Several months ago I wrote of the concept of going to the Emotional Gym and building our capacities to navigate life regardless of how challenging it is. (I will copy over here part of that blog.)
Anger – Do something that, even though it is appropriate, I know will result in someone being upset/ irritated/ angry with me
Sad – Allow myself to enter into a situation where I will feel sadness (or where someone else is sad) without any attempt to escape the sadness
Powerless – Choose to recognize my limitations and resist an attempt to ‘fix it’ or give advice.
Shame/Guilt – Choose to enter into a situation where I likely will not do well and feel slightly embarrassed.Choose to be transparent/ authentic and admit a flaws or short comings to someone trustworthy .
Fear – allow myself to enter an experience where I will feel nervous.
Disgust – take myself into a situation where I will feel some disgust without addressing it right away.
Complex: [ a combination of more than one emotion at a time like sadness, powerlessness, disgust and being overwhelmed. ]
Complex emotions- experiencing more than one emotion at a time- will be more of a challenge to work with.
For simplicity sake, we will break it down and look at individual emotions. One of the side benefits will be an increasing ability to navigate life when experiencing more than one emotion.
Ok, so full disclosure, I have never been to a gym. And I cannot claim to have much physical strength! It is a struggle for me to carry the 50 lb. bag of dogfood up the stairs into my house. It would be good for me to increase my strength.
If I were to take myself to a gym for the purpose of working out, it would be a great example of what is needed for me to work out in order to grow in strength.
It would be foolish for me to go a 50 lb. barbell. In an effort to ‘improve’ myself, I would be harming myself. Wisdom would have me start out lifting a 20 pounder over and over and over, slightly straining my weak muscles. After a time of slightly pushing myself into lifting heavier weights, my muscles are stronger to pick up a 30 lb. weight. And after exercising at this level for awhile, I will be able to proceed to even heavier weight. And when it comes time to carry my dog food into my house, it will not be as difficult. Going to the gym allows me to be strategically in charge of what level of weight I pick up, which is different than when I have no choice as to the heavy weights that I encounter in life.
In life, we may have experienced not having others in our lives to help us. To pick up part of the weight if needed. To cheer us on when we do well at picking up weights. At the gym I am able to enlist a personal trainer. A person who is further along in their capacities and knowledge. A person to join me, guide, assist and cheer me on appropriately. These are components needed for us to appropriately grow our emotional strength. The ability to choose the amount of emotion we will undertake. Having a person to be ‘our spotter’ and cheerleader as we undertake encounters to help us grow.
Having information can be interesting and maybe somewhat helpful. But it is insufficient in our development of relational ability. For example, I may read up on fly fishing and be able to relay it to others, but I have not integrated it into my experience. I do not know how to attach a fly. I do not have the muscle memory to flick my wrist just right so as emulate the movement of live insects, in order to fool the fish. Experientially living in healthy relationship comes from our integrating the material into our lives. In the context of interacting with another person we can further make sense of it and flesh it out.
I am going to invite you into part of my own journey from many years back when I was intentionally ‘taking myself to the gym’. While I appeared in life to ‘have it all together’, I was living from a place of inner insecurities. I was aware of how I avoided having certain emotions. I was aware of how I avoided others who had certain emotions. I knew I needed to go back to basics in developing my capacity to navigate life from a place of inner strength. Yep- which required I enter into significant depths of shame, accepting the degree of my emotional weakness. Intentionally integrating what I cognitively knew into my physiological and emotional memory. I’m willing to invite you into this level of my weaknesses with hope that you would be encouraged to enter into your own self-awareness and ‘strength growing’. I am going to share several stories to help you understand more fully what it can be like to take oneself to ‘the gym’.
