Sitting with Strong Emotions

Artwork by Helene Delmaire

It’s quite easy to lose oneself amid adversity, and focus all our attention on our troubles, losing sight of the beauty that surrounds us. It’s impossible to go through life and not experience negative emotions; when we pathologize those emotions and choose not to sit with them, they tend to manifest in ways that don’t serve us well. Unfortunately, we are socialized into this behavior and often don’t even realize we are doing it, until our psyche or body tell us that something is wrong, and we seek professional support and guidance.

My own personal struggle with negative emotions walks this path and is something I’m keenly aware of; it wasn’t always this way though, and the impact on my mental and physical health has been abundant. As women in this world, we are told not to make waves, to be caretakers and people pleasers. When we feel anger, we are told that doing so is not becoming of us and to let it go. This is the way that I walked through my life until recently, and even though I am aware of my tendency to suppress anger, the frequency that I continue the behavior is high.

There is value in leaving a situation when you feel out of control, however, when you are told to do so and never given any guidance on how to manage those emotions the next go round, accepting negative emotions as normal tends to be lost. As children we build our trust and feel secure with the adults in our lives when we are shown love regardless of the choices we make. When we trust that we can explore our world and make mistakes, and still be accepted and loved by those that matter most in our lives, we feel secure and confident in who we are as individuals.

An immense amount of damage occurs when the people we have grown to trust, betray us and hurt us in unimaginable ways. The disintegration of trust I have in others and myself began at a very young age, at the hands of a neighbor boy I grew up with. From there, repeated episodes of individuals that were supposed to protect me, inflicting abuse, robbed me of my childhood and profoundly affected the choices I made as an adolescent and emerging adult.

As I approached 40, I found the courage to leave an abusive marriage after nearly 20 years, and completely upend the lives of my children and myself. There’s not a single person alive that goes into a marriage seeking abuse or purposefully choosing a partner that is controlling. Abusers are often very charismatic in the beginning, but slowly and methodically strip you of who you are, isolate you from your family and friends, and make you doubt the perception you hold of your own experiences in the world. I had romanticized in my head what life would be like without him in it, but the reality was in no way a reflection of as much.

There was no magic wand and my newfound freedom wasn’t all rainbows and lollipops. I was lost and truly had no idea who I was. It was the first time I had lived on my own; my children were with me half of the time and when they went to their father’s house, I had panic attacks and spent hours crying for no reason that was apparent to me at the time. Now I know that I didn’t know what to do with all the emotions that had been shoved down for years, so they poured out of me in uncontrollable ways. I knew that I needed support because I had no idea how to manage what I was experiencing.

Finding a good match in a therapist can be challenging; someone may be a very talented therapist, but that doesn’t always mean they are a good fit for you. I had been to a handful of therapists but had never found someone that I trusted and could be completely vulnerable with. All that changed in on July 1, 2014, and my life has shifted profoundly because of it.

The first time I talked with my therapist on the phone, he told me that our first session would center around both of us determining if we could work well together, and if he felt like it was a good fit. I had never had a therapist talk so openly about the importance of that process, which was refreshing, and says a lot about who he is as a person, and the value he places in his role as someone’s psychologist. He asked me why I was seeking his support and then we scheduled our first session.

When I walked into his office, I can’t explain the sense of ease I immediately felt. I had no reason to trust the man sitting in front of me, but instinctively I did; as we began talking, it was like a flood gate opened and I found myself sharing my life story with him in a way that I had never done previously. For the first time in my life I sat in front of a man that held no judgement, and fully accepted me for the person I was in that moment.

I can’t say that therapy is easy, in fact it is the most difficult undertaking I have ever experienced, but I wouldn’t give it up for the world. I often struggle to see the growth I’ve made, especially when one challenging life event after another is thrown at me; but I know it’s there. I value the therapeutic relationship that I have built with him and know that it’s a rarity in this world. I credit him with saving my life 10-fold at this point, but I also know that if I hadn’t been willing to be vulnerable with him and put in the work to make changes in my life, I would still be the same person that sat in front of him nearly 5 years ago.

Living through a lot of abuse and adversity has fostered a lack of trust in myself and others. It took years for me to show anger in front of him and I trust him more than anyone else on the planet. In my past, all anger did for me was intensify the abuse I was experiencing, so I ceased fighting back for self-preservation reasons. I shoved anger deep inside of me and made sure there was no room for it to wiggle its way to the surface. When someone hurt me, I found a way to blame myself, which fueled shame. Anger wasn’t a safe emotion for me and sitting with it was frightening in the most basic sense.

I had a breakthrough about a year and a half ago, when something happened that angered me immensely. I remember sitting in his office feeling unbelievably anxious, repetitively fidgeting with my hands, and struggling to feel comfortable, as I told him what happened. All that I wanted to do in that moment was self-harm because it alleviated the pain I was feeling. As the story unfolded, my voice rose, and all the anxiousness shifted to anger in an instant; it happened as quickly as one turns on and off a light. It just fell out of me, which scared me to pieces.

He got really excited, and then quickly apologized for doing so, but I totally understood why he did; there was no need to apologize. It was a breakthrough for me, and he literally got to watch it happen right before his eyes. That was the day that we both learned that the anger I internally suppress is outwardly expressed as anxiety.

Of course, it has been beneficial to recognize the anger/anxiety connection but labeling something doesn’t always remove the power it holds over you. It takes an immense amount of work to release oneself from behaviors that once made you feel safe. He has been helping me sit with my feelings for many years, learn to accept them as they are, and not push back against them so diligently.

The tendency to want to numb difficult emotions seems natural to many of us, but when we numb the bad, we also numb the good. In order to experience joy, we must be willing to sit with pain. It’s much easier to sit with pain when we don’t attach a negative label to it, and see it as simply being what it is, an emotion. It’s also quite tempting to go on joy seeking adventures, rather than finding it in the every day moments. In doing so, so much of our life passes us by in a blur; one day we wake up and wonder where all the time went and struggle to find genuine meaning beneath it all.

I’ve been in that very place, and now I’m choosing a different path. It’s not always fun, and it’s certainly not easy, but I can honestly say that I know myself better now than I ever have; the connections I make with others are more intimate and genuine than in the past, and when I allow myself to let go and be vulnerable, the joy that envelopes me, brings abundant love to my heart. I can’t imagine a more fulfilling way to live.

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