When I wrote the posts that were published back in September about Choosing to be Present I had no idea what the week would actually bring.
No idea what personal and communal losses I would face over the week ahead as we said goodbye to an incredibly close friend, lost to a sudden death.
No idea the enormous conversations that would collectively be flooding the internet over the end of September into October as the #metoo movement once again fought for the right of victims to be seen and listened to and believed.
I realize that I am sitting here in my reality today, but whenever you are reading this it might be just as true for you as it is for me right now. Because pain and loss and significant conversations are part of our world. Sometimes they seem to come at us in a constant onslaught and sometimes a background drip, but it’s been an awfully long time since I can remember being completely free of them myself …
But while others have seemed to have lots of words to say in response to the various situations I’ve found myself in recently, I have found myself spending a lot of time just sitting with these realities.
Sitting with my newly widowed friend …
Sitting with my community as they tried to process their grief and loss about this death …
Sitting with my friends who were re-triggering on the stories and testimonies that were being shared …
Sitting with my clients as they try to work through hard messages about their value as individuals or the possibility of success in their relationships or the ongoing grief inherent when you are raising a profoundly disabled child or the deep sadness of LGBTQ folks who are kept out of relationship with family or their religious communities.
Now sometimes when we are dealing with trauma and grief we need to be careful about sitting with our own feelings by ourselves. These feelings can be overwhelming, and often need shared with a trusted individual. But that being said, I realized yesterday that this idea of sitting with is maybe something that we don’t do enough of. Maybe it’s something we try rush past too quickly. Maybe it’s even something we actively try to avoid.
You see, sitting with our emotions is painful. It takes courage. It takes emotional strength. All of that ‘choosing to be present’ stuff I was talking about back in September? Well, if we haven’t developed those muscles ahead of time, it can be really difficult to even know where to start when we find ourselves in these hard moments.
That’s because sitting with requires that we allow ourselves to feel the feelings of loss and grief – of fear – of rejection – of being silenced – of being abandoned. It requires that we acknowledge the anger that is in us – even when we’re not sure whether it’s ‘justified’ or ‘fair’. It requires that we let the tears fall – even when we’re not sure whether we’ll ever be able to stop once we get started.
But difficult isn’t the same as impossible.
I grew up in a home where I learned that acknowledging my emotions was dangerous and repression was offered as the ‘better way’. Never once do I remember my parents demonstrating what sitting with my emotions might look like, so this was not a skill set I showed up to adulthood with.
Yet over the years as I have had the privilege of sharing friendship with some remarkable folks I have come to discover that there is value and power in sitting with my emotions, and that there are tools that can help me to do that better. Tools like:
- Breath work. The polyvagel nerve controls the autonomic nervous system in our fight, flight, freeze or fawn cycle. That means that it is what affects our heart rate, sweat glands, digestive impulses and so much more when we get scared. In general we can’t actually control our autonomic nervous system, so it can feel like there’s nothing we can do about this, but breath work – whether it’s taking long, slow, deep breaths or doing patterned breathing or even singing – is the key to getting us through the fear of sitting with our emotions.
- Nature. When we are outside – sitting by water, scrunching our toes deep into the sand, underneath the canopy of our favourite tree or taking in the sunrise or sunset – we ground ourselves. To be able to even access our emotions to sit with them we have to first feel safe, and the process of grounding ourselves in nature can – for a lot of us – enable us to feel safe enough for the emotions to come.
- Solitude and Silence. We live in a world that is constantly reaching for background noise and continuous information. While many will debate whether this is inherently good or bad what I will say is that we cannot sit with our emotions in the midst of the noise, hustle and bustle. We need to disconnect – turn off the music and Netflix, the news and social media and even step away from our jobs, activities and people – for long enough to make space to even see and acknowledge (much less sit with and process) the hard emotions in our lives. It is in these spaces of disconnection that we get to reconnect with the honest truth about where we are at – how we are feeling – and what we might need to do next.
- Movement. Many of us are – to some degree or another – afraid that if we start sitting with a certain emotion we will get trapped by it. Physical movement can help us counteract that idea by giving us the freedom and agency to help us navigate the challenging emotions and come back out the other side. Whether it’s a long hike, a hard run or bike ride, dancing it up in your living room, or pounding around your house while you clean ferociously, movement can be a way of helping us sit with our emotions. Even the process of journalling can be a helpful ‘movement’ experience. And especially if you are new to the idea of silence and solitude, movement can be a way of helping to ease the discomfort and stay present in the midst of these new sensations.
- Seen, known and precious. Eventually having a chance to articulate our emotions to another human being and have them be seen, acknowledged and treated with the value that they deserve can be critical to helping us ‘complete the cycle’. They enable us to internalize our worth and our value in the midst of our emotions, helping us to gain knowledge, strength and resilience from whatever we’re going through.
We will all experience loss at some point. We will all have to deal with the hard moments in life. For those of us who haven’t yet learned how to sit with our emotions, these hard moments can be our undoing. But for those willing to put in the effort and energy – to take the courageous steps of breath work, nature, silence and solitude, movement and reconnection – these actions can deepen our understanding of ourselves and those around us in ways that can be powerful tools for our healing.