and they hurt other people.
Now, decades later, I think a lot about feelings as I struggle with my re-triggered autoimmune disease. I know my current physical pain mirrors my emotional pain, which consists of passionate, intense feelings. Learning to manage those feelings more effectively is a work in progress. I do well with one at a time, but right now I’m overwhelmed with emotion. Emotional overwhelm is the trigger for physical pain. I keep right on keeping on through difficult feelings, but once the anguish is translated into back spasm, I can no longer hide or ignore my pain. Everyone else can see. Everyone else knows. I can’t hide my physical disability.
My body betrays me.
Horrors. I cringe, waiting to be told I’m too dramatic and I overreact. My feelings are wrong. They make others uncomfortable. They’re shameful, immature, crazy. I have nothing to complain about. Others have much harder lives than I do. It’s my business to support, not ask for support.
But my body tells the truth. Physically, everything hurts.
The truth beneath that truth is my heart hurts. I’m scared, I’m angry, I feel alone, I feel supported and horribly vulnerable, I’m excited about new beginnings, I feel guilty and ashamed about struggling, I feel relieved, and I don’t know how to bear my grief, both current and past. But I’m still too distant from my feeling experience to encompass all that, let alone manage it effectively.
Every day I think about this list of five strategies, and the difference between overreaction and feelings.
Overreaction is defined as a more emotional response than is warranted. Who decides what kind of an emotional response is warranted? Some people feel things very strongly and vividly; others do not. Certain events and situations trigger deep emotions for all of us. Do any of us have a right to judge another person as overreacting, especially when we can’t possibly know the entirety of their private emotional experience? Certainly, some people appear to overreact frequently, but do we stop to ask ourselves, or them, for more information? What is going on? What is behind the perceived overreaction? What need is crying out to be met? What are the feelings involved in the overreaction?
Feelings are value-neutral raw data we’re all biologically wired to experience. They’re simple. Mad. Sad. Glad. Scared. Ashamed.
We’re largely not in control of the complicated neurological and chemical experience of our feelings. We are able to control how we think about, express, and act out our feelings.
Thoughts and feelings are not the same thing.
I’m familiar with some of the strategies Carver writes about in her piece, but I’ve never seen such a concise and useful list of ways to manage habits of thought leading to “overreaction.”
It’s not our business to be concerned with onlookers who attempt to shut us down because of their own discomfort with feelings. Our business is learning how to refrain from shutting ourselves down or allowing anyone else to do so. Our business is taking care we don’t hurt ourselves as we feel our feelings.
Determine if any action or reaction is useful or effective in the first place. Does this deserve my time and energy?
Don’t take anything personally.
Distinguish between inside and outside. We can’t control what happens outside us. Our power lies within us.
Closely related to the last strategy, if we feel we’re overreacting, what else is going on? Are we sick, hurt, dealing with unfinished feelings or unhealed wounds, struggling with addiction, lonely, tired, hungry? We need to focus on supporting ourselves.
Some people don’t want to deal with feelings, their own or anyone else’s. I understand. Such people will always struggle with someone like me, who feels deeply and expresses vividly. To them, I will always look as though I’m overreacting.
What overreacting means to me, though, is the intensity of my feelings is negatively affecting my health, and I need to find ways to support myself. I don’t want to feel less. I want to feel better.
This article from Joshua Becker of The Minimalists landed in my Inbox this week. It made me smile, because I certainly am a person who, when problem solving, frequently considers adding something rather than subtracting something.
The way this shows up in my life is not with stuff, but with the demands I place on myself. My default response to low energy, not feeling well, emotional or physical pain, frustration, and feeling discouraged is to drive myself harder, do more, move faster.
I could write for the rest of my life on all the ways this does not work, but I’ll spare you.
Yet it continues to be my unconscious default in every case.
A case in point is my exercise routine. I’ve begun working with a personal trainer.
I haven’t been able to exercise regularly until the last three or four years because of my autoimmune disease. When I finally fixed my inflammatory problems with a carnivore diet, I discovered I could participate in regular exercise and stretching without throwing my muscles into spasm. I bought some weights and put together a couple of workouts.
