We see so much fear and anger playing out on the national scene this fall. It’s led to some pretty ugly diatribes. But how do we handle our exploding feelings when life clobbers us with a big one?
Receiving unexpected, bad news is like standing on a mountain and getting hit by a boulder – but the real avalanche comes from the feelings that follow.
The trick is: can we avoid hurting others when we’re going through tough stuff?
I got clobbered this weekend…and made it through…I think. So the following tips are distilled from what I learned.
This past weekend my husband, Steve, broke the news that would make any computer user quake: he’d lost all of his data. Without going into the gory details, he’d encountered a trifecta of calamity – a computer that wasn’t behaving and needed a new operating system, external hard drives that were supposed to be backing up all his data but weren’t, and unfortunate tech advice that didn’t triple check that Steve had all his data before wiping the system clean. The fine print was more complicated – but you understand the catastrophe. Of course, know-it-all me had been warning about the potential for this kind of calamity for years. (I learned the hard way: external hard drives fail!)
When he told me what happened, my inner dragon started snorting, ready to use its red hot tongue to lash out with “I told you so.” But the man standing before me knew all this, and was plenty remorseful himself. And shell-shocked.
So what to do with my internal Vesuvius? Here’s what I tried.
Step one: Stay in the body and breathe. I know this guidance sounds a little squishy and new age-y, but believe me, it’s hard! When my emotions started churning, being in my own body was the last place I wanted to be. I wanted to get rid of what I was feeling! Better to load my emotions into a cannon and blast them at someone. That would be a great catharsis. Until I surveyed the damage. Unpacking the cannon before it was lit, I tried to breathe – even if my deep breaths were a bit forced.
Step two: Keep mouth shut. Steve and I had the initial “what happened?” conversation, followed by commiseration and a little strategizing about what was to be done. But my dragon had a SPEECH it wanted to give – the one specially prepared with the special mix of toxic elements designed to sting the wounds of the person I love the most. (Variations on an “I-told-you-so,” or “how-could-you?” theme.)
A dragon can be very compelling. But don’t listen to him! Because there’s bad sh-t that happens, and then there’s very bad sh-t that happens as a result of how you deal with the bad sh-t. The first you can’t avoid. The second you can. Try your best.
Step three: Find the silver lining. Sounds trite but who cares. That first silver lining you come up with may not be real – but so what if it helps? (“The house burned down but at least I won’t have to deal with organizing my files.”) Brother David Steindl-Rast has spoken that even in the most dire circumstances we may find some small thing to be grateful for. The beautiful sunset. The fact that nobody died. Even a tiny slice of gratitude can help salve our wounded spirit.
Hint: don’t pontificate too much about your silver lining unless you’re auditioning for Pollyanna. Keep it too yourself. The truth is that things still hurt – and you may have a mess to deal with. The real silver lining may only reveal itself much further into the future. (“I lost the man of my dreams…and yet I discovered myself in ways….”)
Step four: Allow feelings to flow. Feelings will come in every hue. The good news is that if you allow feelings to keep moving (see below), your rage won’t last forever. It may be followed by numbness, fear, regret, shame and points of peace. Or you may be unexpectedly happy and have golden moments of calm before the rage starts again. Keep breathing.
I love the work of Anne Weiser Cornell and the simple gesture she makes of putting her hand on her body – where a hard feeling is lodged and saying hello to it, then following up with: “I’m sensing a part of me feels…(hurt/scared/anxious, etc…)” Check out her process – it really helps.
Step Five: Keep moving. Time does heal. And each hour that you move away from whatever disaster sparked your avalanche of feelings may help them to settle. Sleep is good. The morning after you may discover a moment of peace before you remember what happened. Savor that. Being physical can help: walking, cleaning, chopping a tree, kicking an old Mazda, anything that keeps your body moving, and lets your mind settle down. (Eating chocolate can help, but there are consequences.) Time will carry you forward into a new day, guaranteed.
Step six. Have compassion. Notice I didn’t put this step first. I had lots of compassion for my husband, who was already feeling so bad. But I forgot about compassion for myself and my torrent of feelings. Anne Weiser Cornell’s work on Focusing can introduce that quality of compassion by encouraging us to be gentle with ourselves, our feelings, and our bodies. Have compassion for how crazy you may feel.
Step seven. Write a blog. (Just kidding!) You may find it helpful to share about your experience. At first you might just vent with a friend, who can catch and release the venom coming from your mouth without being stung by it. And bad stuff can get composted into really good learnings. If you’ve noticed, a lot of great comedy comes out of awful experiences – and the ability to laugh could be the best silver lining of all.
Now back to reality…hopefully one of you, my wonderful readers, will immediately go and back up your data. (Two on-site back-ups please, and one to the Cloud. Consider it a favor to me.) It turned out that some of Steve’s data had actually been sent, unbeknownst to him, to the Cloud via Dropbox. Most of our financial records and much of his data are intact. It’s a miracle.
But so is weathering a catastrophe together and coming through whole.