Beware the pit of normality…those feelings down there may overwhelm you
This article is prompted by a lovely observation from a close business associate who said “I have navigated the pitfalls of COVID19 quite well, I quite enjoyed lockdown and made the best of it, I have pivoted my business and I thought I was in quite good shape. Then I went and had my hair cut and that glimpse of what normal used to be seems to have unlocked a well of emotions in me and I find myself crying at the slightest provocation…why is that?”
In what follows I am going to give a perspective that comes from my work experience and my personal experience. I don’t expect it to apply to everybody or give you all the answers.It may, however, help.
It’s a feeling thing
For me the key to most of our emotional health challenges is our relationship with these interesting but very important things we call our feelings.
In summary the feelings I talk about and help people work with, on a deeper level, are their feelings of anger, sadness, hurt, fear, shame and, of course, happiness. These are the feelings that we are, broadly, born with the ability to experience and express. As you read those and reflect on them you will notice that only one of them has a positive connotation and four of them are about feeling vulnerable.
We don’t like feeling vulnerable and, to be frank, our culture still does not value expressions of vulnerability. When we see someone else being honest in their vulnerability it reminds us of our potential for vulnerability at a time when we don’t wish to consider that. Therefore we built a culture where we do not express or especially value vulnerability.
As we grow up, from the messages we receive from our carers, our influencers and from society in general, we learn to use a complex language to describe how we are feeling. We use the complex emotive language we have developed to be more specific about how we feel. For example I may describe my mood as glum because I think it gives a better measure than just saying I am sad. We also use it to exaggerate how we feel so instead of expressing that I am feeling angry I scream that I am “f*&$ing P***ed off.” More commonly we use our emotive language to minimise how we feel such as using “frustrated” because I am afraid to tell you that I’m actually angry.
Our clever use of language
Then we have another use for our rich and diverse emotive language. I can use my language to tell you how I am feeling without ever really revealing to you exactly how I am feeling. So instead of telling you how much that comment hurt, I choose to express that I am upset.
In other words, our emotive language is open to interpretation and thus gives us an emotional hiding place when we need it. When we open ourselves up to it, however, there is no hiding place from our sadness, hurt, shame, fear, anger and, of course, our happiness.
All of this means that we become very clever at not dealing with feelings of vulnerability in the moment that they happen. Most of us throw them to the back of our minds with the vague intention that we will deal with that later but somehow, conveniently, dealing with our sadness later never happens and instead we hope it will just go away.
Defence Mechanisms Stop Us Feeling
In fact we have developed lots of ways of avoiding feeling at all. They are often referred to as defence mechanisms. Here’s a few of them
Denial – blocking events and feelings from your mind so that you don’t have to deal with them. The emotional equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting “I can’t hear you.”
Repression – Mentioned above. That box in your head that you drop all unwanted emotional material in. You close it, wrap it in parcel tape and put a post-it note on it with the words “to deal with later…hopefully never” written on it. They may be stored away but they never truly go away.
Projection – projecting the feelings you are not comfortable with on to another. “X is just too scared to stand up and be counted” …”Y is so damned emotional at the moment.”
Displacement – objects or activities get the brunt of it. We may choose to focus on one thing to the exclusion of everything else or we may become addicts to general busyness.
Intellectualisation – “feelings are a distraction and a nuisance and are to be removed from every situation. Facts are all that matter”…if you say so.
Numbing – very common in my opinion as we use the glass of wine to relax/destress. When does it become drowning our sorrows?
By using these we fool ourselves in to thinking feelings don’t matter and that we can get away without having a proper encounter or relationship with them
It may feel as if it has gone away, but the reality is it is waiting there. It is waiting for a moment when it can catch us unawares, when we let our guard down, and then it pounces. What’s more, all the time it has been waiting to catch us off guard it has been developing more and more energy so that when it does catch us it is going to overwhelm us.
Think about those moments when you have an unexpected emotional outburst at home or in the workplace. It is because those feelings have got so powerful, developed so much pent up energy they have to come out. For some of us that takes years and years. Such is the power of these feelings, when they do come out we feel completely out of control and do not know what to do.
As a result a little voice in our heads pipes up with words similar to “see, that’s why you should avoid these feelings at all costs” and we do our best to go back to a state of denial, repression etc.
Is there a better way?
Is there a better way of dealing with feelings?
What if there was a way of experiencing those feelings in the moment so that they did not have to be boxed away until they came back to overwhelm you?
What if there was a way of spending some quality time later in the day sitting with that feeling, experiencing it and then moving on so that it does not hijack your life another time?
What if you could learn to express your feelings in such a way that you do not have to hide, deny or repress them?
The pit of normality
So when my business associate had her “ glimpse of what normal used to be,” emotionally she felt that the environment she was used to had returned. She let her guard down, just a little, and all those unwanted feelings saw their chance.
Part of her was saying “it is safe to be vulnerable now” and so her psyche looks for opportunities to express. Be that a child performing on a talent show, a random act of kindness from a friend or just remembering those we have loved and lost.
It is when we think things have returned to “normal” that many of us will start to experience tidal waves of feelings and emotions that we have been storing up for days, weeks, months and in some cases, years.
That is why so-called normality can overwhelm you.
I am going to spend a lot of time in the next 12 months talking about this. I will talk about how we keep these feelings under the surface, the power that this gives them over us and how using simple regular techniques we can develop a healthy relationship with our feelings of vulnerability.
12 months ago I may have been scared to go to a conference and talk about vulnerability because I was scared others would not want to listen. Now, I think we really need to have this conversation and I’ll be doing my best to bring this to the fore at the regular speaking events I am invited to.
Meanwhile if you don’t want to wait for those, if you don’t want to sit in a room at a conference and hear me speak, there are other ways of accessing this material.
You could book me and my team to run workshops for you and your colleagues around this and many other areas. This link goes to a list of our commonly requested seminars and workshops.
You could book yourself in for a one to one assessment with me and we can work out together what areas you may like to work on through a series of sessions.
Or you can do nothing….we can always do nothing….but they will be waiting.