Did you ever read the Sesame Street book “The Monster at the End of this Book”?
It was one of my favorites as a kid. Grover is convinced there is a monster at the end of the book and he is terrified. He ties ropes, builds a brick wall, nails boards, begs and pleads, even does a little shaming of the reader to try to get you to STOP TURNING THE PAGES.
Letting ourselves feel can be a little bit like trying to avoid that “monster.” It will surely be our imminent demise if that thing that has been lurking in the shadows is allowed out. It seems less risky to pretend the feeling isn’t there, stuff it down, tell ourselves we are silly or childish for feeling that way.
The skill of being able to contain our emotions is actually quite adaptive and helpful to get through certain situations. But if you tend to bottle up your emotions and try to keep them there, you probably know that they usually end up coming out sideways at an absurd moment. Like when you’ve held it in for the first 8,999 times that your partner throws his dirty socks right next to the hamper instead of making the miniscule extra effort to throw them in the hamper, and then on number 9,000 you completely lose your sh&% and tell him he’s lazy and selfish and must have grown up in a cave. There is a better way.
Emotions are like waves. They come, and (if we let them) they go. If we can allow ourselves to feel and stay with it long enough, it will usually get stronger and stronger until it peaks, and then it will start to dissipate. The hardest part is making it to the peak. It’s all downhill from there, so to speak.
Follow these five steps for making it through a feeling wave:
1. Notice where you feel sensation in your body. Take some deep breaths and imagine just giving that sensation some space to go wherever it needs to go. Move around, stretch or shake out your limbs if that feels helpful.
2. Stay grounded: feel your feet touching the ground, feel your back and/or legs supported in your chair, take note of the date and time, notice what you are taking in with your senses (what do you see, hear, smell, taste, feel on your skin?) in the present moment.
3. Observe that you are having a feeling while also reminding yourself that feelings come and go.
4. Set some boundaries. Try setting a timer for at least 2-5 minutes. If the timer goes off, you’re still in the throes of the emotion and you can’t take it anymore, imagine putting the feeling and body sensations into a safe container that you can come back to later on.
5. Consider letting someone you trust be there with you. Having a friend, partner or therapist who is able to sit with you in the emotion without trying to fix it for you can feel more safe and also be very healing.
And two IMPORTANT bonus tips:
· When you are siting with an emotion avoid making big decisions, acting or speaking from that place.
· Strong emotions can sometimes be triggers of unresolved past experiences. If you start to have a flood of disturbing memories, feel like you want to run away, or you go numb or blank: imagine putting the emotions, memories and body sensations into your safe container. Do the grounding exercises in #2 and take a few deep breaths. Consider hiring a therapist who specializes in trauma to help you work through whatever was coming up (ain’t nobody got time for that!).
Spoiler alert: the monster at the end of the book ends up being… wait for it… just Grover himself (wah, wah). What a metaphor for how we approach emotions sometimes! We have this fear that if we let ourselves feel we will be wrecked. But if we can just acknowledge the feeling, allow it to come and go, what we usually find on the other side is just a lighter, more joyful and less stressed version of ourselves.