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Graduating from thought to feeling

In December this year, Ash and I will have been married for 10 years. I spent the first 6 years of our marriage thinking that when Ash was emotional about something, it was my job to help her solve the problem that was causing her to be emotional. This, I thought, was the best way I could support her and show her love.

As a man, I can say with reasonable confidence that most of us men, with perfectly good intent, feel that this is the best way that we can contribute when people around us are having a rough time: "Let me help you to diagnose the root cause of your troubles, craft and action plan to get you out of the state you're currently in, and then be your cheerleader and accountability partner on your road to awesomeness."

The big problem here is that in these sorts of interactions, we're literally talking in different languages. Ash will come to me with heart and emotion, and I will respond with head and logic. Then when she tells me that I'm not listening, my response is, “What? I'm listening to every word and helping you to get out of these messy emotions by giving you solid advice. How can you say I'm not listening? What else do you want from me?” I feel hurt, she feels unheard, and it generally spirals into a fight.

The big paradigm shift for me started when I got into weekly therapy, and my incredible psychologist did something that was very annoying at first, but ultimately very effective:

She would ask me a question, and I would give her a response. Then she would ask me how that made me feel, and I would give her another wordy response. She would patiently listen to my words, and then she would ask me to describe the feeling as a texture. “A texture? What the heck do you mean a texture? I just told you that it didn't make me feel good, what do textures have to do with it?” But she would persist, and eventually I would cave. "Okay, it feels coarse and raspy, almost like crocodile skin." "Good", she would say. "Now describe how it feels in your body as a temperature." “A temperature! What the actual?” But she would persist and I eventually got to feeling the emotion as a temperature, then as a colour, then as an animal, and on it went.

This process of having to really embody my feelings was very uncomfortable at first, hence my annoyance (which is almost always ultimately rooted in fear by the way) and hesitation. It felt like a gigantic waste of time, which we could have spent more productively by getting a clear diagnosis of the issue, and then implementing an action plan to solve it so that I could move onwards and upwards with my life. But she kept on going, week after week, and eventually the walls started to crumble. The more I truly felt, the messier our sessions became for a while. Emotion would well up in me, and I had no idea where it was coming from. I felt out of control a lot of the time, and that was scary as hell. But something strange started to happen - even though I couldn't pinpoint where the emotions came from logically, I started feeling lighter. My brain was furiously scratching to try and find the causal relationship, the inputs and the outputs, but it couldn't get there... and yet there was healing. Healing at a rate far quicker than I could have ever imagined had I just continued to drone on about stories from my past. By simply honouring the feelings that were welling up inside of me, there seemed to be an intelligence at work that was processing my unconscious and unprocessed issues without any input required from my brain. My brain wanted to take control back, my brain wanted to understand - but it couldn’t, and finally I accepted.

The process I undertook with my psychologist changed the nature of my relationship with feeling and emotion in myself and others permanently. It changed how I felt about myself when emotions welled up in me, it changed the way I interact with Ash, it changed the way I interact with friends and family, and it radically changed the way I interact with my colleagues at work.

In my case, but I would argue that this is true for most of us, especially men, we are terrified of deeply embracing our emotions and feelings. We've been taught to suppress our emotions from a young age, to present ourselves with perfect poise around others to make the right impression, most especially at work. Intellect and wit have more social currency than feelings and emotions. Describing someone as "emotional" is typically not a desirable label. Why do we still feel like we have to apologise to those around us when we cry?

When we allow ourselves to graduate from thought to feeling, and we're able to hold space for someone when they are in the rawness of their emotions, and their beautiful messy humanness - we never feel more connected, we never feel more held, and we never feel more open.

Emotion is scary to most of us, that’s why we suppress it. As a creative and catalysing force in our world, the end destination of an emotional journey is typically unknown. Like anything in life, we need to become comfortable with emotion in ourselves before we can be comfortable with emotion in others. And as the experience with my psychologist taught me, you literally have to feel it, embrace it, and allow the journey to unfold.

In a world of increasingly snappy one liners and attention grabbing headlines, there is a daily invitation to feel more, to honour emotion, and to hold space for others to do the same. Thought and logic are immeasurably useful, and the opportunity here is not to overtly favour one over the other - the magic is in the balance, and by my estimation, our society is far too tilted towards the intellect, most especially at work.

Last week I was sent the most beautiful poem on this invitation by Zoe Johansen, which I hope you enjoy:

“Will you...

Hold my hand for a little while?

I don’t need you to save me

No need for you to fix anything

No need for you to hold my pain

But will you simply hold my hand?

I do not need your words

Your thoughts

Nor your shoulders to carry me

But will you sit here for a while with me?

Whilst my tears they stream

Whilst my heart it shatters

Whilst my mind plays tricks on me

Will you with your presence let me know that I am not alone, whilst I wander into my inner unknown?

For my darkness is mine to face

My pain is mine to feel

And my wounds are mine to heal

But will you sit with me here, while I courageously show up for it all my dear?

For I am bright because of my darkness

Beautiful because of my brokenness

And strong due to my tender heart

But will you take my hand lovingly, when I sometimes journey into the dark?

I don’t ask for you to take my darkness away

I don’t expect for you to brighten my day

And I don’t believe that you can mend my pain

But I would surely love if you could sit for a while and hold my hand, until I find my way out of my shadowland!

So will you...

Hold my hand until I return again?”

~ Zoe Johansen ~


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