Monday, June 9, 2014

The Gentle Art of Self-Control, Lesson 6: Face Your Feelings

Over the last few weeks we've been learning to drop the rope in the old, familiar the tug-of-war with our urges. As we practice the skills discussed so far we’re succumbing less often and we’re not wasting so much energy resisting. Because we’re less consumed by the battle, other feature of life pop into the foreground. One of the most prominent of these is our emotions. As we face life without our old shock absorber, we not only suffer the pain of withdrawing from it, we also get reintroduced to all facets of feelings that go with regular life.

At its most basic level, overcoming addiction is about not doing when you feel like doing. Simply refraining in the heat of key moments. Most of the time it's easy to refrain from acting. We don't mind sitting still all the day long when we're out in the sunshine. The challenge is in our dark moments. What about when we're pinned down in the black shadows? Then we really want out. We feel like we need to get out. Can we really stand to do nothing then? If we don't do something about our situation and our emotions, they may continue to deteriorate--and they're bad enough already. Quick, do something before things get even worse!

Addiction insists: if you're down, don't just sit there! Do something to bring yourself back up. And by all means, whatever you do, don't let yourself drop even further!

Addiction seems like our enemy most of the time, but then we start to suffer the emotional bumps and bruises of everyday living, then anything that helps us escape or numb ourselves seems like a familiar friend in a time of need. Feeling unsettled and out of sorts? Lookie here: a tidy little way to feel better quick. A trap door out of having to deal with life, having to suffer. Addiction may be a last resort, but it sure seems better than--gulp--feeling even more down than we already are!

Facing life without the shock absorber of addiction means settling back and sitting through our discomforts. Tolerating tedium. Giving ourselves up to the grind of withdrawal. Weathering the storm and waiting for the sun to come out on its own again, instead of holding mother nature in a headlock until she grudgingly spits sunbeams into our waiting palm. Sobriety is about finally, willingly, accepting that life unfolds on its own terms, not ours. Facing our feelings means letting ourselves experience the entire natural range of human emotions, including those at the dark end of the spectrum.

Make Way for the Freight Train

My client, Alyssa, and her husband, Ron, were chatting with the couple next-door about the exercise boot camp they’d just completed. Ron got more and more animated discussing the crazy workout routines, things like hoisting tractor tires and dragging weights through the parking lot by a chain. He raved about the pace of their training runs and all of their other accomplishments in the class.

It really upset Alyssa to watch Ron interact this way. He was so engaged and complimentary. She realized, it might not hurt so much if I felt like he sometimes directed some of that same energy my way. I’m dying of thirst for this kind of attention and most days he won’t even listen for five minutes while I tell him about my day. And yet look at him now, completely captivated!

Alyssa wanted to bolt, but she stood there politely to avoid making a scene. She felt all out of sorts, swamped by emotion, as she walked back in her home. It was at was times like these that she used to go to food for comfort and soothing. Right now she wanted so badly to go eat some chocolate. And yet she didn’t want to! She’d been in recovery from that habit for several months. As the urge hit her with renewed force, she doubted that the skills she’d been practicing were enough to help her stay on track on a day like this.

She knew she needed some space to even give her recovery tools a chance. She walked into her home office and sat down at her desk. The tears poured out. It felt like she was being slammed by a freight train of emotion.

She took a nice, full breath and tried to imagine that the air she was inhaling was blowing up like a balloon inside to create a little more space inside of her. Breathe again. Can I somehow make room for all the emotion I’m feeling? An image popped into her mind of a freight train going through a tunnel inside of her instead of smashing through her. She took another breath and imagined the space expanding even more. The tight knots in her neck and chest started to loosen. The train of emotion seemed to be scraping the walls of the tunnel, sparks flying, but at least it was passing through instead of pushing her along.

She kept breathing and expanding, breathing and expanding. She was allowing herself to fully feel how much it hurt to feel ignored and like she was unimportant, like she was less interesting to the most important person in her life than the next-door neighbors were! A new wave of hot tears flowed.

