A dear client of mine just died. Her brother, both a friend and mentor, was updating me as the events progressed prior to her death. He was scared. He wrestled with the uncertainty, frantically searching all the "what-ifs." He felt regret, he felt desperation, and he felt pain. He shared how much he worried for her daughters, their discomfort and despair. He longed to be strong.
In moments such as these, strong seems to be our go-to. We grasp for grit, and we clamor for control.
But these moments are meant to be messy.
As he struggled, clinging to how he believed he SHOULD and would NEED to be, for her, for them, and for himself, I could sense his terror. I said, "your job is not to be strong, your job is to be real. Let your heart break open."
Most of us struggle with big emotions. Most of us struggle with emotions, period. Big or small, or anywhere in between, we judge them to be wrong, bad, good, pleasant, comfortable, nice, icky, sticky, you name it. We slap a label on them, indicating whether we are for or against them. And as a result, we tend toward clinginess with those we like/prefer and resistance or aversion toward those we don't.
When emotions are perceived to be on either the good or bad ends of the continuum, it can feel as if we're in a never-ending tug of war with ourselves.
In a recent coaching conversation, my client broke into tears, sharing, "I'm just not happy." As I listened intently to her story, I learned that she had just navigated a difficult, tension-filled situation with her partner.
She wasn't feeling happy in that moment. She was feeling frustrated, confused, and sad. But she was also feeling grateful, hopeful, and energized.
She realized that it wasn't happy that she needed exactly, but more practice with holding gently all the emotions that were present for her.
It's a common mistake, to believe that the ultimate aim we should be striving for is happiness. What we get when we do engage that intention, is a lot more unhappiness. What research has shown us, is that the happiest people are those who practice experiencing ALL THE EMOTIONS. The happiest people don't feel great all the time. The happiest people understand that life will be painful sometimes. Sometimes a lot. Sometimes a little. But they expect to feel all the feels. And when they expect them all to show up, rather than feelings meaning they're doing life wrong, it means they're doing life!
To be real means to feel. And then, because we are humans, with capacities beyond what other animals possess, we move into trying to make sense of what we feel.
The binary (black/white, bad/good, us/them, friend/foe) is easy to latch onto. It takes more energy to discern the gradients that actually exist in the messy middle. But it's the messy middle that affords us the ability to do this life with greater ease. It's not our goal to get good at suffering. Our goal is to suffer less under similar conditions.
Pain + Resistance = Suffering
You may be familiar with this equation.
When we make room for all the emotions, we suffer less.
What emotions could you begin to make more room for?
I get that this question may prompt some fear for you. Maybe it causes you to tighten up, shrink, or feel like hiding. If this is the case, try softening around whatever is arising. That's what I mean by "making room." You scoot over a bit so the emotion can sit alongside you.
It's not about allowing it to overtake you...or overwhelm you. You're in the driver's seat, and you can decide when you're done sharing space, or even what that looks like. But it's breathing around it. Giving it air. Opening up a stuffy room. Letting the light in. It's imagining the energy of that emotion within a larger field. It's one tree, in the vast forest. It's a drop of water in the entire ocean. You are an ocean, immense and spacious.
When my friend shared that he was trying to be strong, I imagined him standing tall, stoic, and stern. Unphased. It's what he was wishing for, as he argued with reality.
If he meant firmly planted, on the ready to get yanked around by the tumult of grief that would befall him, okay. The root systems of a tree grow stronger by enduring the winds that thrash them about above the ground. Interestingly, the roots of one tree often find the roots of another, to fortify each other.
We are the trees, my friends. To be strong is to be connected (inside of ourselves and with others) so that we can be real, so we can heal, so we can live purposeful and passionate lives.
If you're struggling to find your way, longing to feel strong amidst the difficulties and pains of life, you know where to find me. I would love to help. Please reach out to email@example.com