Fear, anger, joy, anxiety, sadness, contentment, gratitude — they’re our raw responses to the experiences of human life. They’re not good or bad, though we often judge them, unfortunately. Best, though, to let them be just what they are. And to know that there’s skill involved in dealing with them.
Early on, it went like this: Angry? Scream and cry. Happy? Laugh. Jealous? Take that toy you want. It wasn’t complicated. In the photo below, I’m having a feeling about having the bar of bath soap taken away from me. This is in the kitchen at Crystal Lake, circa 1954, I’d guess.
And here I am after the soap was returned…
Growing up happens (usually). And gradually we all learn to manage ourselves a bit better in our everyday lives. That’s not to say it gets easy. And some learn to manage better than others. (Not to get overly political, but if you think of Trump, the 2020 election, and his actions since, you see an excellent example of someone who’s not learned to manage very well.)
Feelings can be confounding and uncomfortable.
Why does that person get on my nerves? How is it that I suddenly felt like an angry two-year-old when that man stepped in front of me in line? When I try to talk to the person at the bank who is refusing to wear a mask, why do I seem to lose the ability to be calm and rational? And when someone gives me feedback about something I’ve done, why do I feel immediately defensive or guilty and like I want to disappear?
When I simply react to the feelings I am having, I treat them like they are bigger and more powerful than I am. I just bounce off of them, as if they’re impenetrable walls. Maybe they were, back when I was two years old. But now they are walls of my own making, because I’m choosing to ignore or deny my responsibility to manage myself better. When I hit those walls as a grown-up, I earn some bruises. And the thing is, the wall doesn’t change — and it certainly doesn’t go away. It’s guaranteed that I’m going to run into it again, because nothing about it ever changes.
It’s taken me a long time to take in the fact that it’s entirely up to me to decide what comes next in these situations when an emotion is difficult or confusing. (And sometimes I still forget!)
But, I do always have a choice. Even when I hate to admit it. Even when I just want to let my reactions take over and bang my head into that wall.
If I pause and take a deep breath, other options open up. In that pause, I tell myself that I am bigger than the feeling — and I am in charge. It’s not a loud message, but it’s powerful.
That simple pause creates a shift. Questions begin to take shape. What does that strong feeling mean? What does it uncover? In that very small choice to soften and let myself open, I allow the beginning of a transformation. Rather than just being a wall, I open the possibility of my feeling becoming a window or a door.
Windows and Doors
Doors and windows are different, obviously. And they function differently, when it comes to feelings.
Most often, after I pause, the window offers itself first. Maybe I look through it. Maybe I open it. But I stay where I am, as I survey the landscape of my feeling and let in small learnings about it and about myself.
Then, eventually, opening a window may lead to opening a door and stepping through. That’s a bigger deal, because then I’m truly on new terrain. The possibilities for change and growth increase exponentially.
There are significantly different levels of risk and resistance here. It’s less of a commitment to look through a window than it is to walk through a door. I take it slowly, learning incrementally as I go.
And here’s the most amazing thing to me…
It’s the same feeling, no matter how I choose to respond to it. Anger is anger and fear is fear. Whether I treat it as a wall, a window, or a door, the raw material is exactly the same.
But depending on my choices, the impact of that anger or fear on me and on the people around me can be so profoundly different.