Emotional Acceptance and Management

In my last post I admitted to the world that I am an emotionally sensitive person.  I can hear my friends and family now: “well, duh…”  No great revelation there!  If you want to see a grown man cry just sit with me when the right kind of movie is on.  And the “right kind of movie” is not a short list.  It even includes “Rocky,” believe it or not.  Hey, that final scene after the titanic battle with Apollo Creed is over, and Adrian runs into the ring and says “I love you,” and Rocky responds in kind, if that doesn’t reduce you to tears what will?  OK, I admit it, this is not exactly “Romeo and Juliet,” but you have to admit that it’s a great happy ending.

I’ve often wondered what it is that makes someone “more emotionally sensitive.”  Is it that we’re less resilient to the effects of emotions?  Is it that our emotional neurobiology is just more highly strung than that of other people?  I’m not sure, but I know that the feeling of emotion permeates my entire body when something that is emotion-provoking happens.  I feel it everywhere, and I feel it strongly, too strongly to ignore.  Over the years I’ve found that it’s so easy (and sometimes tempting) to simply surf on the surge of feelings, seeing the world through an emotional lens that shades events in less than rational ways.  This can be a source of great unhappiness if it isn’t managed.

In my experience I have found a few helpful ways to manage my emotions so that they do not become a source of suffering.  I’d like to list them here, with the caveat that this is what has worked for me; it may not work for you.  Each one of us has to discover our own path.  But I’ve also found that the paths that others have chosen frequently help me to discover my own, sometimes by following those other paths and sometimes by avoiding them.  However you wish to take it, here’s my path, at least the one I’ve come to use for now.

  1. Things got much better for me, emotionally speaking, when I stopped judging myself for being so emotional in the first place.  When I was a teenager one of my parents criticized me harshly for “having a tendency to be so emotional,” and for years I believed that my emotional sensitivity was a pathology.  It’s not; it’s just how I’ve been formed.  When I accepted this part of myself it became much easier to live with.
  2. With acceptance came relief, but I still found the strength of my emotions to be difficult to manage.  I realized that I had to understand my feelings as if they were a part of me, not the whole of me.  I found it helpful to think of my emotions as a part of me with which I could have a relationship, a friendly relationship, but a relationship with boundaries.  I learned to greet the onslaught of strong feelings as I would greet a friend: warmly embracing, but wanting to hear what news he had for me before deciding if this was a good time to hang out with him.
  3. So, accepting my sensitive self, and seeing that sensitive self as a “part” rather than the “whole” of me, I found myself becoming aware of my strong feelings as they arose.  It was around this same time that I began the practice of mindfulness meditation.  I found that my meditation practice strengthened my ability to be aware of, but not attached to, the experiences of body/mind phenomena.  So thoughts, perceptions, and feelings could be observed and understood as a process with a period of arising, then abiding, and then a fading away.  Turns out nothing is permanent!
  4. Several years ago this observational quality led to a cathartic insight: these emotions are simple yet powerful instruments, much like the instruments we use to understand and predict the weather.  Like a barometer, my feelings indicated atmospheric changes, but in my internal (and usually relational) climate rather than the external climate.  My anger tells me the temperature; my fear is an anemometer, telling me which way the emotional winds are blowing.  My shame is like a hygrometer, telling me the humidity in the air.  My sadness is a rain gauge, letting me know how damp and dreary things have become.  In this moment of insight these strong emotions became my best friends, because they were my spiritual compass, helping me to set direction and course with the wisdom of the informational body!
  5. Having this vital information at my fingertips, I could now use my sensitive feelings as a guide to let me know how best to respond in the moment to whatever was happening between myself and another person.  No longer bound by my feelings, I could welcome them and let them guide, but not control, my ways of being and intervening in the world.  My strong feelings were now a source of comfort and celebration, not events to be feared.
  6. And, finally, I learned to stop saying “he/she/it made me feel this way,” and learned to say “when he/she/it does “this”, my body usually feels “this way”, and that’s OK.”  Now I’m free to say “OK, if my body feels “this way”, what’s the next best thing to do?”  And for me, that equates to one very important quality:  FREEDOM.  I am free to choose my response, no longer a slave to my feelings.  And this feels good!

That’s it.  Probably doesn’t seem like much, but for me it was life saving.  I found I wasn’t liking myself when I would get carried away by my feelings.  It’s much easier now that I’m able to regard my feelings mindfully and embrace them, but not become attached.

