A couple of weeks ago, prior to being plunged back into the fog of another lockdown, I spent the day down at my sisters with her husband and my two little nephews to reconnect with the more wholesome aspects of life outside of the frenetic central London humdrum which invades the majority of my days (despite not having a job…)). Anyway, once Finding Nemo had finished up (which, I might add, was marginally traumatic to watch as an adult) & the Autumn light had started to fade, I kissed my nephews on the head, said my goodbyes to my sister & brother in law and hopped on my bike back into town.
As I pedalled along the Thames, my phone started ringing; I pulled up on the curb and saw it was my sister calling: ‘Hey Robyn, classic, what did I leave behind?’ No answer. All I could hear were the muffled sobs of my oldest nephew, Hugo. ‘Rob, is everything ok?’. The sobbing continued. Activates video call. As the pixelated video came into clarity, I saw Hugo sobbing into my sister’s shoulder as she rubbed his back trying to comfort him. Despite being entirely aloof when I left, he had subsequently realised he needed to ask me something so ran down the road after me shouting my name but I didn’t hear him as I pedalled away, my mind far too occupied with more pressing questions of what was for dinner.
We tried, with little success, to figure out what it was he wanted so I promised him I’d call him as soon as I got home. It turned out that he had wanted to ask me if he could come to visit where I lived (I live near Paddington station which has an added allure to kids after the Paddington film was released) but I had cycled off without giving him a chance to ask, which, completely understandably, left him feeling pretty sad/angry/ignored. When I called back, he was merrily painting his bedroom with my sister, no grudge held, no lingering sadness, just a present little 3 year old painting his room with the kind of joy that makes your heart swell.
When is it in life that we transform from these little beings so deeply connected to feelings, with little to no fear of expressing ourselves, to a community of ‘got all our shit together, nothing phases us’ humans who struggle to shed a tear when Mufasa dies in the Lion King? (I jest, I mean…obviously). I was listening to the Brene Brown podcast the other day when I came across a beautiful quote on this from Emily Nagoski: ‘Emotions are tunnels. If you go all the way through them, you get to the light at the end. Exhaustion happens when we get stuck in an emotion and can’t move through it’. Children instinctively know this: they head fearlessly, just as my nephew did, through the tunnels of the human emotional experience & come bounding out the other side as little rays of sunshine.
Adults, on the other hand, typically take a couple of steps into the tunnel and then sniff that familiar scent of discomfort & realise that we’ve been here before and it was dark and scary and didn’t feel very nice so instead of boldly marching through in the knowledge that there is light at the end of it, we scuttle back out the way we came in and have a glass of wine or some chocolate instead. Ahhhh…much better, avoided that trap of misery, well done me.
I spent much of my 20s in this cycle, using Barry’s Bootcamp & Peanut butter to ‘take the edge off’. It was only when I started to do more work on myself that I realised that so often I was hiding from expressing things fully because it felt too painful to go there (& I was embarrassed for feeling so much). I had thought that I was just so in control of myself and of life that emotions didn’t really impact me in the same was as they did other people. Of course, in reality, it was just much easier to ignore their existence by numbing them with peanut butter to avoid the momentary pain of diving into whatever experience of hurt, grief, shame, loss, fear was coming up for me than it was to face them head on & have the courage to give those emotions space to be fully understood & expressed.
What I didn’t realise was that by numbing what was going on, all I was doing was squashing those emotional experiences into a smaller little box which, as I squashed more and more into, started to buckle under the pressure. Some nights, just as I was about to drop off to sleep, I’d have a momentary injection of anxiety (hello suppressed fear) & its associated raging heart beat about where I was going with my life. Other times I’d be sitting at dinner with friends, merrily laughing away as we finished off a bottle of red whilst simultaneously feeling a little bit empty inside (hello suppressed loneliness) which, despite the copious dessert, wouldn’t disappear. You see, squashed emotions don’t disappear. They just manifest later down the line as other unpleasant things.
Children, before learning how to ‘manage’ their emotional experience, very visibly show how intense the human emotional experience actually is, they swing from elation to rage in seconds and then come out the other side with a giggle and a little trot over to the next activity for the day before repeating the cycle. As we mature, we learn that expressing some of these emotions (such as anger) doesn’t seem to go down well with adults so we pick up coping mechanisms to deal with them instead (enter peanut butter).
Our work, as self-developing, growth minded adults, is to notice these coping mechanisms & see if instead of indulging in them we can tiptoe into the tunnel of feeling in an effort to recognise it, name it & work through it, rather than dismissing its presence all together in the vague hope that in doing so it might disappear. By denying our emotional experience, all we are doing is denying the beautiful lightness that comes with allowing ourselves to walk fully through the tunnel to the other side.
I’m not suggesting that we shift out of our habitual ways of responding to the daily ‘how are you’s’ to chronically oversharing but don’t you think that sometimes ‘fine’ is just a bit of a useless response? How can ‘fine’ really even begin to explain all of the complexities of our daily existence & experience when we’re being bombarded everyday by a million different stressors whilst simultaneously holding down jobs, being good siblings/parents/aunts/friends and trying to #liveourbestlives? I will grant you the ‘fine’ response in general day to day chit chat with people who don’t mean a lot to you but maybe with people close to you, or even just starting with yourself, you try to delve a little deeper and give a more honest response of the totality of you & your experience. In doing this, bit by bit, you’ll start to build intimacy with your emotional experience & build confidence in allowing all of those feelings to flow right through you so you make it out through the tunnel into the bright light the other side.
To get you started, here are a couple of things that helped me when I started trying to figure this stuff out, try it out the next time you feel a strong emotion come up for you:
Good luck with it, & remember — there is light at the end of that tunnel, you just need to find the courage to walk a couple more steps in & you’ll find the airport style conveyer belt zooming you off into the sunshine. Let me know how you get on.
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It was a Thursday back in February 2018. The rain hadn’t stopped for months and London was right in the depths of what felt like the longest winter we’d ever had. The dark, damp days had started to getting to me so I’d taken refuge in a hot yoga class to warm up. The scent of palo santo blended with the sweat of 50 people pervaded the room. It was bonus day at work. They’d told us it had been a bad year and not to expect much. I peaked into the envelope, hopeful, as soon as they slid it across the table: £130k. But there I lay, in savasana, with hot, salty tears streaming down my face: I’d never felt emptier.
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