Posted on April 16, 2018 by Jenn Zatopek
Struggling with a recent bout of chronic pain, I find myself struggling to believe the best about my life and trust in the basic goodness that resides in life and in others. I have allowed myself to feel all my feelings and have realized how much I over-identify with many 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. These needs cannot be found consistently in others because we are limited human beings; we simply cannot be god to others because we do not have the capacity. Breathing a deep sigh of relief, I listened intently 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 gracefully. 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 are hurled into the water and thrown off course. The beauty of waves is that no matter how large they are, they will indeed pass away. For me, I focus on my anchor in God amid 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, and many feelings related to grief and loss have surfaced. I mourn the loss of my ability to lift weights as it was an exercise I engaged in fondly as a teenager and young adult. My physician has advised me that lifting weights is 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 clearly? For me, it looks like acknowledging my grief of losing my ability to lift weights while recognizing what I can do to change my life now like taking good care of my body. I can practice positive self-talk, actively saying out loud what the truth really is instead of feeding the old storyline of hopelessness. Paradoxically, I can tell people the truth when they ask how I’m doing. Rather than putting on a cheerful face and pretending I’m fine, I can say genuinely “I’m in some pain today. How about you?”
We do a great disservice to our humanity when we 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 to process his or her feelings. When we reframe our experiences without thinking, we do not allow the presence of grief, of sadness and loss, to rise and pass away. These feelings are normal responses when bad things happen to us, and they deserve to be noticed. Can you imagine sharing something heartbreaking with a friend only to hear that person respond with “Well, you should be grateful you have been beaten by your husband or have cancer or chronic pain because it makes you are stronger?”
Well, thank you for sharing, but I’m not buying your fix today.
God wants our honesty and that means we need to cry, then we can let ourselves cry. Sometimes that looks like letting ourselves own our anger or mourn our losses in a healthy and non-indulgent way. Our emotions are precious messengers, 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 show us 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 okay to feel first, and then focus on the things I can change. It means I have to actively practice trusting God in the uncertainty of my future, which is scary for me. And for those of us who have a hard time admitting that it’s okay to honor our feelings without getting lost in them, consider this Psalm 77 :
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, MSG)
This psalm and many others serve as a wonderful template for owning our feelings, allowing them to pass, and returning one’s focus to the Divine for support and appreciation. In this psalm, David feels his anger completely and asks The Creator for help, but he also reminds himself of the works God has done for his people, redirecting his fears to a 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.