Recently my son was having an episode of seasonal allergy. His sinuses were stuffed up and while his discomfort wasn’t terrible, it was bothering him enough that he had a hard time falling asleep. I offered to stay with him but he wanted his mother. So she went and stayed with him.
But that’s when I noticed that I wasn’t feeling good about the situation. I offered my assistance, my son preferred his mother. My wife values her sleep but she willingly agreed to take care of him. She did not make any gestures or comments to suggest that I wasn’t trying hard enough or anything.
Then why did I feel bad about this?
So I sat in my private space, took deep breaths and tried to feel out my body. Soon I noticed an odd sensation deep in my abdomen. It felt as if I had a metal bar buried in there, harsh, cold and heavy. For a while I couldn’t tell what feeling it was. Guilt? Anger?
In my experience it’s not uncommon to feel something without knowing what it is. Sometimes it just feels “bad” but the sensation is dull and undefined. Other times I think I’m experiencing this or that feeling, only to find that actually it’s a mask for a deeper vulnerability.
At times like this I try giving it a voice to see what connects. It’s not necessary to label or even understand your feeling to really feel it, but when it’s stuck like this it’s useful to connect to it. Have you ever tried to console a child who’s trying not to cry even though s/he just got hurt? S/he manages to hold it until you gently tell her/him “oh that must hurt, it’s OK if you have to cry” and then the tears break out. It’s the same sort of thing.
Was I angry at my son for rejecting me? No. Was I feeling guilty for burdening my wife? No.
Then an image flashed in my mind. It was of my mother snidely commenting how useless I was.
Ouch! That really stung. Tears welled up.
I was feeling disappointed. Disappointed that despite my best effort I couldn’t make a difference. And of being seen, and judged, as useless. Except I was the only one who was doing the judging.
So I sat for a while fully feeling that sense of letdown. It was no longer buried, and it took over my body and overwhelmed me. But I willingly embraced it, knowing this was yet another opportunity to dig out my baggage and become freer.
Before I go on I need to clarify something. I consider my mother to be an excellent parent and she and I enjoy a very close relationship. I have no idea if she ever made such a comment. I am also a sensitive sort so I can take things more personally than it needs to be. The point is, I was not abused as a child, my mother was and is great. I don’t know where this disappointment originated. It does help to understand the origin but it’s not essential.
The point here is how I had an emotional baggage and that made my mind interpret a situation in a particular way. Looking back, this whole incident can be seen as a perfect moment for gratitude — grateful that she was available and willing, and that my son was in good hands. It may even be OK to feel grateful that I didn’t have to go sit with him.
But instead I was feeling disappointed and useless for not being the one to meet the need.
Whenever you have a so-called “negative” experience, it’s a good idea to separate the facts from stories you tell based on them. It’s easy to believe that your narrative is the only one there is, but if you stop to think you may see that you’re focusing on just some of, or some aspects of, them that fit your existing beliefs. If you have an underlying fear that your resources are scarce and limited, your eyes will gravitate toward the empty half when you see a glass half-full. It’s because your story is looking for a proof, and deep down your fear is looking for an opportunity to be fully felt. “There, the glass is half empty!” your mind will say, “I better start looking for ways to fill it back up because soon it will be all empty.” Left unresolved, such experiences will permeate and dominate your life, where the whole thing feels like one occasion after another of having to deal with your vulnerability. If you see recurring patterns in the kinds of troubles you keep running into, the chances are, this is what’s going on under the hood.
So how do you resolve the underlying conflict and break out of this pattern? Attempts to “think positively” or rewrite the mental habit will get you some relief, but such efforts will have a hard time sinking in all the way to the bottom, because the buried emotions are forming a blockage.
Instead, the approach to make a real progress is to work from the bottom up looks like this:
- Whenever you have “negative” experience, do your best to pay attention to the uncomfortable feeling fully, without distracting, numbing, or resisting. Think of it as giving yourself a permission to throw a full-on tantrum. If you keep thinking you shouldn’t have to feel this way, the pattern will not change.
- While you’re having your tantrum, it will tell you stories. Sometimes it’s about how you feel this way, other times it’s about how you need to “fix” or “get back at” the cause of your strain. You can listen to it, but don’t believe it. Do not make any decisions nor take any actions while feeling emotional. Know that if you’re fully experiencing your hard feelings, sooner or later the emotions will abate, and then your perspective will change. The stories your feelings tell you are at best grossly exaggerated and sometimes downright untrue — it’s always unreliable.
When you learn to correctly deal with the hard feelings as they come up, soon you’ll notice that things that used to bother you stop doing so. When you see a half-full glass, not only will you have the awareness that you used to focus on the empty side, but you now have the freedom to choose your story instead of being enslaved to the negative conclusions you used to jump to.
It’s neither quick or easy, this change. But learning about how our mind and emotions work from Michael Brown’s The Presence Process changed my world view. Over the course of a few months I’ve encountered and resolved (Brown uses the word “integrating”) numerous hidden scripts and emotions like the above. I’m still long way away from enlightenment but I can tell that I’m making great strides. Same ol’ patterns are dissolving, and hardships that come up instead reveal uncharted issues I wasn’t aware of before. Previously bothersome things bother me less, and even when I get emotional I don’t do or say things that I later regret. And instead of resenting and resisting troubles, I see them as opportunities, another chance to loosen my baggage and become freer.
So this was not an isolated incident, I have gone through dozens of opportunities like this. Digging out your buried emotions is a bit like peeling an onion — when you peel off one layer a new one emerges into your view. But I’ve been able to break out of many patterns and that gives me a sense of hope. I don’t know if there is such a thing as being “done” with my old baggage but progress and change help fuel my desire to keep going, keep evolving. I am not stuck any more, and that is a cause for rejoicing.
I hope my experience sheds light on how our inner baggage makes us see life events in more threatening ways than they need to be. Next time you find yourself feeling upset, stop and ask yourself if that’s truly the only way to see the situation. Don’t fight your stories, but don’t accept it, either. They are just your caged birds, asking you to open the hatch and let them out.