Bearing Our Souls: A Crash Course in Soothing the Overwhelming Emotions of a Pandemic – Part 3 – “Name It to Tame It”
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At a moment of intensity,
a failure to be understood,
to be connected with emotionally,
can result in a profound feeling of shame.
The shame generated by
missed opportunities for the alignment of states
—for the feeling of emotional resonance, of “feeling felt”—
can lead to withdrawal.
Even with less intense states,
not being understood may lead to a sense of isolation.
— Daniel Siegel, The Developing Mind, Second Edition
Last week, in the evening after writing all day, I broke down into wracking sobs.
Digression: If you’ve been reading this series, you’ll see that I’ve been crying a lot these days. I hope you can also see that the tears are for subtly different reasons every week. That’s part of the point of this article—coming to understand the specificity of your emotions will eventually help you to feel better. Stay tuned.
As I was saying… Last week I curled up on my living room sofa in a sobbing ball at the end of my writing day.
My whole body was aching because I felt torn in two:
- One huge part of me loves writing about emotions and feels a social obligation to write to help others manage their big emotions during this pandemic, and writing requires a huge expenditure of energy right now.
- Another equally enormous part of me feels constantly exhausted and full of grief in the midst of all this isolation and uncertainty, and that part just wants to curl up in a corner and rest.
The contentious pull back and forth between those two parts of me was almost physically painful and left me feeling an emotion I can only name as anguish.
My husband looked at me with understanding eyes when I said, “I just can’t do it. I can’t keep up with the writing when I’m so emotional and all I want to do is lie around and rest.”
He said, “You don’t have to. No one will blame you if you take a break.”
I broke down into sobs of relief.
As these tears poured through me, I sensed that there were way more tears here than what the current situation warranted. They were related, yes, but they were extra large.
Allowing the tears to flow, curious about what they might mean, memories flooded into my mind.
Memories of the months after my husband died suddenly when my son was a baby almost 30 years ago. Memories of feeling so devastated, so grief-stricken that I could hardly move and I didn’t care if I lived or died. Memories of waking up each morning to a baby boy whose life depended on me and for whom I was determined to rise to the occasion in the midst of my grief to provide as joyful and normal of a childhood as was possible under the circumstances.
That was the ultimate feeling of being torn in two.
Day after day after day, a strong life force pulled me down into bottomless grief where I needed to lie around, cry, and rest; even as an opposite, equally strong life force forced me out into the world to smile at my son’s antics, take him to the park, and cook nutritious food even when I felt nauseous.
The pain of that simultaneous both/and was unimaginable. I cry a bit every time I allow myself to think about it even now.
What I realized last week as the tears rolled through my body, was that the present-day torn-in-two feeling—of needing to write even while needing to not give a s*** about anything—was tapping into my old wound, pulling up emotions and tears on behalf of a traumatic past experience.
Once I made the connection, I felt all the grief at once: Profound grief for the trauma my self endured 30 years ago when she made such an incredible sacrifice to go down and through her awful grief even while she fully engaged in parenting. Accurately-sized grief about the current push/pull inside myself about the writing. Grief for the world situation that was causing me to feel sluggish and unable to write. All of it.
When the tears gave way to gasps and then to deep breaths, the storm had passed. For the first time in days, the tension I’d carried in my neck was gone; the clenching in my stomach was released; and I was ready to cook dinner.
A blend of receiving compassion from myself and from my husband, along with clearly naming and expressing my emotions led me to relief. I still felt some torn-ness about whether I wanted to continue writing or take a break from it, but the emotions felt manageable, useful even.
In fact, separating the past and present and feeling it all, allowed me to use the accurate present-day torn-in-two feeling to discern what I needed to do with the rest of my week: I gave myself lots of time to lie around resting, crying or distracting all weekend. Giving in to that need led me to today’s natural energy that allowed me to feel like writing. A nice both/and that included the needs of each part of myself generated true gratitude that what I’m dealing with today is not nearly as painful as the loss I experienced all those years ago.
This example reveals what annoys me about the popular mental health articles that recommend mindfulness, exercise, staying connected, controlling what you can, gratitude practice, etc.:
They jump to soothing and distracting practices without naming or tending to the feelings that are causing you to need soothing or distraction!
And the articles that do suggest names for emotions, like grief, don’t acknowledge that grief can be for more than one thing at a time and can be complex and interwoven with lots of events from the past and the present.
I want to help you learn how to calm and soothe yourself and then discern whether you need to express your emotions or distract from them. Distraction can be exactly what’s called for, but it only truly works if you acknowledge that it’s what your emotional state actually calls for in the current moment.
Name It (With Kindness) to Tame It
Daniel Siegel, the founder of Interpersonal Neurobiology, and the author of countless books about the mind, parenting, and therapy, coined the easy-to-remember phrase “Name It to Tame It” for working with emotions because he understands and teaches about how the human brain works.
He describes how your brain is made up of a higher part (the cortex) and a lower part (the subcortical brain, made up of the limbic system and the brain stem). Your higher brain is responsible for observing and making sense of things; your lower brain is responsible for emotion, motivation, fight/flight/freeze, and your arousal states.
When you’re agitated, afraid, or awash in intense emotions, your right amygdala (a part of your lower brain) is highly active and irritated. It’s like that lower right brain is on fire with pain, and that particular pain is what causes you to feel overwhelmed, anxious, distressed, or any other agitated state.
What your dear, distressed right amygdala needs in order to be truly calmed is to feel felt. (Another delightful Siegel term.)
“Feeling felt” is a product of feeling both emotionally connected and deeply understood, in that order. Let me show you how to help yourself feel felt, and therefore comforted and soothed.