The combination of repetitions, weights, and stretching I’ve been using has occasionally made me sore but not triggered a catastrophic inflammatory response in my body, as long as I don’t eat plants or sugar. However, I began to get bored with my routines, and I didn’t always feel like spending an hour getting through them. I discover I also wasn’t very even in the muscle groups I was working and stretching. Who knew?
A personal trainer knew!
My trainer is well aware of my propensity to push myself too hard, a trait we share, so she is developing new routines for me, briefer, more balanced, and without so much weight. I started following her guidance a couple of weeks ago, but I felt guilty about it. If working for 20-30 minutes is good, working for an hour must be much better. If working with 3-lb hand weights is good, working with 5 lbs must be better, along with ankle weights.
My trainer gave me several new stretches and asked me to spend more time with them, but stretching is surely not as good as lots of reps and weight. Holding a stretch for 30 seconds eats up a lot of time I should be spending working harder, right?
I followed her advice about everything, curious but also convinced I wasn’t pushing myself hard enough.
Then I read about additive vs. subtractive problem solving, and smiled to myself. Less weight. Shorter, more evenly balanced workout routines. A few targeted slow stretches, which I’ve begun doing throughout the day, as I’m chronically tense and stretching reminds me to slow down, breathe, and be kind to myself.
What I discover is I feel better. I have more fun exercising. It’s easier to face a 20-30 minute session than an hour-long one.
Instead of using exercise as one more way to push myself too far, following the expertise of a personal trainer has transformed it into self-care. Real self-care. Loving self-care. More effective, more appropriate self-care.
It feels strange. Too easy. Too gentle.
Working smarter rather than harder has always been an idea I don’t quite trust. It makes intellectual sense, and I would encourage anyone I care about to consider it, but when I think about applying it to myself it feels like a cop-out. I expect myself to work smart and hard.
Whatever our challenges, from our most personal to our most public, it appears we naturally think of additive solutions. This tendency certainly benefits a consumerist culture. How would our power change if we taught ourselves to consider subtraction as well as addition when managing problems and challenges?
I recently read a blog post from one of the minimalist blogs I follow about unplugging from technology for one day a week. Actually, it wasn’t that recent. It was, in fact, in August. I left the post in my Inbox and I’ve been thinking about it.
All right, procrastinating about it.
You see, although it seemed like an attractive idea, I couldn’t unplug in August because I had a family situation that necessitated watching my e-mail closely.
When that was over, I thought about it again, but then I was watching … what? I can’t remember. A possible hurricane down south somewhere? I think so. Anyway, I really wanted to watch it. It was important.
I observed myself both want to unplug for a day and resist unplugging for a day. It reminded me irresistibly of giving up honey in my tea.
When I came to Maine, I changed my lifelong, mostly plant-based, low fat, low sugar (by this I meant, you know, white sugar) diet to eating keto. More about that journey here, here, here and here. I had, at that point, started every day of my adult life with a large cup of green tea sweetened with a spoonful of honey. It was an important daily ritual. I looked forward to it, counted on it, needed it. On the road, camping, or at home, I had to have my green tea and honey in the morning. I could do without sleep, hot and cold running water and food, but my morning tea was nonnegotiable.
Honey, that delicious golden elixir I used to buy by the gallon in spite of the cost, is a carbohydrate. Our bodies do not distinguish between plain old white sugar, honey, agave or any other kind of “natural” or “organic” sugar. For me, this means inflammation, autoimmune disease and chronic pain.
I was determined to regain my health. The daily dose of honey had to go.
I have an extremely hostile relationship with addiction, as my family of origin is affected by it and I know I’m genetically and behaviorally predisposed. I’ve stayed far, far away from any substance or behavior I thought might potentially become addictive for me. At least, that’s been my intention.
However, life is going on while we’re deciding who we will not be and what we will not do, and although I was aware of how much I depended on my morning cup of tea, green tea is good for you, right? No harm in that habit.
Except I realized, after day two or three of tea without honey, the tea was pleasure. The honey was addiction. I needed it. I craved it. I was miserable and angry and deprived without it. My body needed that first hit of carbohydrate in the morning, needed it desperately because I was basically chronically malnourished and addicted to carbs.
I was completely chagrined. Life is very humbling sometimes. Have you noticed?
