I hope from my blog last month you got some helpful information. Now I’d like to offer a reflection on reality, to bring it home a little bit.
Last month: a concise, if not still daunting summary of our nervous system and how it takes in information from our environment and either gets (or keeps) moving in a more stress-primed direction or, hopefully, with attention, starts moving more in the direction of ease and contentment. Also, mindfulness is awesome and can be a resource for our well-being….
This month: a reminder of why practice is important for making this work, not just knowing about it, and a humbling example of what I said before about the challenge of change. Shifting habit patterns is not just about coming up with a great new way to do stuff. We can have great intentions and really helpful information, and it’s important to remember that making a change in our lives requires patience and firm yet gentle discipline, the type of discipline that knows and reminds us that we are worthy, just the way we are, and it holds us accountable while bringing us back in line with our intention for change.
Here’s the situation: My friend needed a kitty sitter and offered to bring them to my house for the weekend. I love cats, and I thought it was a brilliant idea. I had met them before and found them friendly and engaging and wonderfully and appropriately curious.
It was clear within the first ten minutes of their arrival that this was not going to be the cute and cuddly snuggle-fest I had envisioned. My house, and very soon my sanity, was under attack. I had closed off as many rooms as I could, had relocated multiple plants, removed many objects from shelves and counters, convinced myself that the removal of their front claws meant my curtains, couches and yes, my walls! were safe. It was not realistic for me to completely cat-proof my house, nor did I want to, but even with my considerable modifications they proceeded to find something to mess with, chew on or otherwise threaten for the reminder of the night. My attempts at redirection provided a temporary distraction from the current object of fixation and therefore a moment of relief for myself, but within moments they had moved on to threaten some other area of my home.
By now, I imagine you get a general idea of the context of this situation, however the degree of emotional intensity, I assure you has not yet been felt, and I do not wish to bring it about for you. Suffice it to say, I was loud, angry, and nearly out of my mind.
I turned my attention toward myself. I got curious about my thoughts and underlying beliefs. I didn’t have to look far before I recognized –fear. I was afraid for my stuff; afraid they were going to destroy my house. Nothing felt safe, no area unreachable or off limits to their curious minds and ability to jump, and they didn’t care how it affected me. I was afraid for them. The deadly plants had been put away at least, but if they ate certain other plants they could still get sick. If they fell off the half-wall by the stairs they could break a bone or kill themselves… The other piece to the fear-thing though was realizing that I had been attempting to use it to motivate behavior change. If I could yell loud enough, then they would not only get off the counter or out of the plant pot but they would decide it was a bad idea altogether and wouldn’t do it again. Really?! They just looked at me. Not only were they completely not persuaded to not do it again, it had no effect on the current behavior. It was not lost on me in the midst of the chaos and my emotional instability the apparent similarities between curious kittens and regular toddlers. It was also not lost on me that the content I had been so diligently working on for a parent workshop, specifically managing intense emotions with validation, compassion, and connection and employing self-care, was not being utilized at all! It’s a great idea, and yes, it’s going to help you and your children. It takes more than just understanding it though; it takes practice and a degree of regulation. Regulation, very simply, is an ability to notice one’s self in a situation, take a few intentional breaths, move his or her body and relieve the agitation in his or her nervous system. Regulation brings a person back to center and helps keep them connected: to the experience, to themselves, and to the other people (or cats) involved in the situation. I had all the information, but it was clear my emotions were in charge. The only thing that was happening was I was getting more and more worked up. Words got louder. Words got meaner. I was losing ground.
At no point was I able to step out of this experience far enough to see the humor, but at some point my wisdom and compassion did break through. I could see how much I was suffering through this, and I got curious about how my aggression was affecting their well-being. I decided I was going to meditate while this was going on, use it for practice. I sat down, set my timer and began watching my breath. I had the intention of “noticing the energy,” (as an alternative to reacting), like so many teachers suggest when dealing with intense emotions. Well, it wasn’t working. I was off the cushion and yelling before the slightest sound from their behavior had registered in my brain.
Pema Chodron says there are 3 times during a situation when we can work with our habitual tendencies:
1. After we have done whatever the thing is we usually do
2. When we notice that we’re about to do the thing, we pause, notice our body sensations, thoughts, feelings, etc and then we still do the thing we usually do
3. When we feel the underlying energy of the emotion, we notice it and chose to sit with it instead of reacting, essentially cutting through our tendency to do the thing we usually do.
Well, I was at #1. I’d fly up from my seat, yelling and pointing my finger at them and then stop and feel my body, revitalize my intention to stay with the energy and return to my cushion. Then they’d get into something again and away I’d go. After several of these rounds, I noticed I was more able to stay with the energy, for a few moments, then I’d hear them rustle something, and up and off I’d go.
