Several years ago I listened as Steven C. Hayes described anxiety. He used the metaphor of being lost in a dark forest. This I get. I can imagine what my mind would do alone, in the dark, surrounded by foreign shapes and sounds: freak out. And then my body would follow right behind. Then Hayes continued, anxiety is like the flashlight. It leads and guides. It shines through the dark and shows you where to go. And this I don’t get. I hadn’t found that anxiety was leading. Rather I found it to be terrifying. It felt horrible, affecting my mind, body and soul. It shut me down. Yes, I felt like I am lost in the forest. I had no sense of where I am and I felt like I am the reason I was lost. I was the problem. Yes I have a flashlight, but mine didn’t work. The lens was smashed and the batteries were dead. Rather than leading me, I felt like I was stuck lugging it around and it felt like it’s the cause of all my problems. I didn’t like my anxiety– what was wrong with me?
Sitting here three years later I understand, I not only get it, but I also live it. So what changed?
Perspective for one. I understand I am not alone. I have anxiety, so do you. We all do. If we didn’t we’d be dead. I can’t not have anxiety. Its universal. Anxiety is not what’s wrong with me. It’s my perspective on emotion. I’ve been socialized? Shaped? To believe that if I feel anxious, sad, angry there is something wrong with me. Yet how can I not? There is so much suffering in this world. How can I be aware, part of this world, and not feel? I’d have to be a sociopath to not. And yet we pretend. We hide our feelings and for the most part automatically blame ourselves for feeling what we feel. We fight to not feel it, it gets worse, and we feel alone so we fight harder. We try to get rid of them.
The alternative? Stop fighting. Stop trying to get rid of those feelings. Your emotions aren’t what’s wrong with you. Rather, it’s the perception that we shouldn’t have them and that if we do there is something wrong with us. Instead, having them means there is something rather human about us. Having emotions means that there is something normal about us. Having feelings means we are alive, and that there are things that are important to us. Instead of fighting them, I’m working on being aware. This has started with some simple labelling “I am feeling [x]” and some curiosity to what’s going on or what I am thinking about. In sitting in this place – staying with my own emotion and experience rather than trying to get rid of it– I begin to become aware of things that are important to me. I begin to see my own life through my own emotions who have stopped me here in this moment and grabbed my attention. For this I am grateful.
Here is what used to happen. A feeling would show up. I’d automatically perceive it as an indication that I was broken, wrong and different. I’d try to get rid of it by fighting to not have it. It would get worse and I’d grab at a myriad of things I’ve used in the past to self soothe (I tell people I got fat the old fashion way) or avoid. In eating or drinking or ??? I’d squash the feeling, at least for a moment. In doing so I lost some part of my own experience. I’d sabotaged or betrayed myself in the name of feeling comfortable and pretending to be like everyone else; pretending that everything’s okay when it’s not. In doing so I take a step away from myself and take a step towards something that has the potential for becoming a problem. Cope by eating every once and a while and you’re okay. 10,000 choices in and we have a problem; rather an addiction. I automatically – that is without thinking or awareness – grab at self-soothing behaviour.
Now in sitting with emotion, better yet simply not thinking its what’s wrong with me, I have the chance to learn from it. Emotion shows up in important moments, pulling me out of the automatic-ness with which I usually exist and grabs my attention. It says “hey! Look! pay attention! You have been in a place similar to this before and this moment is important.” Important maybe because you choose to self soothe or important maybe because how you acted was not in alignment with who you are or want to be.
In this, emotions guide. They show up in places where our values are in play and prompt us to pay attention to the moment and opportunity that is present here. Now. In that moment I am given a choice. I am given the opportunity to choose something that is in line with my values or self soothe. Choice. In that there is the power to change. And just like the self-soothing behaviour becomes addictive and destructive 10,000 choices in, so does value based living on the opposite extreme. 10,000 choices in, I am in a place where my emotion: my sadness, my anxiety, my grief have shaped me into who I really am not who the world has shaped me to mindlessly become. For this I am grateful. I am not 10,000 choices in, but I am on a journey and happy to have my emotions show up, slow me down or even stop me and remind me to pay attention. Steven was right. Emotions are a light, if you are willing to sit in the dark for long enough to see why they are present.