May 282015

Learning to inhibit our reactions means that sometimes we actually feel an emotion we previously would have suppressed (or attempted to suppress). Avoiding the full experience of a powerful emotion could seem a reasonable response, and certainly there are times (like in childhood, or cases of severe trauma) where the mind and/or body are not equipped to process events as they transpire. Alexander argued that a person who was mal-coordinated would have been more prone to perceive events as disruptive, and be further unbalanced by them, whereas someone with better coordination would be less likely to perceive events as disruptive, and more able to re-calibrate to handle disturbances. Think of surfing: the ocean is constantly moving, but a surfer who is sure-footed on her board is able to navigate ebbs and swells without losing her balance — and can even maximize her response to such changes, such that she can harness the power of the waves and go for a ride!

If we have a history of avoiding strong emotions (and most of us do, whether it's anger or shame or joy) it can be an exercise in suffering to allow those sensations to be acknowledged in our awareness and to pass through the body. We tell ourselves some version of “I can't handle this,” in the belief that we're successfully avoiding feeling the feeling. But this attempt to diminish or stifle the expression of an emotion just saves it up for later — and in fact locks it into our nervous system, so that the reaction it activated persists at a low level, unresolved and ready to fire up again at the next hint of danger. By contrast, allowing ourselves to feel what we're feeling can be crazy uncomfortable in the moment, but allows for resolution… And can turn out to be not that bad after all!

Here's what happened to me: I took a risk expressing interest in spending time with someone; their response indicated that my interest was not reciprocated. Next thing I knew, I found myself hurrying to gather my things (and get outta there!). I caught the slight trembling in my upper torso and arms as I fidgeted with my jacket, and in the moment, I simply let that go… I dropped my hands to my sides, directed my attention to feeling my feet on the floor, and just stood there feeling my nervousness. “I'm embarrassed,” I thought, and just let that be so. I decided I didn't have to do anything about it. I let myself feel the flush of strong emotion, and just hung in there with it. They kept talking, I stood and listened, and soon enough the intensity of the feeling passed. It remained true that I felt somewhat exposed, but I didn't compound the damage by pressuring myself to hide or act. It's a source of pride, and makes me feel mature, to know that I can withstand some uncomfortable emotions — and live to tell the tale!


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