Having grown up in a world that was very anti-sex, discovering my own sexuality – and developing a healthy sexuality – has been a long and slow process for me, with many a challenge to navigate.
In search of the next step in that journey I picked up a book a few years back that came highly recommended, called ‘Come As You Are’, by Emily Nagoski.
Although the book contained many important thoughts and ideas about sexuality – and I would highly recommend it to any woman looking to dig into her sexuality more deeply – one of the biggest things I learned from Dr. Nagoski was about responding to our emotions – or as she calls it, ‘sitting with your hedgehogs’.
The idea goes like this:
Imagine that your emotions are like hedgehogs.
And imagine that you find them when you sit down on chairs in your house.
Now, when you find a hedgehog, it may or may not be a great time. You might be tired. You might be ‘done’. You might be frustrated. You might be sad. You might be all sorts of things. But whatever you’re feeling, it turns out you have a choice what you do with that hedgehog.
OPTION 1: You can pretend that the hedgehog isn’t there. You can try to sit on the hedgehog – try to squish the hedgehog out of existence.
Now this won’t necessarily be a pain-free option. You are guaranteed to get some spines in your bottom in the process. And quite frankly, in my experience it usually doesn’t work – at least not in the long run.
OPTION 2: You can try to throw the hedgehog as far away as possible from yourself. For some reason we usually do this in the direction of the person closest to us. So we look down at our chair as we’re going to sit down and we notice there’s a hedgehog there, and we panic and before we can even begin to realize that it’s actually quite wonderful when you get to know it we have thrown it directly at another person.
Tiredness – throw.
Frustration – throw.
Sadness – throw.
Fear – throw.
Getting too close to our hedgehogs (our emotions) is pretty scary, and so we fling them away from ourselves as fast as possible, sending hedgehog spines ricocheting out in every direction.
The problem is, for a lot of us we only really know about option 1 and option 2.
But Nagoski offers a third option.
OPTION 3: We pick up our hedgehog, sit down, place our hedgehog in our lap and start to stroke it gently.
We take the time to notice it’s shape, and it’s markings – to work out which hedgehog (which emotion) it is, and to ask why it’s here.
What about this situation helped this hedgehog to turn up?
What could it tell me about myself? About what I need? About my values or hopes or dreams or hurts or fears?
When we take the time to listen to our emotions like this, three things happen.
- We stop hurting ourselves. We stop going back over and over again to a place that is painful and even damaging, and start to learn how to move on to a place that is better.
- We stop hurting those around us. We stop damaging the people we care about the most, and begin to find alternative – better – ways of communicating the intensity and depth and complexity of what we’re going through.
- We begin to actually understand why we’re feeling what we’re feeling – which opens up the door to making changes that might bring about a different way of living and connecting and acting that might in turn change what hedgehogs we find when we go to sit down.
In other words, sitting with our hedgehogs takes us to places of wisdom and understanding that we might never have known about otherwise.
So how do we sit with our hedgehogs?
First we have to learn how to identify that they’re there. Just like I grew up in a world that was anti-sex, I also grew up in a world that was anti-emotions and even anti-physicality. And so for a very long time I didn’t even know that what I was experiencing indicated that I had an emotion – until I tried sitting on it or throwing it. But by then it was too late – someone had already been hurt!
So I’ve had to learn to notice the signs that I’m experiencing emotions – tightness in my throat and chest and jaw; clenching of my fists; slumping of my body; low energy; inattentiveness (difficulty following what’s being said); and even in extreme situations a ringing or buzzing in my ears.
What are your signs that you’ve got a hedgehog on your chair?
Next, we have to name our hedgehog. My husband used to jokingly say, ‘there’s two emotions, right? The one with the lips turned up and the one with the lips turned down?’ But we actually have a whole plethora of emotions (which I will talk about later on this week). So we have to figure out what this particular hedgehog is called. Is it anger or sadness or fear or grief or hope or excitement or …
Then we have to pause and sit with them for a time. We need to take the time to learn from our hedgehogs, because they have something important to tell us.
Sometimes I find journalling works for this, other times I need to meditate. Sometimes I need stillness, other times I need to move. Sometimes eventually I will need to talk it out with a trusted friend, but other times I am learning that it really is best if I just allow that feeling to be with me for a while.
Finally, I need to decide how I will respond to this hedgehog. Once I used to think that it was always very important to do something with the hedgehog – because in my mind that was the only way to get rid of it and go back to a situation where I didn’t (consciously) have any hedgehogs … which was somehow supposed to be the ideal.
But with time and practice I have discovered that sometimes there’s value in simply sitting with the hedgehogs. Sometimes there’s beauty in letting the tears flow. Sometimes there’s grace in using a punching bag (if you’re able – I can’t currently, but it sure was good when I could!). Sometimes there’s value in writing poetry or playing music or simply being for a while.
And if you sit with a hedgehog (emotion) – stroking it gently – for long enough, it turns out that they’re a bit like cats. Eventually, they get bored and wander off. Eventually they’ve had their say and they go curl up in a warm spot by the fire, or wander off to groom themselves.
It turns out welcoming our emotions is actually the healthiest, most pain-free way to allowing them to pass.