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Bearing Our Souls: A Crash Course in Soothing the Overwhelming Emotions of a Pandemic - Part 5 - What the Emotions of Upheaval Are ABOUT

To continue helping you learn to regulate the big emotions associated with the COVID-19 crisis, this post will show you how understanding and naming what your emotions are ABOUT will help you to more accurately name and soothe those emotions.

Not to make loss beautiful,
But to make loss the place
Where beauty starts. Where
the heart understands
For the first time
The nature of its journey.

— Gregory Orr, in Concerning The Book That Is the Body Of The Beloved

Stably unstable.

That’s how I’ve been feeling during these ongoing weeks of the social difficulties wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

I’ve been waking up to the lie my basically hopeful self had planted way down in the shadows of my mind. Unbeknownst to me, I was believing I’d pressed “pause” on my life while we get this coronavirus thing under control, and when it was over I’d press “play” to be reunited with the life I had before.

Yet recently reality punched me in the gut:

  • I have no idea how long it’ll be before I can gather with friends or safely invite clients and groups to return to my office to meet in person.
  • No idea how to figure out what “safe” is anyway.
  • No idea which businesses I love will still exist.
  • No idea whether people I care about who are either unemployed or working on the front lines will be in my community any more.

The events and community I used to organize myself around are unreachable for an undetermined period of time. Some forever. With seemingly no one in charge who has a plan, and no end to this craziness in sight, I’ve been feeling unmoored and chaotic inside.

Even though I hate the way this coming-apart emotion feels, it makes sense to me because I know what it’s about.

That’s why even though the emotion I’m experiencing is a feeling of instability, I feel stable within the experience of my unstableness. Understanding what the instability is about puts it into a context that allows me to not only not worry about myself, but also to brainstorm ways of taking care of myself within the icky-feeling emotional state.

***

As I’ve written in earlier parts of this series, if you’re contending with or paralyzed by an emotion and you offer yourself kindness and presence and become gently curious about what, specifically, you’re feeling, you might be able to discern exactly what the emotion is. And accurately naming your emotion causes your brain to calm itself.

In this calmer state, the act of putting words to the specific emotion you’re feeling begins the process of making sense of it. Making sense of the emotion helps you discern what actions, emotional expressions, or distractions will truly help you move through your feelings, or healthily bear your emotional state if it’s ongoing.

An additional aspect of naming your emotions accurately and making sense of them is to understand what your emotions are about.

Understanding what your emotions are about gives nuance and depth to your self-compassion, and gives a calming context for even chaotic emotions.

During a time when the rug has been yanked out from under your old life and you’re left to survive that shock in an indefinite, bizarre, socially-distanced world, emotions can be about many different kinds of things, some of them not obvious.

All the feelings I described in Part 4 of this series — such as grief, disappointment, anger, loneliness, etc. — are aboutsomething. Pairing the feeling itself with what it’s about gives you the capacity to understand your feelings with exquisite accuracy.

What Feelings Are Commonly ABOUT During Times of Upheaval

1) Feelings About Missed and Disrupted Experiences, Events, Social Engagements

During this time of isolation, every single one of us has experienced the loss and disruption of multiple big events, of hopes and dreams, and of everyday social connections with people we care about.

All aspects of grief, disappointment, loneliness, fear, and every other emotion can arise in reference to these missed experiences, people, and events.

Allowing yourself to know and name the specificity of what you’re grieving about can help the emotions of grief arise more clearly and to be expressed.

For example, I feel the sadness of grief about not getting to have my clients sit across from me in my office, and about not getting to have my therapist consultation groups gather together with noisy affection in my group room.

I also feel grief’s warrior energy about claiming video sessions and meetings for all of those same folks, even though it’s not my preferred method of working.

I feel disappointed about the ongoing lack of energy I feel to work on creative endeavors.

I feel scared about not being able to visit my elderly mother without the potential of infecting her with something deadly.

And lots of other feelings about lots of other things I’ve lost in all this.

I’m sure you feel multiple emotions about many missed events and disrupted experiences in your life. Paying attention to which losses and disruptions your feelings are about can help you tame and express them.

2) Feelings About Social Turmoil

We humans are built to be social. In the depths of our bodies and souls, we’re wired to need proximity to and touch from other humans for regulation of all of our emotions and our physical states.

This state of being ripped away from our communities and loved ones is profoundly unnatural to us as creatures.

Thus living in quarantine, walking away when we approach a fellow human, not touching each other, or not simply spending time in stores and restaurants with each other is biologically and emotionally distressing.

And the uncertainty about how long this painfully abnormal situation will last leads to its own kind of pain and fear.

That means social distress and uncertainty is constantly hovering in the background with most of us these days, leading to fatigue, weepiness, irritability, and despair.

Once again, understanding that some of your emotions might be about the ongoing social distress and uncertainty that are inherent in each moment of our days can help you more accurately attend to what kind of comfort you need.

3) Feelings About Shattered Assumptions

When something as profoundly, universally disruptive and challenging as this pandemic occurs, it’s normal to be thrown into an existential crisis.

