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.
Today is the Autumn Equinox. It’s cool, cloudy, and damp here in central Maine. My attic windows are open and I can hear acorns falling from our oak tree and cars going by, tires hissing on the wet road.
I’ve been reading The Enchanted Life by Dr. Sharon Blackie, and yesterday I laid the book in my lap as I sat outside in the bright sun and boisterous breeze and cried.
Dr. Blackie’s book is about reclaiming our relationship to the natural world. This process necessarily begins with reclaiming our relationship to our bodies and physical experience. We can’t feel at home in the world if we don’t feel at home in our own skins.
Blackie suggests that each of us is a part of the world, just like a flower, a tree, a bird, or a cricket. I’ve probably read something like this a thousand times in my life, worded a thousand different ways, but I’ve never read it without an automatic unconscious resistance. Others might be part of the world, but not me. I’ve never believed I had anything worthy to offer.
My lifelong feeling of being an intruder has kept me slightly divided from people as well as the natural world. A sense of pure belonging is so rare for me I can count the experience of it on one hand. The water. My children. A crippled cat, long gone. My dance group, also far away and long ago.
As I read about belonging to the world yesterday and relished the beautiful autumn day and the waning September sun, my resistance was unexpectedly absent. The words arrowed straight into my heart. For the first time, I seriously considered that maybe I am not just a tourist, a spectator, someone passing through. Maybe I belong in the world as much as any other form of life.
I realized then I’ve lived most of my life as a sort of apology for existing. I’ve felt gratitude, appreciation, even awe in the presence of the natural world, which I love and cling to. Most of my life I’ve lived in rural areas and revered the landscape, the plants, the animals. Yet I always felt ashamed to be intruding on the loveliness of the natural cycles and seasons and the wild places. As a member of the human race, I felt like a destroyer, a besmircher, part of what’s wrong with the world rather than what’s good and beautiful and natural.
Blackie writes of reciprocity; of listening to the voices of the leaves rustling on the trees and responding with our own voice. She writes about a woman who sings to the jungle, joining in with the myriad songs already there as a rightful part of the ecosystem.
When I touch a tree in reverence, is it touching me back? Is the feel of my hand as sacred to it as the feel of its bark and body are to me?
Healthy relationship is about reciprocity. I know that from my study of emotional intelligence. Communication is reciprocal, which is to say it moves in both directions. Moving fully into belonging, then, would mean not only learning and marveling at the liquid notes of the wood thrush, but sharing my own voice with him. He is in my world, and I’m in his. His song and my song are both part of the chorus of this place. We are, perhaps, woven together.
Could it possibly be that the world is richer for my presence, rather than burdened by it? Might my step, my breath, my voice, my touch, and my prayers be to others what the coyotes’ night song, the morning mist over the river, or the falling leaves and browning ferns are to me?
This shift in perspective is staggering. I don’t quite know what to do with it. It assuages a longing within me to belong, to be more than just tolerated.
When I look around from this perspective, I see gardens existing because of me. A variety of mushrooms grow in and around the compost pit because of me. Herbs, flowers, and vegetables thrive together, feeding insects and birds, creating habitat for snakes, amphibians, and rodents, because of me. There is greater plant diversity in the landscape because of me.
The most remarkable thing about this new perspective is that it lies at the heart of my fiction trilogy. I have a firm intellectual grasp of interconnection; I’ve just never included myself. I’ve been an outsider looking in. I haven’t seen myself as worthy enough to be part of the web.
Writing can be an exercise is discovering intuitive or unconscious truths we have not yet fully integrated. To date, I’ve written 700,000 words about interconnection, but not until yesterday did my heart accept that I’m part of it too, not as a stain but as a uniquely beautiful organism within a tapestry of uncountable other uniquely beautiful organisms. As I touch, hear, see, and smell the presence of others, they touch, hear, see, and smell me. As I communicate with others, they communicate with me, though I may not know it.
Life, the weather, the COVID virus are not happening to me. They are in relationship with me. We are woven together in a changing, dynamic dance of becoming, minute by minute. We belong to each other. I am neither alien nor separate.
I don’t like commercial television and rarely watch it, but I caught a muted ad one morning this week from the corner of my eye that intrigued me. I saw Passiton.org on the screen and looked it up.
I encourage you to go explore this site for yourself. It’s a treasure trove of beautiful videos, billboards, articles, and stories about real people. It’s positive, optimistic, and heartfelt. One of the videos, titled Caring and set to lyrics by Bryan Adams, particularly touched me.
