It's called adulthood: we don't have the luxury of whimpering over every little bump and bruise inflicted upon us by life. And we don't particularly want to dwell on the negative.
This way of coping works fine--most of the time. But there is a downside, particularly for those of us who are vulnerable to mental and physical health struggles, including addiction.
We get so much practice that we get too good at ignoring our own distress. The problem is, we feel bad about something, and although we may think we've moved on, something inside us lags behind, still stuck in the distress. We try to focus on on what we think we've moved on to, but someplace in our body the strain and tension festers. The uncomfortable feeling pulses on, just below the threshold of consciousness.
Distress that goes ignored may not fade. It may linger and fuel all kinds of dysfunction.
To clear out this kind of toxic tension and distress, I encourage some of my clients to engage in the following practice twice a day. You can do it in five or ten minutes.
1. Tune inward and ask, what's eating at me today? Is there something--anything--making me feel off or out of sorts?
2. Answer the question--mentally, aloud, or by writing, typing, or texting. Something along the lines of, "It bothered me when..." or "I feel bad that..."
3. Support that vulnerable part of you that just voiced distress by empathizing and validating those feelings. For instance, "I get why that's eating at you. I can understand why that doesn't feel right. It's understandable that your feelings got hurt by that."
4. Tune in to your body. Notice what you feel physically. The action is often in the gut or chest. sometimes the throat, shoulders, jaw, fists. Your eyes might water, as though you're about to cry. You may place a hand on that part of your body where you feel the discomfort or tension with the intention of conveying compassion by way of your touch. "Yeah, I feel that. I hear you loud and clear."
5. Whatever feelings come to light, simply sit with them for a minute or two.
As you attend to your feelings, they may deepen or ease. Either way, your objective is not to make the feelings go away. Simply attend to them.
Don't worry, you're not creating pain or making it worse by dwelling on it. A part of you has been feeling this distress all along, you're simply shining the light of compassionate attention on it. We are being present with a part of us that usually operates outside our awareness. We're bringing onto the stage of consciousness what was previously happening offstage.
There's no threshold of pain or relief that indicates you're finished. You're not on the lookout for an a-ha moment. Just be present with yourself, stay with what you're really feeling. Like you might sit with a friend who is hurting or in need.
After a brief few minutes of this, then you're done. Go on with your day.
Here's an email I got from a client, a junior high school teacher, sharing his experience with this exercise. I've added the numbers so you can see how his process coincides with the steps described above.
Today was my first day back to school after the holiday break. Arrived a bit later than usual and sat down at my desk to look at lesson plans. I felt a heaviness and realized there was a feeling of some kind there that I could sit with.
1. Ask: I closed my eyes and said, 'Okay, what's up?'
2. Answer: 'Students will be here soon. There coming! I don't want to be here. I don't want to work! I want to relax, go have a nice breakfast. I want to be away from people. I want peace. I know I just slept in, but I want even more rest... warmth... to snuggle up, maybe even hibernate. Yes, that's it, I want to hibernate. Avoid everything, especially people.
3. Support: 'I get why you feel that way. What you're feeling is real. It's important. I'll sit with you while you feel that.'
4. Body: Still feel that heaviness. That's all over, but especially in my chest. And there's this clench in my throat. I placed one hand lightly on my throat, the other against my chest.
5. Attend: I just sat there and let myself feel.
A minute later I realized that this was the same way I used to feel when I was younger. I'd complain that I didn't feel well and sometimes my mom would let me stay home from school. I'd lay on the couch under a blanket and watch "The 100,000.00 Pyramid" her. She took care of me. I didn't feel like it was okay to avoid school, but I sure didn't feel up to going. There was some guilt over staying home. I felt ashamed that deep down I wanted to avoid. I had to hide the fact that I sometimes played up my symptoms. Then my brother would come home and say, "He's not sick! You make me go to school unless I'm in the hospital!" So today, it was different to sit with the feeling of wanting to avoid instead of trying to immediately pull myself together and put my nose to the grindstone. It was bittersweet. It felt like I was sitting with a younger part of me that had long ago been exiled.
As I finish up I still feel tight in my throat and heavy in my chest. Feels like life is so harsh, it needs to be avoided. I'm a tender soul walking around like a turtle outside its shell. Life can be too bright and too harsh and too much. Okay, back to my day anyway!
The benefit of this exercise is not that it necessarily helps you feel better. Rather, it's that we stay connected with ourselves rather than detaching. And self-awareness is correlated with self-control. As we stay grounded in our actual experience of life instead of dissociating from that experience, we also keep a better hold of the steering wheel of our own lives.
Try it for yourself: A couple of times a day over the next few days, take five or ten minutes and go through the steps. Then let us know how it goes for you.