I chose different emotional barbells and elliptical and other equipment, so as to address my different emotional weaknesses. I specifically targeted my different categories of emotional muscles of sadness, anger, fear, powerlessness/ hopelessness, shame and guilt and disgust. (In each category, there are ‘two sides to the coin. Being in touch with my personal emotions. Encountering the emotions of others.) I will tell you stories from my life of specifics in which I chose ways to encounter different emotions which I could be in charge of the amount I felt before taking a break. I chose a friend with whom I could let know of my experiences. She cared about how hard it was. She cheered for me and encouraged me to continue. The more I put myself into the different situations, I gradually developed to be in different emotions and still be ok. Stable. Able to navigate life’s challenges more effectively.
Since I have already mentioned the emotion of shame, let me continue with it. One evidence of my immense personal shame flowing out into life was revealed in how I avoided attending bridal and baby showers if at all possible. To attend brought me into awareness of a sense that something was wrong with me that I was not married nor had children of my own. I was certain that a spotlight came on me, giving others an opportunity to form opinions regarding how I was not ‘good enough’ to be married or have children. One of my first ‘entrances into the gym’, I did not make it to the baby shower. I did drive myself to the parking lot of the church in which it was being held rather than staying hid away in my home. While it was great that I pushed myself to be aware of the shameful emotions by getting that far, I was further enveloped in shame that all I could get myself to do was a drive thru. It was a great relief for me to get back to my home where I initially sunk myself into a movie so as to avoid the feeling. Eventually I tiptoed into the feeling, bringing Jesus with me, processing where it was coming from and offering compassion to myself for all that had led to my deep sense of inferiority. To one of my later encounters of such an invitation, I rsvp’d with a phone call letting the hostess know that I had some other things happening. I would pop in to express my love and congratulations and drop off a gift, but would not be staying. I used my creativity to ‘increase the weight’ without putting myself into a situation that would emotionally sink me.
Let me use these encounters to usher you into my emotional gym experiences with complex emotions (when we have a combination of more than one emotion at a time) with most of the focus here on sadness. I will give you some background first. It was not emotionally safe for me to have or to share my sadness (or any emotion) as a child growing up in a boarding school. The first night there set the stage. As a 5 year old, taken from my parents and all that was familiar to me, I understandably felt immense loss and sadness, along with other emotions. When the darkness of ‘lights out’ came, so did the tears. But the dorm parent heard my cries, turned on the light and called me out. Proceeding the spanking, I was told that I was not to cry! I was bothering the other girls in my room. And “God has said that we are to rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I say rejoice! God said it two times! He really means it!” I was to be glad that I could be at the boarding school, freeing my parents to tell the Nigerians about Jesus! My survival instincts learned quickly to not share my grief, my tears or any upsetting emotions. I was to be a ‘happy and strong’ girl if I were to survive.
This made it hard for me to share my insecurities, view of myself, and my emotional gym experiences! The person I chose as my ‘gym buddy’ did not know the role she had been assigned. That was too vulnerable and scary for me. But I knew who I experienced as the safest person in my life at the time, the person whom I would share increasingly my emotional experiences. I will call her Wendy. Growing up, I only shared a persona of ‘happy’. I now started to mention in passing that I felt sad about different situations, without going into them. I skillfully shifted the focus on to other topics. But I had done the first ‘5 lb. weight’ of acknowledging out loud that there was such an emotion of sadness within me. And over time, I increasingly stayed with the emotion a little bit more in order to experience that I was still ok rather than engulfed with sadness or being shamed for having such emotion.
Let’s move on to the emotion of disgust, again with a little personal background. In Nigeria where I lived before heading to boarding school, there were those who struggled living with the disease of leprosy. Leprosy kills nerves, keeping people from knowing if their limbs are being destroyed. Not knowing your foot is being chewed on by a rat or hand is burned in a fire. It is not a pretty outcome! It was too much for a child my age to encounter! There were many encounters that engaged the emotion of disgust, from which I wanted to get away from.