For some time, as I go about my life, I’ve thought about the practice of love. It’s a hard subject to write about because I don’t have good language, but it’s the idea that loving and caring for the people I come into contact with is a kind of substitute for loving my, well, loved ones.
I told you the language was inadequate!
Sometimes our loved ones are dead or otherwise unavailable for a healthy relationship, or unable to accept or reciprocate our love for them. I’ve suffered decades of emotional pain over my inability to successfully communicate my love to some of the people in my life. I realize now love is a two-way street. Some of us, and I count myself among them, have a hard time accepting or receiving love, no matter how well it’s communicated.
Let’s just say the basic communication and reciprocity of love isn’t always there. We call this unrequited love, or “skinny” love. When I search the Internet, however, romantic unrequited love is the only topic I can find useful information on, and that’s not what I’m thinking about.
I have many times wondered, bitterly, what the point is of having such a loving heart, if the people I care about most are unable to receive my love.
Since I began my current job working in a rehab pool facility three years ago, I’ve been vividly aware that making positive contributions to others is in some ways a substitute for my inability to share love with the people to whom I cannot make this contribution, for whatever reason.
Sometimes I imagine a cosmic balance of giving love to others. If we’re unable to reach our closest connections with our love, we can give it to someone who is able to benefit from it. We may be no more than an acquaintance or professional in their lives, but love is love, and most of us recognize it when it’s extended, though we may not be skilled at accepting it with grace.
Perhaps, at the same time, my loved ones are receiving love they can accept and recognize from someone. Someone who substitutes for me.
When I say love, I’m not thinking about a single idea. I think of love as a container for many things: tolerance, respect, compassion, kindness, patience, presence, service.
This is not a new idea. Stephen Stills famously sang about it in “Love the One You’re With,” and Bryan Adams sings about it in video above, which opened me up to the feeling of unrequited love, the grief and anguish of it, and this substitution method of easing its pain.
I won’t amputate my ability and willingness to love, even if it’s unwanted or unwelcome in the places I most want to practice it. What I can do is step sideways, turn aside, and share it with those I come in contact with, those who can benefit from it, those who will receive it. In this way, my love becomes an offering to my loved ones, my community, myself, and the world. Everything I do, I do for you, for them, for myself. For all of us.
One of my favorite minimalist bloggers gave me something to think about last weekend with this piece. In it, she proposes we work on doing things real rather than doing them right.
As a reforming perfectionist, she got my attention. When I imagined approaching my life with the ultimate goal of authenticity, the relief was stunning. On the heels of the relief, though, I felt appalled.
How can doing things real ever be good enough?
As I’ve thought about this the last couple of days, I’ve realized this doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing choice. Maybe the most effective goal in most cases is to be authentic and do things right, whatever that means. Surely balance between the two is possible?
The difficulty lies in defining the word “right.” Who decides what’s right? How do I know when I’ve done things “right?”
I hate the answer. The answer is I know I’ve done things right if people are pleased. Back on that cursed slippery slope!
A dear married friend said to me recently, “My life would look very different if I was on my own.” My friend’s honesty and the quiet sadness with which the words were spoken touched me to the heart.
How do we recognize ourselves, our real selves, in the confusion of our lives and relationships? How do we balance authenticity and cooperation? How do we mitigate the damage to our connections when we choose to be right (what the other wants) rather than real for the sake of those same connections?
It hurts me to ask these questions. I can’t begin to answer them.
I admire authenticity when it doesn’t trample over the needs of others, but what about when it does? What about people who appear to have no regard for those around them, who are unwilling to hold space for any authenticity but their own?
I don’t want to be one of those people.
Doing it right, which is to say making choices based on what others view as appropriate, seems at first glance to be an excellent way to stay safe. The truth is, such a practice tears one apart in very short order, because there are too many onlookers and we can’t please every one of them.
Here’s an example. When I’m teaching a private swim lesson, do I work effectively and appropriately with the student; please the onlooking parent or adult (in the case of a child); please my coworkers and colleagues, all of whom are very fine teachers and at least one of whom watches from the lifeguard stand; please other staff, patients and patrons who might be present; or do I forget everything but the connection between the student and myself for those 30 minutes in the pool and just be real and please myself?
Teaching, for me, is like swimming or writing or dancing. It’s a place where I don’t try to do it right. I do it real. Real is a long way from perfect. Right seems closer to perfect than real. Real is intuitive, experimental, frequently messy, uninhibited. When I choose to be real, I choose joy. I try not to think about what that looks like to others. I try not to care. I rest in it and feed myself with it and feel fully present and alive when I’m being real.
