Posted on April 16, 2018 by Jenn Zatopek
I yell out to my God, I yell with all my might / I yell at the top of my lungs. He listens. (Psalm 77:1, The Message)
I’ve been struggling with a bout of chronic pain, and it’s making things difficult for me to believe the best, to hope, and to trust in the basic goodness that resides in life and in others. I’ve been having to let myself feel all my feelings and have realized how much I over-identify with some of my more so-called negative feelings like sadness, anger, and fear.
In his teaching on Emotional Sobriety, Richard Rohr talks unashamedly about how our emotions are reactions based on early conditioning, personality, and cultural upbringing and his words on the sharpness of strong emotions echoes Brene Brown’s findings in her seminal work on shame resilience. His call to action is to look to God for our needs for affection, emotional security, belonging, and identity. They will not be found in others because we are limited human beings; we simply cannot be god to others because we do not have the capacity. I breathed a deep sigh of relief as I listened because I am actively wrestling against the instinct to find my identity in pleasing others, in working so hard that I have to take time off to recover, and in making things look perfect for others so that I can feel good. That’s my old program for happiness and it no longer works for me.
So the thing to do, of course, is to lean into the sharp edges of emotions, just as they are, and move through them. I find it helpful to think of myself surfing when I find myself in the midst of a strong feeling. I remind myself that feelings are like waves and sometimes they are so strong we do get hurled into the water and thrown off course. The beauty of waves is that no matter how large they are is that they will indeed pass away eventually. The trick for me is to focus on God in the midst of the strong waves and listen for his voice rather than reacting to the clamor within.
This sounds so easy but as usual, theory is very different than practice.
My weekend has been a challenging one due to the chronic pain episode. Many feelings have surfaced and much is related to grief and loss. I mourn the loss of my ability to lift weights as it was something I remember doing fondly when I was a teenager and young adult. My physician has advised me that lifting weights is probably out, but that I can do resistance bands, but still, the pull to the past me, the one who was stronger and healthier, who used to be able to lift, is enormous. The call, of course, is for me to let go of the past and embrace this new way of being.
What does that look like in the midst of chronic health conditions that make it difficult to think straight sometimes? For me, it looks like talking back to the messages within the feelings but putting them in their place. I no longer need that old storyline. In fact, I need to focus on what I do have and what I can do to take good care of myself. It means positive self-talk, actively saying out loud what the truth really is instead of listening to the old storyline of gloom, doom, and despair. Paradoxically, it also means that when someone asks how I am doing, rather than putting on a cheerful face and pretending that all is well I say the truth like “I’m doing okay. I’m in some pain today. How about you?”
I think we do a grave disservice to our humanity when we constantly try to put a positive spin on many things in our lives and then, consequently, the lives of all of those around us. Cognitive reframing, while an important tool in counseling, can cut off an honest exchange a person shares in order to process his or her feelings. It is an example of cognitive rigidity, really, because the focus it does not allow the presence of grief, of sadness and loss, of unrelenting sorrow that happens in our lives. These are perfectly normal responses when bad things happen to us. Can you imagine sharing something heartbreaking with someone only to hear that person respond with “Well, you should be grateful you have been beaten by your husband/have cancer/lost a child/have chronic pain/etc., because it makes you are stronger?”
Well, thank you for sharing, but I’m not buying your fix today.
God wants our honesty and if that means a cry-fest, then go for it. If that means talking angrily to God, then go for it. If that means, mourning the loss of the past, then by all means, do it. Our emotions are precious messages telling us to pay attention to our bodies, minds, and souls. As psychologist Susan David said in her recent TED talk on emotional agility, emotions are “data not directives.” They tell us crucial things about ourselves that we would not normally have accessed before, directing us to take action in accordance with the values we hold most dear.
So for today I will allow my feelings to rise and pass away, remembering that it is always okay to feel first, and then focusing on the things I can change. It means I have to actively practice trusting God in the not-knowing future, which is scary for me. It’s scary to walk through life’s uncertainties on my own, but I don’t feel nearly as terrified when I put my focus on trusting that God will get me through. And for those of us who have a hard time admitting that it’s okay to feel all of our feelings and yet walk the balancing act of not allowing them to control us, take a look at Psalm 77 in the Message. I think it gives a great template for how to feel our feelings and then move to God and gratitude to keep going. In the Psalm, David raises his voice in anger to the Divine, but he reminds himself of the works God has done for his people, which redirects his “stinking thinking” to a more balanced perspective, And balance is just what I’m looking for when it comes to riding the waves of this strange, wild, raucous, and beautiful life.