Hello Kitty always helps answer the big questions – kind of amazing for a cat that doesn’t even have a mouth.
“Mom, are robbers tiny or big?” The other day I found 4-year-old Jelly Bean rolling around on her floor, looking at her fingers and and pondering that existential question. “Where does jail live?” she continued, when I asked her what she was doing.
“Well there’s a jail in every town, I suppose,” I answered her. “Why are you asking about robbers and jail?”
“My brother told me robbers are bad guys and they go to jail.”
“That’s true, usually,” I said, still not sure where this was going. Kids ask the strangest stuff. “Are you worried about robbers?”
“Yes,” she said with a little shiver. “I scared of robbers.” But before I could reassure her she added, “Are they sad?”
“Some of them, probably,” I answered.
“Is sad a bad word?” She twirled her fingers.
“No honey, sad is not bad. It’s okay to feel sad.” My heart jumped a little at the question.
“Why sadness?” Again. Kids. Questions. Oy.
“It’s just part of living I guess. We can’t be happy unless we know what it’s like to feel sad too.” Yeah I was answering her but really by that point I was just talking to me. And feeling very uncomfortable. Because I don’t like to feel sad (but then no one does, right?) but also because just sitting there talking about sad made me feel anxious. I squirmed.
“Okay,” she answered finally. Then she looked up at me plaintively, “Mom?”
“Can I watch you poop?” Aaaaand we’re back to normal!
I always enjoy reading your comments – you guys often make me think, cry and laugh so hard my cat thinks I’m having a seizure and gets that adorable worried look on her furry face (which makes me laugh harder because she has a white curly “mustache” that makes it very hard to take her seriously). But every once in a while one of you says the exact thing I need to hear – as was the case with “Gydle (aka Mary)”‘s comment on my post about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death helping me recognize my own addictive personality. She wrote:
It is so terribly hard to experience pain or anxiety and choose not do anything to numb it. Not reach for the jellybeans and the ice cream, not pick at your skin, not go for a run, not take that drink or light up that crack pipe. The really amazing thing to discover when you just sit with those feelings is that they won’t kill you, even though it feels like they will when you start.
I’m still struggling with this. I think we have been lulled into believing that we can have everything just the way we want it – the light without the dark, the peak without the trough – so when the dark comes or we hit the bottom of a wave, we think there’s something wrong with us and we look for a quick fix. Fighting that urge to find the fix, and instead just sitting with the dark and accepting that it’s also a part of me – that’s the challenge. Let me know if you have any tips or secrets that would make it easier… [emphasis mine]
My sister is always telling me I need to just “feel all the feelings” and I’ll admit that I’ve found that to be dubious advice. I hatehatehate feeling all the feelings. Mostly, I think, because I’m so sensitive (or neurotic or whatev) that even moderately uncomfortable feelings feel overwhelming to me. And if they’re more than moderately uncomfortable? Well I do feel like they will kill me. There was a point in my life where I would get so overwhelmed by (legitimately) upsetting feelings that I would – and I’m kind of embarrassed to admit this – would shake, vomit and cry hysterically to the point where someone would have to take me to the ER where they’d inject me with powerful tranquilizers.
True story: The only way I could deal with my difficult feelings was to be knocked unconscious.
Thankfully I’ve come a loooong way since then. Learning to breathe in yoga helped me a ton. (Who knew you could be a grown adult and not know how to breathe?! But it’s true, I’d start my panic attacks by hyperventilating until I’d see stars. I grew to recognize when a panic attack was coming because my nose and finger tips would get tingly, indicating I was breathing very quickly and shallowly. Yoga fixed that.) Writing gave me a powerful outlet for those feelings (and a way to commiserate with other people who felt the same ones!). Anti-depressants help take the sharp edges off my life. Talk therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) were instrumental in helping me learn to talk about and reframe my feelings.
But I still don’t like feeling all the feelings. I still work really, really hard to avoid even the slightest discomfort. And, as we’ve all seen on here, I can only avoid it so long before I go all Mount Vesuvius. And I don’t think it’s just me. I feel like our society encourages this kind of avoidance, offering a never-ending array of diversions, games, indulgences, sports and other distractions. We’ve basically made avoiding all the feelings into a high art.