Previously, Alyssa had always braced against these kinds of feelings. She might tell herself she was being silly or oversensitive. She’d try not to be bothered, only to find that the hurt lingered at the fringes of consciousness for hours or even days.

But she never could seem to contract away from her feelings without withdrawing from Ron and even her children. The shield she held up against emotions seemed to separate her from the rest of her life as well.

Now Alyssa was staying with her emotions, willingly experiencing them, as unpleasant and challenging as that was at the moment. She had made the commitment to stay with her real life in all its rambunctiousness rather than escape by way of her old destructive eating habits. It was tiring, painful work.

When Alyssa walked out of her office a few minutes later, the poignant ache in her chest was still there. But there was also a clean feeling. She was breathing freely, not holding her breath. Her heart felt it had been hammered by a meat tenderizer. And she was going to help her daughter with her math homework. She recalled a time when that would have felt impossible. Having been hit by the cue ball of emotional upset, she would have rolled right to the corner pocket of overeating. The same cue ball had just hit her, and yet she was now headed left at a 90 degree angle instead of going straight. She was going to do something that she’d chosen to do instead of doing the same old thing she felt compelled to do. It was a victory of conscience over reflex, the human being over the human animal, made possible by her willingness to face—instead of run from—emotional pain.

No Escape from the Poop

After he started keeping track of his relapses, Carlos quickly recognized a pattern: the last two times he’d looked at porn had been after some sour interaction with is little sister. “It eats at me,” he said, “that she doesn’t do her share. What makes it worse is that my parents let her off the hook for it!”

As an example, he cited a recurring conflict over cleaning up the dog poop from their three German Shepherds from the back yard. “She’ll come in and say she’s been out there working for a half hour, yet she only has a few turds in the bottom of her bag. A half hour?! I can fill two bags in that time. And that’s exactly what I’ll have to do because next time it’s my turn. It’s not fair!”

As combustible emotions go, resentment is like rocket fuel for addiction, making this the perfect emotional issue for us to work on. Even if Carlos’ sister did a 180 degree turn and tomorrow started gathering her share of the crap, there will be no shortage of other people to step in and play that role in Carlos’ inner drama: classmates who refuse to do their share of a group project, roommates who never do the dishes, or a boss who never gives him enough credit for his hard work.

“Next time you think about it or have to go out and clean up after the dogs,” I suggested, “Imagine resentment is this tide of emotion that has been sweeping you up. It gets bigger than you, so you can’t resist the force of it. But imagine you’re a sponge. By weight you’re lighter than the liquid you’re absorbing, but if you’re big enough you can still soak up every ounce of it that comes your way.” I had Carlos imagine that with each breath he took into his lungs, he was creating more of those air pockets inside a sponge, more available space to be filled by a challenging emotion like resentment.

“Your goal is not to get over your resentment so that you don’t have to feel it anymore. Rather, it’s to get through the resentment so that, even though you feel the full force of it, you can still act exactly the way you choose to and focus your attention back on what matters most to you.”

Next time Carlos was on poop patrol, he tried just plodding through the job so that he could get done with it and move on with his day even though he was feeling resentment the whole time. He tried breathing as I’d coached him—“The job stunk even more when I was taking those deep breaths!” Halfway through the job he was tempted to go inside and bellyache to his parents, arguing with them as usual about how unfair it was. But he hung in there and just kept gathering the poop. “It was so weird, my ears actually started to hurt.” He then dropped the bags in the trash can and started shooting hoops in the driveway. “It was worth it then, after I was all done. I was proud of myself that I hadn’t gotten caught up in a big drama over it. And I was glad I’d gotten it done and over with.”

Inadequacies In Your Face

It was a moment when Steven usually would have taken a razor blade or sharp knife and made cuts on his arm. He was feeling like a loser.

It was exasperating. After all I’ve done to get my life on a better track, I still end up feel this way?! he thought. He’d worked his tail off to make it through high school. He’d raised his GPA to 3.6. The short film he’d made in his film class won “Best Picture” in the high school film festival that included all the schools from his town and the surrounding communities. He was even getting along better with his parents and brother.

