This might sound crazy but I only recently discovered, as a forty-something woman, that it’s better to recognize, pay attention to, and acknowledge the feelings within you, rather than hide from them or try to outrun them. I probably already knew this in theory, but I certainly didn’t know this in practice.
It’s funny to me, because I’m a mom, and always naming feelings for my kids so they can have a feeling vocabulary. It’s funny, because I studied psychology in university, then art therapy, where I learned to understand the power and necessity of emotion-speak for personal betterment. I fully believed this for other people. I just didn’t apply it to myself.
I first came across this idea as a developed concept while reading a book by David R. Hawkins. Paraphrasing, Hawkins says that when something bubbles up to the surface, look at it rather than push it back down, ask it questions, be inquisitive about it–stick with it, until it dissolves on its own. Ever since learning this concept or technique, it is suddenly everywhere I look. I started seeing it written out while scrolling inspirational messages on Instagram. In a podcast interview between Elizabeth Gilbert and Brené Brown (recorded in 2015 but only listened to for the first time last week), Brown quoted, “Hold your shadow in front of you. It can only take you down from behind.” I later heard author and life coach Martha Beck doing a podcast on the same topic. She linked it back to the Buddha and ancient Chinese teachings. And I could be wrong, but if it’s ancient, it must be worth paying attention to.
So I have experimented, and I have tried (and am trying) to apply this technique in my own life. To illustrate, here’s an example.
As a writer and generally artsy character, one of my biggest weaknesses is the vulnerability I feel when I put myself and my work out there in the world. It’s easy for my confidence to falter when my work is made public. I had one of these moments recently, one of these I-don’t-know-what-I’m-doing-and-I-totally-suck moments. Normally, I feel a well of dark emotion open up within me, and then I get stubborn, then force myself to think positively, and finally I push the negative feelings away. This is what we’re supposed to do, right? Except, this tactic hasn’t been working for me. I don’t know if it ever works for anyone.
Stubbornness can take us places, but not in a fight against ourselves. False positivity can take us places, but not when it stops us from recognizing truth. Pushing away negative self talk can be a good thing, but only once you’ve dealt with the underlying thoughts causing it to begin with. See what I mean? Any mechanism I use to get me through is only a short-term fix to a long-term problem. Unless, that is, I make the choice to go down the rabbit hole and shake hands with whatever is down there waiting for me.
For this particular vulnerability of mine, what was down there waiting for me was the feeling that I have to prove myself. Once I saw that, and I mean really saw it, it was easier to also see the futility in it; the ridiculousness of it. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone, least of all myself. My only responsibility to myself is to keep making art, if art is what inspires me.
I don’t write this as someone who has cured myself, but as someone who has, at least, found a really powerful tonic.
Back when I was an art therapy student in university, I had an idea for a picture book to assist me when working with kids. It used colours to help talk about feelings, a way of easily labeling whatever was bubbling up inside. I wrote a story called Wonderful, Colourful, Magnificent, about a little girl whose confidence over a painting she made was wavering when faced with the opinions of others (I don’t know where I got this idea, it just came to me…entirely random…). I never did anything with that story, though. At least, until now. Almost twenty years later, learning all this stuff I’m learning from really smart people, it hit me that it was finally time to turn this story into reality. I figured, the sooner in life we learn to acknowledge the existence of our feelings, and in the moment we have them, the sooner we can legitimately release the bad ones–no pushing, no running, no forcing involved. This is my small way of giving back to the lesson at hand.
In her book Atlas of the Heart, Brené Brown writes, “When we name an emotion or experience, it doesn’t give that emotion or experience more power, it gives us more power.” Using my example above, by choosing to look the need-to-prove-something feeling in the eye (rather than close my eyes, stick my fingers in my ears and sing lalalalalalalalala), it then decided to put on it’s cap, grab it’s walking stick and calmly stroll away. It was waiting for me to do that all along. Lord knows, so was I.