I hope this is helpful for you.  Please, don’t try to be me; find your own way of managing your emotions.  Maybe some of what I’ve done can help you, but don’t believe for a second that it’s the only way.  You have to learn for yourself as I learned for myself, and continue to learn.  I don’t think these six steps are the end of the story for me.  I’m certain that I’ll be learning from life and refining my ways for as long as I live.

Peace,

Jim

On Being Emotionally Sensitive

I admit it, I’m a sensitive person.

There’s no shame in that, really.  Emotional sensitivity is largely determined by heredity.  Some babies are born fussy, others calm.  The fussy ones need attention fairly frequently.  It’s important that their parents soothe them, and teach them to soothe themselves.  They may tremble a bit in the playground when they’re 3 years old, uncertain about venturing very far from mom or dad.  And they may wail when you leave them for the first time in a classroom with only a teacher and maybe an aide there to comfort them.

The calm ones are different, of course.  They wander off easily in the playground; you probably have to be a bit more vigilant to make sure they don’t wander off too far.  They bump and bruise their way through life, barely ever crying or fussing, falling down, getting up, and moving on.  That first grade class is a breeze for them, and they plunge head first into most activities.  Calm babies most easily grow into confident adolescents and teens.  The ups and downs of daily living do not usually affect them as deeply as their emotionally sensitive peers.  I love my calm friends, much more unflappable to the vagaries of life than I, but it is to my emotionally sensitive friends that I direct these thoughts today.

Those fussy babies frequently grow up to be emotionally sensitive adolescents and adults.  They see, hear, and feel every emotional nuance in the room.  When happy they may become ecstatic.  When sad they may feel despair.  When praised they will beam with delight.  When criticized they may want to crawl into the deepest hole.  They are the first to notice when someone else is hurting, and frequently the first person others turn to when in need of support, nurturing, and guidance.  They usually have a good “gut feel” for people, and are guided frequently by empathic recognition of the needs of others.

This was me growing up.  I still get kidded by friends and family about how easily I fussed as a youngster.  I can remember the times I was hurt by childhood friends, schoolyard companions, and various members of the different high school herds; I can still feel the sting of those hurts as I envision them.  But I also remember golden times sharing thoughts and ideas, connecting deeply in play and in conversation with those same friends, companions, and high school herds.  When I think back to the never-ending hours spent playing sports, especially stick ball, baseball, and basketball, I remember most the camaraderie of those games.  I was a bit of a gym rat in college, spending hours playing basketball in sweaty, stinking gyms.  But what wonderful friendships were formed in those gyms.  What life lasting experiences we had.

Being emotionally sensitive is a two edged sword.  The gift of emotional sensitivity is your capacity to feel deeply in the moment, a capacity that allows you to find deep meaning in the simplest experiences.  And the emotional charge that those experiences kindle make those events deeply memorable; you carry those memories for life, gladly.  But there’s a price you pay, because when you feel hurt, angered, saddened, frightened, or ashamed, you feel it very deeply, sometimes too deeply.  And it’s hard to forget those emotionally charged experiences and sometimes even harder to know how to respond to another person who has hurt you.  It can feel really overwhelming.

When we sit in meditation we must sit with our entire mind/body fully present.  The point of our meditation is not to quell unpleasant feelings, but to know them, make room for them, learn from them, abide in them.  Those of us who are sensitive are tempted, at times, to use the relaxation that comes so easily with meditation as a balm to our emotionally unpleasant bodily feelings.  It’s so easy to see meditation as an escape, a way out of pain.  But we know that this only leads to more suffering; aversion to a feeling quickly becomes attachment, and we find the unpleasant feeling reappearing again and again and again.

Instead, it’s important to bring unpleasant emotional states to our meditation seeking only to make peace with them.  Radical acceptance, making space for the unpleasant, and most of all recognizing whether the unpleasant feelings can be paired with skillful responses, are all possible with mindfulness practice.  When faced with the sequelae of an emotion provoking event, we have choices we can make as to how we will respond.  I hope to take that up in my next essay.  For now, please don’t feel ashamed if you’re very sensitive; it’s a gift you’ve been given, one that you return abundantly to the people in your life.  It hurts at times, but it’s worth it when you weigh the benefit you bring to others in need, if only you can learn to manage the feelings of the hurtful side of this two edged gift.

Peace,

Jim