But this morning he got another email from the Facebook group someone in his graduating class started to help them all update each other about their college plans and progress. The girl in his biology class was going to the George Washington University. Here were photos from her visit to campus. Here is where she’ll be living. Here were my classy roommates.

With the insecurity of his dad’s employment, Steven would not even be attending Boise State. It was the community college for him. His heart sank again as he thought about it. I’m a loser compared to all these other kids, he thought. I’ve always been one step behind, on the outs, never quite able to measure up or even be a real part of the group. It was times like these when the urge to cut came back with a vengeance.

As Steven tried to sit with his feelings, his chest ached from the hurt. He took deep breaths to try to let the feelings in and through. As he imagined allowing the feelings he thought of the big redwood tree they’d seen on a recent family vacation to Northern California that was big enough for a truck to drive through. His feelings sure felt like a Mack Truck right now. He breathed and felt the pain and wondered what it was like to be connected and involved and a part of things. He wondered why it was not his fate to be a part of the in crowd and feel more a part of things socially.

The heartache didn’t go away, but he managed to weather it without cutting, which would have only served to make things worse.

Stillness Despite a Sense of Urgency

A few days after he learned about making room for feelings, Evan woke up in a panic about the tax ramifications of a recent business decision. His company had arranged the purchase of some assets and the sale of others in a way that would enable them to avoid paying capital gains tax. But in the midst of those negotiations and making those arrangements, he’d ignored a key matter—one that percolated up and made its way into his consciousness at 3:00 a.m.

He jumped up and opened up his laptop to do some quick research. What he found only made him feel worse. It looked like this process would cost them almost a hundred thousand more than he’d expected. Was it really as bad as it looked? If so, how would they ever come up with that kind of money? He was dying to get on the phone and talk to their tax attorney. But it was just after 4:00 a.m. He’d have to wait.

It was only once he realized he was going to have to sit in the discomfort he was feeling that it occurred to him that this was exactly the kind of thing I’d been encouraging him to practice: sitting still even when we feel a sense of urgency to act. Rather than go back to bed and toss and turn in a tortured state, Evan sat there in a tortured state and focused on what he felt in his body. He kept trying to breathe.

Evan reminded himself that his next breath was not dependent on working out these financial matters. His next breath was a gift from God that he could let in no matter how things might end up going with the tax situation. It was God himself, the creator of the universe, who was granting Evan his breath. No matter how well Evan’s business thrived or how badly it flopped, it could not grant him oxygen. Evan kept letting that in and reminding himself to be still and see the financial issues for what they are: important, but not life and death.

Evan wanted to put in the call to his attorney right at 7:00 a.m. He wanted to do it so badly that he knew he probably should wait. So between 7:00 and 7:20 Evan practice sitting in his distress a little longer. Then he said, “That was a stretch, that was my personal growth for the week, I don’t know if it did me any good but to heck with it now, I’m putting in the call!”

I was proud of him. Personally, I think exercises like this do us a lot of good. They show us who gets to decide our behavior. They provide undeniable proof that urgency doesn’t drive us, we’re the ones in the driver’s seat.

Standing Up to Old Tendencies

Shelly had been working to overcome her tendency to placate others and always bow to their needs rather than take care of herself in legitimate and needful ways. Growing up in a home with an extremely demanding father, there was no room for her even to consider her needs. She was always in the habit of trying to make sure she didn’t upset others, especially Dad. At times when all was calm and there was no yelling going on in their home, that meant Dad wasn’t upset by anything she or anyone else had done, at least for the time being. Then she could take a sigh of relief and feel content herself. She didn’t have the luxury of considering what she wanted or how she preferred things to go. He had a hair trigger temper, so it was just a matter of time until he’d explode again and everyone including Shelly would be scrambling to try to restore the peace again.

Shelly’s husband, Wendell, was a completely different man from her dad. He was patient and loving and was a gentle father to their growing children. But Shelly’s demons still haunted her. They kept her feeling like she was always on the verge of upsetting others and being in the dog house because of it.