Pema Chodron says, “It isn’t what happens to us that makes us happy or unhappy; it is how the mind is set.” This is about my perception of things. My sanity was not actually under attack, say, from some outside source, but I was beyond my comfort zone, beyond my threshold for staying grounded and regulated. This threshold is often referred to as one’s Window of Tolerance, and I was clearly outside of my own. The trouble is that when we end up here, changing our perceptions requires…well, a part of our brain that, for most of us, isn’t accessible right now. Like I mentioned, my emotions were in charge.
When we perceive a threat in our environment, (think back to the last blog and remember that our nervous system, our biology is what helps us manage these things) we get revved up (with the help of our Sympathetic Nervous System) to tackle the situation or flee it, or if it’s too much for us, we shut down (with the help of our Parasympathetic Nervous System) and “play dead,” in a way, by getting spacey or checked out or super sleepy. Another thing that happens when our situation feels overwhelming is that we “flip our lid,” as Daniel Siegel says. This is when the higher-order functioning of the brain is longer online. This is the part that would help us change our perceptions and allow us to notice that we’re about to do the thing we usual do. For the time being, we do not have access to our Prefrontal Cortex, the part of our brain that helps us consider the consequences and see the bigger picture. Instead, we are operating from the instinctual and emotional parts of our brain. The Prefrontal Cortex is what monitors the actions of these other parts of the brain, ultimately helping us calm the strong impulses, reactions and emotions that originate there, and right now it is disengaged.
My mentor likes to remind us that being regulated doesn’t mean being calm. I’m going to say that again. Being regulated doesn’t mean that we are calm. We can be angry, excited, overwhelmed, scared or sad and still be regulated. The difference between being regulated or not is our awareness. Are we aware of our body and how it feels in this state? Are we aware of the thoughts and beliefs that are going on in our mind about ourselves or the other person? Are we aware of ourselves in the room? Or our feet on the floor? Or our hands in fists? It is through this awareness that we can stay connected with ourselves, help keep our cortex engaged and respond to life from a more regulated state of being.
Even after I’ve made some strides and can start seeing different responses to certain situations or feeling a little more room in myself for my emotions and experiences, I have little reminders or these big ones, that I am still in the process. It’s tough because I notice myself wondering if anything is really happening in my effort for a healthier relationship with my emotions, or if the expression of my emotions has gotten any less hurtful, to others or myself. I get frustrated, and I find that it’s often easier to shame myself and “should” myself than believe I am making any headway. I let myself believe my thoughts that somehow this should be easier than it is or I should have already gotten it by now. John Welwood says,
Emotions are our most common experience of being moved by forces seemingly beyond our control. As such, they are among the most confusing and frightening phenomena of everyday life. People often treat them as a nuisance or a threat…If we could let ourselves feel just what we feel, instead of reacting against it, condemning it, or trying to manipulate and suppress it, perhaps we would develop greater confidence about facing whatever life confronts us with.
This is definitely a process, not something that we learn about and just do. Yes, the instructions can seem simple. It’s mostly just about noticing our experience, about feeling “just what we feel,” but it’s not easy. Sometimes, a lot of times actually, my emotions do feel like the “most frightening phenomenon of everyday life,” yet I am noticing that there are also times when I can take that breath and feel my heart open up and hold it.
By pausing in the midst of something stressful and checking in with our body sensations, we can help to bring our cortex back on line, start (or keep) moving our nervous system back in the direction of contentment and ease and perhaps, as Welwood suggests, cultivate greater confidence for whatever we experience. Offering validation, compassion and connection to our children, when we are hoping to support them in a space of emotional upset is key to strengthening intimacy in our relationships with them; being able to pause, notice our own sensations, thoughts and beliefs is key to being able to stay regulated enough to offer this validation and connection to our kids. Whether we are parents or not though, managing emotions is one of the most important endeavors of our life (and in many arenas, one of the least discussed topics, unfortunately). Managing our emotions supports our relationship with ourselves, our partner(s), our friends and family and those in our work experiences. As well, the process of managing our emotions helps us better understand our needs and triggers, and it reduces our overall stress through attending to these aspects of our lives and strengthening the supportive aspects our nervous system.
When we get stressed, we often lose access to the part of our brain that helps us think through things, challenge or change our perceptions, moderate our impulses, and maintain our awareness, so noticing these aspects of our experience (like our body sensations and thoughts), when life isn’t totally out of hand, strengthens the habit, and ultimately makes it easier when life does get overwhelming. Also, an important part of the support here is the cumulative effect on the general state of our nervous system. This kind of internal awareness helps to cool the fires overall and reduce our reactivity. And I’m realizing another really important part of this experience is the teaching on patience and self-compassion. I am often really hard on myself, so understanding this in the big picture is helpful and recognizing that my practice of learning how to manage these strong emotions also includes learning how to love myself when I don’t get it right. What an amazing, enriching, uncomfortable, inspiring, overwhelming, and totally normal experience of being alive! May we all have the blessings we need for our journey!