Years later I was aware of how difficult it was for me to visit my father in the hospital shortly before he died due to his appearing emaciated. It reminded me of people in Nigeria who were survivors (barely) of the Biafrin war. Sadly, this inability to encounter and regulate the emotion of disgust kept me from joining my dad much during his final hours on this side of the transition door. I encountered this dilemma again years later with a wonderful client of mine. Her daughter had cerebral palsy and other serious health concerns. She was declining and I wanted to go spend time with her. But my internal reaction was to recoil from the physical manifestations that were not ‘pretty’.
I am certain it was God who brought a creative idea in how I could go to the emotional gym to pick up weights of disgust. I recognized that whenever a commercial came on depicting a starving child or dog in need of care, my nervous system had the same reaction. I would change channels or leave the room! So instead of withdrawing, I began to stay present with the commercial for 10 – 15 seconds. And then for 20. And then through the entire commercial. Breathing deeply, recognizing how horrid the physical situation truly was, engaging my compassion for the child or pup. Thus, growing my capacity to stay present and connected relationally. It was a great day to take this increased capacity with me as I joined mother and daughter on several occasions before the suffering child went on to freedom from her physical suffering!
Being with this dear child brought me clearly into awareness of how powerless I was to do anything to ‘fix’ her. Her health situation was a God size problem and I was powerless to make it different. Typically in these type of situations, I would offer care or condolences briefly and then remove myself to a distance where I did not have to feel my powerlessness. In order to work on this emotional limitation, I began to intentionally take myself into brief conversations with people, asking them the condition of someone in their life who had health issues. I would choose to stay present, asking questions for a bit more time than I typically did. I was keeping my focus on staying compassionately connected with others, feeling the shared powerlessness we both felt. (As I have interacted with others who are intentionally ‘going to the gym’, I learned from some of them some other creative ideas of how to push into the emotion of powerlessness in ways that were stretching without being overwhelming. One lady purposefully chooses a checkout line behind someone who has more items in her basket than what appears to allow a quick check out time. She is at the mercy of how quickly the sales proceedings go. And while she is entrenched in a line she cannot control, she intentionally stays relationally engaged with those around her!
Another lady’s creative idea of experiencing powerlessness has been with squirrel watching! Yes, she does not like it when the squirrels get the bird’s feed! She typically would rush out the door to scare the bushy tails away. And how frustrating! This only solved the problem until she got back in her apartment! She had no actual power over the squirrels! So now, she would keep herself at the window for short snippets of time to watch the stealing of the food, while taking deep breaths. Experiencing that she could stay present with this emotion and still be ok.
As time goes on, it is delightful to see how each of these women are able to encounter greater levels of powerlessness while staying present with others in relational ways.) Being around stern dorm parents who kept children in line through punishment had me understandably afraid of people being impatient, frustrated, irritated and angry. I lived to keep people happy. I did not allow myself to feel any anger of my own and did what I could to keep others from being angry. For me, going towards ‘picking up’ anger weights included allowing the emotion of anger to come into my limited comfort zone. I began creating situations where it was likely that the other person would be disappointed and frustrated. I began saying no to requests that the importance for me to engage was not very high. I chose to say no to those whom I recognized as ‘safe’ people. I said no to people who I recognized were not going to be seriously impacted with my lack of involvement. I opened the door, allowing others to have emotions. And I experienced that I survived along with my relationships staying intact. From there I increased the level of ‘anger’ by stepping into interactions in which conflict could happen. Again, I started with little comments like, “I’d prefer we not go to your favorite place of eating again.” “I find myself thinking about what you said and it bothers me.” And slowly my nervous system is expanding into being able to breathe deeply, enter non-defensively into hard conversations and pursue mutually respectful and caring relationships.