One night Wendell got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. Halfway to the toilet, he stubbed his toe on a cleaning bucket Shelly had left next to the bathroom counter. Shelly was jarred from her sleep by Wendell’s yelp of pain and then his cussing. Everything in her screamed, Jump up, run in there, and apologize, which she did immediately. Wendell was still wincing in pain, but he sighed and apologized himself for overreacting.

Then Shelly felt this surge of energy hit her, driving her to go search the house for other things she’d left out and other areas of untidiness. The kitchen counter was still a mess. Hadn’t she left the vacuum out in the family room?

But she’d been playing the Neutral Gear Game, which you’ll learn at the end of this chapter, for five minutes a day over the previous week. So instead of scrambling, she decided to go back in and sit on the bed and simply weather storm of urges to run around to put everything away.

Once she got to the bed, the weight of all those old desires to make things better tumbled down on her like an avalanche. She crumpled to the bed and sobbed. Wendell came in and put his hand on her side and talked softly and tried to soothe her. In the face of the feeling that she needed to do more to make things better, Shelly surrendered to the reality that she’d never done enough, never could have done enough enough. She’d been struggling to meet a need she could never meet.

There was still that little girl inside who had always yearned for a peaceful family life and just knew that if she worked hard enough and did everything right, she could make it happen. There was a flood of acceptance now that life was so different than that. At the same time, with that acceptance there flowed an accompanying grief that that little girl never got to enjoy what she’d worked so hard for, what she’d genuinely needed, and what every child deserves to enjoy: a secure home environment with emotionally safe caretakers.

As heart-wrenching as it was, this experience for Shelly was the beginning of what Oprah Winfrey defines as forgiveness: Giving up the hope that the past could have been any different.

Challenge for the Week: The Neutral Gear Game

Every day throughout the next week, set aside five minutes to sit still and do nothing. Set an egg timer or use the timer on your phone for five minutes and wait for it to go off without ever checking to see how much time you have left.

Notice your inclinations and desires as they parade by. "I need to turn up the heat in here. I should have gone to the bathroom before I started. My nose tickles--let me just give it a little scratch. I gotta tell the kids to turn down the volume on that TV. Did I remember to take the meat out of the freezer? My back hurts in this chair--I need to sit up straighter. Shoot, I never answered Sarah's urgent email!"

When we feel all these impulses and then continue to sit still, we break the link between wanting and getting, between urgency and action. Rather than being bullied by our feelings, we prove that we can stand up to them.

Fear tells us, "If you don't act when I loom over you, I'll give you the ultimate punishment: you get to suffer even more of me!" Playing the Neutral Gear Game demonstrates both to us and to our fear that we, and not it, are the ones who decide what we do. Low self-esteem tells us, "If you don't shape up and get busy and produce something admirable, I'll glom on tighter and smother you even more!" Playing the Neutral Gear Game says, "I may work on that project in a few minutes, but it will be because I choose to, and not because I'm prodded to do it by the hot poker of emotion that you keep jabbing into me."

As we face our feelings, we discover we're stronger than we realized. We learn we can take it. We see that it's okay to feel bad. We don't have to escape or numb our feelings, we can simply let them run their course. Once we can tolerate whatever feelings arise, we get to stay firmly ensconced in the driver's seat of our lives. That's so much better than being tied up in the trunk, being driven here and there whenever our strongest emotions decide to come around and bully us.


  1. I love the principle you've applied here! Thank you for it. You know, I'm a recovering addict myself, and I figure I'll never be able to give up the fight, but I'm less white-knuckled about my struggle now, thanks to the guidance of friends and the power of God. Right now I'm serving a mission for my church, something at one time I doubted would happen. A member of my church wrote this article about her struggle with addictive behavior and how she was able to overcome it. It helped me. I know God will help anyone willing to take the steps necessary to regain their life from an addiction. Thank you for this article!

  2. Congrats on your recovery and mission Kenall! And thanks for sharing that great article.