I have to say, Springtime in Utah is an adventure. The temperatures just this week have gone from lows in the 30’s to highs in the 70’s and everything in between. This is the time of year when nature baffles me most. I haven’t packed up my boots, sweaters and coats, and yet I still need some warmer weather clothes.
I actually love every season, and am filled with wonder in each one-they each have their own magic…but the tumultuous, unpredictable, ever-changing Spring weather is especially mystifying.
Yesterday I was sitting in my office in-between client calls, looking out the window and I happened to witness the transition from snowy and cloudy skies, to the clouds moving away and the sun coming out. Darkness and cold to light and warmth. And I couldn’t help but think about our experience of emotions.
I think weather and water are the most illustrative analogies for emotions and I often use them because I love me a good analogy. I want to expand what we have already talked about when it comes to navigating emotions and give you some new tools to try out.
Categorizing our emotions
You can see by the way we categorize emotions-as positive and negative, why our reactions to them and thoughts about them are to try to avoid, distract, and disconnect from some of them and seek out and strive to feel and experience others.
When we judge emotions as good and bad, we are assigning them a moral value and seeing them as right and wrong. Then we end up always wanting to feel the good and right emotions and run away from the bad and wrong ones.
We will then be in a constant state of vigilance to protect ourselves from the bad ones and try to find and keep the good ones.
The mechanism of emotion was developed as an information system. There was no morality for primitive humans. There was just danger and safety. Emotions were signals guiding primitive humans toward survival and away from sickness, predators, and death.
Those that could tune into the messages of emotions, turn toward those feelings and listen for the information…they were the ones who thrived.
It wasn’t until we could reason and think about our emotions and judge them that they became problems to be solved or be rid of or sought after. Our big reasoning brains complicated the issue and took us farther away from the reality of our emotions, and encouraged disconnection from emotions.
Rather than the messages that they are meant to be, we started to see emotions as a nuisance. And that disconnection has created a bit of a mess.
We are no longer tuned into and listening to the messages of our emotions, the information they are.
We are afraid of them. Annoyed by them. So we distract ourselves with food and other things.
What our emotions are trying to tell us
Try to open your mind to this next thing I want to offer…Ready?
What if our emotions are neither good nor bad, right or wrong, positive or negative?
What if they are just information that exists for our protection and growth-helping us to know how we want to react or respond in any given situation?
Can you imagine what it would be like to feel anger or sadness or overwhelm or joy and simply observe it and think-hm….here’s overwhelm. It feels like a heaviness in my head and a solid stillness in my chest.
Wonder why it’s here and what it wants me to know.
Instead of our current response which is to freeze and eat, and then judge it and wish it would go away so we could get some crap done.
We have emotions, all day everyday. Our body and brain are communicating to each other and rather than being aware, turning toward it, listening in, consciously responding, we are compulsively reacting, disconnecting, turning away from, distracting, trying to numb and avoid with food, and alcohol, and all the things.
We want to pretend that by reacting and disconnecting we are controlling our experience. And with control comes safety right?
Because trying to completely control our emotions actually translates to us trying to feel good all the time and trying to push away anything else, and ignores the reality-which is: that we feel a spectrum of emotions everyday.
Our brain is always sending us emotion messages that we can either acknowledge or leave unopened. Which doesn’t mean they go away, it just means the little red notification number just keeps ticking up higher and higher.
Trying to completely control our emotions is like trying to control the weather. Impossible. But that doesn’t mean we have to just be at the affect of our emotions.
Trying to control and choosing how to respond are two different things. Part of why we compulsively react and try to control emotions is that we fear emotions.
We fear how uncomfortable they will be, how intense they might become, how long they will last.
We fear what we make it mean about us that we have them.
Many emotions we haven’t really ever allowed ourselves to feel and their unfamiliarity makes them scary. Some we have felt and know how uncomfortable they are and so we don’t want to risk feeling them again.
Imagine it rains-and you have never experienced rain and so you walk out into the downpour without an umbrella or a raincoat…just in your clothes. You would come back soaked to the bone and then the next time it rained, you would hide inside.
Or imagine you get caught outside during a blizzard without shoes on and you end up with some frostbitten toes. The next time it snowed, you would be pretty afraid of it based on your previous experience.
But if instead of running and hiding, we chose to get curious about what the rain or the snow are signaling…for instance that the rain is telling you to wear rainboots and bring an umbrella, and the snow says put on a coat, a hat, and some footwear…the weather is the message and you get to decide how you respond.
A wave of emotion
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, who is a neuro scientist, had a stroke and wrote an incredible book called Stroke of Insight, detailing her journey and recovery process from the perspective of someone who had studied the brain. So she had these incredible insights about how the brain functions as hers was lapsing in function through the stroke and its aftermath.
She suggests that once a feeling is evoked, the chemical released by your brain surges through your body and activates bodily sensations that are unique to you-this is what you hear referred to as a wave of emotion.