1) Emotional Connection – Observe With Compassion
Strong emotions require compassion to feel safe or soothed.
— Janina Fisher
The emotional connection I’m talking about here emerges from being observed with compassion. The purpose of this emotional connection is to help you feel not alone. Frightening situations or overwhelming emotions are difficult but not impossible to manage with help, but can feel unbearable if you sense you’re all alone.
(Of course it feels better to have another person offer you this sense of connection and compassion, so if you have a loved one or a therapist who can help you with these big emotions, that’s fantastic. Yet the good news is that it’s possible to offer this kind of help and understanding to yourself, if you know how. Hence this series of articles!)
What helps your brain (and therefore you) feel not alone is a sense of presence offered from your high-brain self to your low-brain self and/or from someone else to your low-brain self.
Presence in this context is about making a compassionate connection with your lower right brain. Physical touch, empathic facial expressions, a nurturing voice, and nonjudgmental listening all contribute to a sense of presence—all of which you can offer to yourself, even if it’s only from images inside your own head and body.
That is, you use your higher brain to engage with your lower brain with kindness and connection instead of with logic.
“Ah, it looks like you’re having a hard time. There’s so much scary stuff going on in the world, and it’s affecting you deeply. I can see why you’d be upset. Let’s see if I can help you feel better.”
“You don’t need to be so upset. You just missed a trip; you didn’t lose your job.”
“There’s no reason for you to be so tired. You don’t even have to drive to work any more.”
However, you can facilitate this state of presence by using gentle logic with your higher brain in the service of helping your cortex understand that your big and crazy-looking feelings do make sense and do deserve comfort and expression. That’s what Part 1 of this series was for.
Take a look at Bearing Our Souls: A Crash Course in Soothing the Overwhelming Emotions of a Pandemic – Part 1 —Stories Matter for details about how to bring yourself into a state of compassionate presence toward yourself.
This self-observation from a state of compassionate presence helps your lower brain know that you are not alone. Feeling met and not alone begins to calm and soothe your lower brain.
You will still feel big feelings, but you will feel less tensed up and less frightened of the emotions. Feeling all stirred up, anxious, or shut down will give way to flowing emotions and body states that begin to move. You might feel shaky.
Now you’re ready for the next step.
2) Feeling Understood – Get Curious and Name It to Tame It
Generous listening is powered by curiosity,
a virtue we can invite and nurture in ourselves
to render it instinctive.
It involves a kind of vulnerability—
a willingness to be surprised,
to let go of assumptions and take in ambiguity.
— Krista Tippett
Once you’ve turned toward yourself with kindness and presence and your system begins to loosen, it’s time to become gently curious about what, specifically, you’re feeling.
That’s because when you accurately (and kindly) name the emotion you’re feeling, your brain squirts soothing neurotransmitters into the right lower brain and calms it!
That’s right! Compassionately putting words to the specific emotion you’re feeling further calms your lower brain and begins the process of making sense of the emotion.
Making sense of the emotion helps you discern what actions, emotional expressions, or distractions will truly help you move through your feelings, or to bear your emotional state if your it’s ongoing. (Like continual feelings of fear of uncertainty in the context of the pandemic.)
You might not know right away what your particular emotion is in the moment, but the right brain wants to be known. So if you approach yourself with mindful, soft curiosity, gently wondering what the feeling might be, many times your right brain will spontaneously offer it up to you.
For example, when I was crying so hard about my present day torn-in-two feeling and I became aware that the tears seemed out of proportion to the current day’s emotion, I didn’t say to myself, “Sheesh! You’re making such a big deal out of this! It’s hard, but it’s not that hard. Why don’t you calm down?”
What I did think to myself was something like, “Wow! These tears are so big! They’re coming from the core of my being. It feels like there’s something deeper there that’s being tugged at by my feelings about the writing. I wonder what that could be?”
As soon as I turned toward that feeling with gentle curiosity, the memories of my gigantic ancient feeling flooded into my mind and the sensation of YES! THAT’S IT! allowed me to fully relax into the expression of that emotion. Then that round of grief moved through me and I felt relieved.
So once you’ve brought your higher brain into a state of compassionate presence and your low brain starts to loosen your system, begin to simply offer yourself kind curiosity.
You don’t have to actually talk to yourself. An inner state that simply conveys, “Hmmm. I wonder what this feeling is, and what it’s actually about? I’m interested,” is all that’s needed.
Keep in mind that these emotions can be all over the map—grief, anger, fear, disappointment, uncertainty, anguish, disillusionment, and more. Be willing to let go of assumptions and allow yourself to be surprised.
To help you identify and work with your specific emotions, Part 4 of this series will explore the different specific feelings that might arise in the context of an enormously distressing situation like the pandemic we’re living through. Part 5 will offer ideas of how to work with, express, soothe, and helpfully distract from the emotions you discover.
In the meantime, you can help yourself by starting to make a list of emotions you’re familiar with. Be open to nuances of emotion, too. Disappointed, sad, raw, nostalgic, pensive, and anguished are examples of different nuances of similar emotions. Even this openness and curiosity about emotions will help your lower right brain to understand that you really are interested in how it feels, so emotion words might start popping up out of nowhere to be placed on your list.
Then, when you turn toward your emotional state with curiosity, you’ll be primed and open to discern what the specific emotion you’re feeling actually is. You’ll learn to name the emotion accurately and get that YES! THAT’S IT burst of soothing neurotransmitters.
You’ll begin to be able to name it to tame it!
Keep in mind that you can offer your partner, your child, your friends this same kind of presence and curiosity, too, and that’s a good thing because we’re all in this together.
When we feel felt, we are not alone. What is shareable becomes bearable. — Daniel Siegel