You likely noticed the emotion of fear was pervasive through each of my stories above. I certainly lived in fear of having any emotion. By pushing myself to feel any emotion, I was also stretching myself with my emotional fear muscles. But let me give a further glimpse into how I had to start small with this emotion. My experiences at boarding school taught me that it was safer to go unnoticed. Fly under the radar. Do not be seen or noticed or heard. Keep my opinions and thoughts hidden. I much preferred to be a ‘wall flower’ in the back ground rather than out in front gaining attention. This played out when I would be in a meeting, being asked to participate. I usually stayed on the fringe, offering as little as possible to get by. In order to ‘pick up weights’ that held the fear of being known, I first began my showing up to meetings a few minutes early rather than responsibly on time. This resulted in the requirement of being a little more social. I gradually increased taking risks by offering some thoughts and ideas to conversations. The pit of anxiety and knots in my gut were quite heavy at times. And I had to be willing to increase my heart rate!
It amazes me what these ‘little’ steps have developed into. I am now at a place that I am capable to get before groups and teach the wonderful things that God has allowed me to learn. And even enjoy it! I am able to step into vulnerability, sharing my “shame” more openly.
We often do not recognize the need of some people to have help growing their capacity to endure and enjoy ‘positive’ emotions. (In actuality, all emotions are positive, although many are more obviously painful and considered negative. All emotions give us insight into what our values are and can give direction as to how to proceed in life.)
For some, having hope is threatening. They have experienced a life of ‘hope deferred, making their hearts sick.’ Their nervous systems recoil from entering into hope out of a desperate attempt to keep from further experiences of having their hopes dashed or being ‘left out to dry alone.’ In an attempt to increase one’s ability to hope, one might slowly enter into the experience by intentionally hoping for small things. Hoping for rain during the night. Hoping the restaurant serves salmon. Hoping to get a certain type of plant in a garden center.
A close cousin to the experience of hope is having the ability to trust. If one’s early child caregivers, whom one should be able to trust, are the ones who brought the danger, trauma and lack of care- then the ‘truster’ is broken. The nervous system might respond with a reaction of recoil when people are brought into close proximity. People are experienced as a threat and a stance of being overly independent and guarded develops. In order to address this emotional challenge, it is important to take on ‘mini weights’, considering something that would result in minimal emotional damage if the person proves to be unworthy of that trust. Maybe asking a clerk at the grocery store to help get heavy items into their car. Or choosing to risk a friendly interaction with a neighbor. Or receiving help or a gift.
Joy is another emotional challenge for some people. People who have ‘broken trusters’ will not have confidence that others will truly be glad to have them around. They have a sense that they will be thought of more as a bother or imposition or flawed. To pursue others seems like setting themselves up for rejection. To take themselves into social engagements feels threatening. Again, it will feel like a weight that could demolish the soul to take themselves into relationship. For these people, it may be necessary to start with a commitment to nurture a garden. To pursue a connection initially with a pet. Or offer a flower to a child. Visiting the elderly in a care center can provide another opportunity where the person will most likely be welcomed with gratitude and smiles.
Trust and hope are also challenges for some. If in the early developmental time frame a child did not have their needs met in a timely manner, the infant develops the neurological belief that what they need and desire will not be in their for seeable future. Hope deferred makes the heart sick. Getting ones’ hopes up is setting ones self up for disappointment. This understandably ties in with one’s ability to settle into trusting people, including God. Pursuing small hopes and asking something of someone for something relatively unimportant could be a way of lifting a small weight of hope and trust.
As a result of my going to the emotional gym over the years, my relationships have grown and deepened. Life is more full and rich and worth living.
Please take my invitation to go to the emotional gym. Start small and grow into living big! Tell someone in a parking lot you like their smile or how they look in their shirt. Be a minor imposition by asking for a glass of water. Allow yourself to feel disappointment by allowing someone else to have the last piece of cake. Feel the guilt of moving the cat off your lap. Invite a friend to a movie.
Stay aware of low level emotions in your day. Feel the emotion, take a deep breath and recognize you are still OK. Gradually increase your window of tolerance.
You get the idea. Start by pushing yourself into a manageable amount of emotion….and gain an ever increasing lease on life and living!