Each wave has a biochemical lifespan of around 90 seconds. So we spend days and weeks and lots of money and energy and eat and shop and drink and scroll and watch…to avoid 90 second waves of bodily sensations.
Sometimes the waves feel longer…usually because we are thinking about the trigger over and over and so new waves are washing over us. Or we are judging the initial wave, trying to push it away, which sends a new wave crashing.
But each wave of emotion, if we were just to experience it, will come and go in 90 seconds. It will crest and recede in 90 seconds.
Basically the time it takes for your body to re-regulate back to it’s typical state-If you remember from Episode 24-our bodies are homeostasis maintaining machines so that is always what it’s trying to do-go from whatever arousal state it’s in, be it anger or joy, back to whatever is normal for you.
Willingness to allow, not avoid
Dr Joan Rosenburg came up with an awesome concept she calls “The Rosenburg Reset”, based on this simple formula: one choice, 8 unpleasant feelings, 90 seconds.
The idea is this-that if you can make the choice to be present with and fully feel your feelings, and you ride one or more waves of one of the 8 most common unpleasant emotions, you will make space for more confidence, more connection, more authenticity, more happiness and more success in your life.
The first step is a willingness to allow instead of avoid when you become aware of an unpleasant emotion.
As soon as you notice a feeling of sadness, shame, helplessness, anger, embarrassment, disappointment, frustration, or vulnerability-rather than distracting from it, or eating over it, or ignoring it, we want to notice it and make a conscious choice to turn toward it and ride the wave for 90 seconds.
The counterintuitive solution
Have you ever heard the phrase “never turn your back on the ocean?” There are a million You Tube videos of influencers at the beach trying to get an awesome photo with the ocean behind them who end up getting pummeled by a wave they didn’t see coming.
If you turn toward the ocean, you can respond when a wave comes and remain upright.
If you have ever played in the ocean you know that right at the beach where the waves are crashing, is not the most fun place to experience the ocean. Even though the water is more shallow and you would therefore think easier to navigate, if you can get out just past the crash zone where the water is deeper…the waves are just a gentle undulation that lift your body up with them and let it back down without much effort from you.
As we have talked about many times on the podcast before, often it is the counterintuitive solution that is the right one. Rather than turning away from the waves, we want to turn toward them and even go a little deeper in order to ride the waves.
There is no resistance in this process-if you notice your mind or body wanting to tighten up and fight against it, you are employing resistance and are not riding the wave.
Just like in the ocean, if you go with the wave, allow it to move you-even lift your feet off the sand for a moment, you will go up, and come back down. If you try to keep your feet on the ground, fighting against the movement of the wave, it’s going to overwhelm you.
If you notice yourself wanting to escape the present moment, in order to not have to ride the wave, that’s ok.
If you don’t even notice the desire to escape and instead only see it after the escape has happened, that’s ok too.
You have spent a lifetime using these tactics to survive. It’s important not to judge yourself for what you have done to survive. I hear my clients say this a lot-I didn’t even notice until I was in the pantry eating chips…all of the sudden I realized I had finished the whole thing of ice cream, etc. etc.
It will take a bit to raise your awareness and choose to stay present.
Notice what you use to escape or distract yourself. That can then begin to be your sign to pay attention. When you notice yourself going for your distraction or your favorite escape…that’s when you can choose to stay in the present moment and ride the wave instead.
Once you notice the unpleasant bodily sensation or feeling and choose to stay, glance at the time, set a timer for 90 seconds if you want. And then turn toward it and ride. At first, when this is new to you, as you are working on building the habit and skill, it can be helpful to talk to yourself about what is happening.
See if you can name the feeling. See if you can start to notice where it is showing up in your body and how. Narrate what is happening for you. If it’s moving, if it’s intensifying, if it’s changing, if it’s receding, notice it. If you want to stop and run, notice it.
Practice riding the waves
It will require patience and kindness to be present with yourself and your emotions. Just like with any new skill, allow and expect yourself to be a beginner.
One thing to be aware of…reconnecting to your present experience of emotion after being purposefully disconnected for decades may feel overwhelming…like opening the floodgates of a dam.
When you have spent years building a dam against your emotions to protect yourself, this is to be expected. That feeling of overwhelm-just like the flood, will abate.
The goal of connection is so that we can learn to address and process emotion rather than bury it and let it fester or build up. So there may be some unprocessed emotion that needs some release. That’s ok too. Just more waves to practice riding.
Eventually, you will be able to ride whatever waves come your way. You will not fear emotion, because you know it’s just information.
You won’t have to concentrate so hard on turning toward it instead of away from it. It will feel natural to stay present. It will be effortless to ride the waves and let them move through you.
You won’t live a pain and discomfort free life, that is not the promise.
But you will be able to navigate the pain and discomfort of your life without compulsively reacting because you will be in the habit of consciously responding, one wave at a time.
Get out there and ride the waves my friend.
If you want to learn and practice this skill and so many others with support and guidance along the way ensuring your success, come apply for Love First Weight Loss.