But then, so often, out of nothing and nowhere, comes the message:
“You didn’t do that right.”
No. Of course not. I almost never do. But I did it real, and for a few minutes I was happy there.
This is not about an inability to accept feedback or instruction. People close to me will tell you I frequently ask for feedback, for someone to teach me a new skill, for someone to help me improve. Feedback is not the same as being told I’m doing it wrong. I’m always interested in doing it better.
What’s curious about right vs. real is so often I run into this with trivial things, things like ironing, or washing dishes, or opening a can. They way I organize my stuff. The way I store my clothes. The way I live in my space. As I live my life, when someone tells me I keep the broom in the wrong place, what I hear is I’m wrong. I’m broken. I’m Failing To Please (again. Yawn.) Why can’t I store the broom in the right place?
Usually, I acquiesce. For the sake of peace. For the sake of the relationship. Because it doesn’t really matter, after all. I can be flexible and adaptive.
The difficulty is living inauthentically is an unbelievable amount of work. Everything is effortful, because I don’t do anything naturally. I repress my authentic impulses and desires. I feel numb, apathetic, and cut off from myself.
It’s entirely disempowering.
But it keeps things peaceful. It pleases others. It’s cooperative. I comfort myself with the fact that my willingness to do it right (according to them) makes others happy.
I don’t believe my realness will ever make anyone happy, except me.
I’m willing to hope for a balance, though. I have no idea how to find it, or even if I can find it. Maybe my real is too wrong to ever balance out?
Doing it right or doing it real?
My daily crime.
In Controlling People by Patricia Evans, I read about group control connections. She compares and contrasts healthy groups with unhealthy ones.
As social beings who need connection, humans form many kinds of groups: family, tribal, cultural, religious, political, formal, and informal.
Healthy groups, according to Evans, bond together for, not against, others. In this type of group, members are open to information exchange, questions, and learning, not only among group members, but with other groups. Healthy groups support their members and do not work to harm others. Such groups are dynamic, flexible, and consistent. Group members build trust, respect, and integrity. They communicate clearly. They don’t pretend they can define others. They don’t need to win and be right and they understand the value of diversity. They seek to share power. They understand interconnection. Unhealthy groups bond together against another person or group. They are not open to information, questions, or learning. Unhealthy groups pretend they can define others. They make up derogatory labels and apply them liberally. Unhealthy groups generate sweeping generalizations, memes, and disinformation. The bond in these groups is based on an agreement, sometimes spoken and sometimes not, to act against authentic persons to sustain an illusion the group is invested in. Such groups employ coercive tactics like silencing, scapegoating, deplatforming, and tribal shaming. They employ black-and-white, either/or thinking. They seek power over others, and these groups are often led by an authoritarian leader who rigidly controls group activities and expects absolute obedience.
Discerning the difference between these two groups is tricky. Individuals and groups don’t necessarily state their agendas honestly. An organization or group may say their purpose is to work for equal rights (healthy) when in fact they seek to disempower others in an effort to increase the power of the in-group (unhealthy).
Working for equal power, or a more level playing field, is entirely different from the intention to grab more power at the expense of others.
A key to assessing the true purpose and health of any individual or group is consistency, and judging consistency requires close observation and time. A disconnect between words and actions is a visible red flag.
Another key is the position of power a group or individual takes. Not their stated position, but their active position. A group working for equal rights and power, or working to support a disadvantaged or threatened group against power predators, is not a hate group. Calling it so doesn’t make it so.
An individual or group operating out of integrity will be consistent in their words and actions over time. Integrity doesn’t mean perfection in expression or action. It means the individual or group are honest and thoughtful about their purpose and goals and endeavor to focus their actions in effective ways that serve the whole, not just their own interests.
The ability to judge the difference between healthy and unhealthy groups has never been more important. Many people are swept up in unhealthy groups because they’re starving for connection and don’t have the skills to assess the situation. Leaders of unhealthy groups are often charismatic, glib, attractive liars and manipulators, seductive wolves looking for sheep. They do not share power.
Such people are invariably inconsistent in their words and actions, and a close look reveals it. Ideology supported by coercion and gaslighting is dangerous.
If we seek loyalty, trust, respect, creditability, and to positively influence others, we must demonstrate consistency. If we seek to contribute ideas, art, or material products to the marketplace, we must be consistent.
If we seek to be part of healthy groups and connections, and we believe in equal rights, opportunity, and justice for all, we have a responsibility to maintain integrity and consistency, and demand it from others. Ours is not the only story. Ours are not the only needs. Our personal power is not the only power that matters.