Me being me, all I needed was to feel how much I depended on the honey to become determined to give it up. I was building a new life, including eating a massive breakfast of animal fat, meat and eggs every morning immediately upon rising. I went right on drinking tea, but I stopped using honey. I stopped needing honey because I’d finally figured out how to feed myself appropriately. In time, the craving went away, along with the majority of carbs in my diet and chronic pain and inflammation.
Make no mistake, though. I whined and complained and bitched every step of the way. For a time, I considered giving up tea altogether. I would never enjoy it as much again. The honey enhanced the flavor, and it just wasn’t the same without it. What was the point? Getting out of bed was no fun. The morning was no fun. Never again would I have a big cup of Earl Grey tea with lemon and honey and spend an hour sipping and reading a good book on a snowy afternoon, etc., etc., etc. It was pathetic and maddening. I hated myself and everyone else, and I resented my physical need to delete carbs from my diet.
I couldn’t help noticing how similarly I felt about unplugging from technology for even one day, in spite of priding myself on not being captive to it. I have a cell phone I hardly ever use. It’s an effort to turn it on every three days or so and check for messages. I don’t use social media. Left to my own devices, I’d never watch TV. The only tech I really use is my laptop, but I use that for many hours every day. I’d love to be able to honestly say all that use is writing, but it’s just not so.
I check the headlines on MSN, even though I know it’s all click bait and I rarely believe much of what I read in the “news.” Then I check the weather forecast. I check my e-mail accounts. I read the Google news headlines, not as sexy and sensational as MSN and slightly more reliable. Maybe. I bank online. I run the blog online. I do research. I check on local movies. I play solitaire.
I play a lot of solitaire.
I loved the sound of unplugging from all this for a day. It was such a good idea I wondered why I hadn’t tried it before. As soon as I looked at my calendar with the intention of planning an unplugged day, I began to recognize resistance.
A lot of resistance.
I didn’t want to admit it. I use less tech than anyone I know. I’m smug about staying away from GPS, social media and the need to have a cell phone surgically attached to my person. The truth is, however, that I’m just as caught in the addictive net of tech as anyone else.
My choice about all this was to leave the post about unplugging in my mailbox, where I’d see it several times a day (because I check my e-mail countless times a day), and sit with my chagrin, my resistance and my recognition of my own compulsion to remain plugged in. I’ve been doing that for weeks now, alternating between resentment and amusement.
For some reason, late Saturday I decided I was going to take the bull by the horns and stay off the Internet on Sunday. Not off the word processor, but off the Internet. No after-breakfast check on the headlines, etc. while I drank my morning green tea (unsweetened). No first solitaire game, during which I thought about where to start working. No e-mail.
I needed to know I could do it, no matter how uncomfortable it was.
Minimalism is an amazing practice. It starts externally with objects, but once I began to look at my life in terms of what really matters and all the stuff that obscures and distracts from that, the internal work took over. My small experiment with unplugging from the Internet was a perfect illustration of the dynamic of unconscious clutter.
Sunday was the most spacious day I’ve had in months. I looked at the clock twenty times in disbelief. The day seemed to have about four extra hours in it. It was a beautiful autumn day, a day off from work, a day in which I didn’t have to go anywhere or do anything. I got out the crock pot and made a keto version of spaghetti meat sauce with no pasta. I did some good writing. I read. I stripped the bed and did laundry. I put on some music and exercised. I prepared for the work week ahead.
On Monday morning, I came up the stairs to my attic workspace and opened up the Internet to see what I’d missed.
I had more spam than usual in my e-mail, because I hadn’t checked every hour or so and deleted it as it came in. My bank account was just as I’d left it (darn it!). The headlines were the same old headlines. The autumn weather managed to exist without me having read the forecast. I’d somehow navigated a whole day without sitting down to play a game of solitaire while I thought about the next step.
It was an eye-opening experiment that will now become a weekly habit. It’s hard to think about totally unplugging and going screenless for a day, but not as hard as it was before Sunday. I am a writer, but writing is still possible the old-fashioned way, with paper and pen.
As I’ve worked on this post the last couple of days, my partner sent me a provocative article about our relationship with our smart phones. I’m not the only one rethinking my relationship with tech and clutter in general.