So I’ve been thinking about Mary’s words all weekend and have become hyperaware of all the little things I routinely do to avoid feeling things I don’t want to feel:
– Watching brainless TV. I’ll binge-watch dumb reality TV or old crime series on Netflix not because I’m interested in the program but rather because I can sit there and not think. Plus if the crime story is engrossing enough I can feel other people’s feelings instead of my own which sounds totally creepy and yet I’d rather sympathize with a murder victim than deal with my anxiety about how I’m doing at my job. This is opposed to watching something like a really good documentary or the Olympics or other things I’m generally interested in and feel engaged with.
– Endless word games. Sometimes it’s Candy Crush on my phone but not gonna lie, that game gives me mad sugar cravings. Seriously, those little candies look just like jelly beans, right?? Usually I do crossword puzzles or play Ruzzle (an electronic version of Boggle) or other word games.
– Cleaning my kitchen. I love cleaning kitchens. I love laundry. Bathrooms are my Everest, sigh. (Which you would hate cleaning them too if you had 3 young boys who can hit a tree branch from 10 feet outside but can’t hit a toilet bowl to save their lives.) This one at least gets something do – clean kitchen, yay! – but when I’m using it to put off dealing with other things…. you quickly realize that individually removing and scrubbing all the heat registers is nice but you still have that deadline looming and now it’s even closer.
– Reading short articles on the Internet. The web is a wonderful, crazy, inconsistent source of information and anyone who’s ever fallen down the Wiki “random entry” hole will know exactly how I can get sucked in. Of course, I’m not researching anything I need for my work! Nope, I’m just reading random interesting things that will be useful for pretty much nothing in real life. But I’m never at a loss for dinner party convo?
– Listening to NPR. I have talk radio on almost constantly. Partly because as an HSP (highly sensitive person), small noises (or big noises like my kids screaming) drive me bananas so having something soothing to focus my flightly brain on helps me calm down.
– Crocheting/sewing/playing the piano. These are good in that they keep my hands busy but still let my brain work through stuff – and I’ve had some of my best ideas come to me doing one of these things. But. When I’m using them to procrastinate or avoid feeling something, they’re as dysfunctional as the rest.
– Exercise. Thankfully I don’t use this one to excess anymore but I still love to “run away” from my problems!
– Reading. True story: I’ve read the back of my shampoo bottle at least a hundred times in the shower. Magazines, books, newspapers, mail, door hangers, care tags on clothing – anything with print, I will read. Especially when I’m trying to avoid my own thoughts.
– Spacing out. Me. Spacey. So so much.
– Shutting down. Eventually I reach a point where I will literally stop talking to people, answering e-mail or picking up my phone. Even mundane interactions feel like too much. Which is silly because often those things are the ones that would help me the most with my feelings!
So what do all these have in common? Like Mary pointed out, I immediately see uncomfortable feelings as “bad” and I try to “fix” them with various things. These activities keep my brain just active enough to be distracted but not engaged enough to really deal with stuff. True, at least I’m not doing drugs or drinking or putting up Justin Beiber fan sites – and ostensibly these are all pretty healthy activities (with the exception of reality TV, hush) – but anything taken to excess is harmful. And I definitely do these things too much when I’m avoiding myself. Like, I really really do. Because I’ll do anything to avoid, like Mary advised, ” just sitting with the dark and accepting that it’s also a part of me.”
I’m so bad at that! And Mary asked for advice. I only have one tip, I’m afraid. Just sitting. This is why meditation is so so hard for me. I want to crawl out of my own skin. Yet this is why meditation is so so important for me. I can’t make myself do it every day but when I do work on training my brain to just be I do feel a difference. It’s definitely a learned skill. That’s all I’ve got though!
Do any of you have suggestions for Mary and I about learning how to just feel all the feelings? What do you do to distract yourself or numb yourself out? I’d love any suggestions you have!!
P.S. I owe you guys a HUGE apology for that awful foot picture on my sugar post. I haven’t got as many e-mails about a gross pic since I posted that one of the guy with all the boogers! Anyhow, I’ll definitely put a warning next time or – better yet – steer clear of the real gross-out pics! Sorry!!
P.P.S. Don’t forget, you can still enter my $1000 Target Cartwheel giveaway! Just tell me about how you save money on healthy stuff!