That means in addition to having feelings of grief and pain about the many losses and concrete life disruptions caused by the coronavirus, you may be experiencing an array of emotions about the breaking open of basic, unconscious assumptions about life.

The idea of shattered assumptions is really helpful in understanding what these kinds of feelings are about.

This concept says that, in order to make it through the day, we all hold largely unconscious assumptions about ourselves, our external world, and the relationship between the two, such as: “The world is benevolent; the world is meaningful, the self is worthy.” We use these models of the world to perceive events, construct plans, and forecast the future.

My unconscious belief that my life was on pause until I could press play again is an example of one of these assumptions.

These assumptions are at some level positive illusions that protect us from perceiving at a gut level the true fragility and risks of life, and they allow us to have the confidence we need to forge ahead into new experiences and daily life.

When something, such as the pandemic, happens that completely alters our entire lives, beyond our own choice or control, these basic life assumptions or illusions about the way the world works can be shattered.

Ronnie Janoff-Bullman, who writes about shattered assumptions, says when any one of our fundamental assumptions about life is seriously challenged, “an intense psychological crisis is induced. . . . The new data do not resemble. . . ‘normal change’. . . . The assault on fundamental assumptions is massive. . . . The [disruption does not] produce the psychological equivalent of superficial scratches that heal readily, but deep bodily wounds that require far more in the way of restorative efforts. The injury is to the [our] inner world.”

That’s what happened to me when I awoke to the fact that my pause/play belief was an illusion — I felt viscerally, painfully untethered and anguished.

The basic assumptions that are shattered by this kind of existential life challenge can be “smaller” and specific, like my situation; or they can be enormous and generalized:

Suddenly we become dramatically aware that bad things can happen to us, that we are not ultimately protected and safe, that the universe might contain elements of randomness and chance, that we don’t have ultimate control.

We are forced to confront our own fragility at a deep experiential level, so our actual vulnerability is revealed to us.

So any of the emotions you’re feeling might be about having to face and feel the shattered assumptions of your life, and these emotions occur in addition to the feelings you’re having about the concrete losses of events and life disruptions that have occurred.

4) Feelings About Others’ Experiences

Because the COVID-19 crisis is happening to all of us throughout the world, you’re probably having emotions for yourself as well as on behalf of others — your loved ones and community members, as well as people in far-flung parts of your city, state, country, and the world.

That means any of the emotions you’re having might be about what’s happening to someone else.

I know I felt immense grief on behalf of a couple dear to me who’d been planning their March wedding for over a year, and who had to cancel that wedding at the last minute.

I felt profound disappointment about my son’s hard-earned, long-planned travel plans being destroyed.

I feel ongoing fear, sadness, and gratitude for all the front-line healthcare and service workers who are facing COVID threats on behalf of all of us every day.

I feel anguish and overwhelm about all the people who have lost jobs in this mess.

It’s normal and an important aspect of compassion for you to feel emotions about others’ experiences and feelings in a situation like this.

Feelings of helplessness about not being able to fix any of these situations can also follow.

[Tip: Being-with and sending care are things that do help others in situations like this, not trying to fix or trying to talk people out of their feelings. See my article Want to Help Your Grieving Friend? for details.]

5) Feelings About Old Traumas

When you’re experiencing emotions as intense as the ones that commonly arise during times of upheaval, it’s normal for those emotions to awaken and bring to the foreground similar emotions that are related to events that happened in the past.

The story I told in Part 3 of this series — about how the feelings of being pulled in two directions at once (sincerely desiring to write to share my knowledge about emotions during this time vs. desperately needing to allow myself to have down time and not challenge myself creatively) — illustrates the way this can work.

My current state of feeling pulled in two directions caused by the coronavirus situation dragged out from my past an enormous and traumatic feeling of being torn-in-two that I lived with for some years after my husband died suddenly when my son was a baby.

Once I understood that my present-day pain about feeling simultaneously pulled in two directions was amplified by past feelings about being torn-in-two after my husband died, I could tease apart the emotions and express them fittingly.

I could mourn for my past self and feel those extremely intense emotions as belonging to that old experience. Then I was better able to discern how to take care of myself today in the middle of my difficult-but-not-traumatic present emotions.

Your current emotions might very well be tugging on past experiences, and those experiences don’t necessarily have to be traumatic. They may simply resemble your current emotions in some form.

Understanding that emotions you feel today may be about both current life events and past experiences can give you much needed emotional clarity.

Continued Kindness, Compassion, and Clarity Arises

Adding the skill of discerning what your emotions are about to your repertoire of emotional tools, in addition to the toolbox you’ve been accumulating from the earlier articles in this series, will lead you to be able to kindly and accurately understand yourself and others more clearly every day.

And feeling clearly feels better.

In the next and final article in this series, Part 6, I’ll show you how to use what you’re learning about how to be kind and present with yourself as you name what your emotions are and what they’re about to express and soothe all of these emotions.

Right now, I’m feeling gratitude about the fact that you’re here reading the words I’ve written, and gratitude about the ways the knowledge I’ve gained about emotions in the years since my husband died can be helpful to you during this very difficult time.

I’d love to hear what your emotions are about…

Originally published in the Deeper Dimensions blog.

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