This is not another “2020 was awful” post. Though it certainly has been an upside down year for us all. No, this is a post for all years. For those times in our lives when we have a sudden and massive change. A break up with a long time partner. Leaving a job, suddenly and involuntarily. A close loved one dying (especially if it’s sudden). A natural disaster.
We don’t usually get to know when these world shakers are going to happen. We don’t go to our “look ahead” pages in planners and write down “rip my life into pieces” (even as a last resort!). But we do have thoughts, feelings, questions, and internal conflicts. And they show up right away--so no planned response or control over the response either. There are rounds and rounds of research and perspective about what a “normal” response to sudden change is, mostly about what to think or do. But what about feelings? There are pieces out there, but here are my 2 cents.
Is it normal to feel…
Yep. Even gratitude.
All of the above?
Yes, that can happen too.
Whatever you feel when your world is turned upside down is NORMAL.
Read that as many times as you need.
For those of you who have sat in my office, you’ve probably heard me say this next phrase a few (or more) times: We cannot ‘should’ our emotions.
So often I hear, “I shouldn’t feel this way, but…” or “I don’t understand what’s happening, they shouldn’t feel like that!” We call this defense mechanism intellectualizing which basically means that we focus more on the thoughts and the cognitive connections we make, rather than acknowledging what we’re feeling in the moment. What happens faster than thought?
Emotions. Pesky, uncontrollable, feelings.
Yes, I said uncontrollable. Emotions are rapid communicators that source from deeper in our brains than any level of conscious thought. They give us a clue to what we’ll first think before we know what is going on. Often, it can seem like we’re experiencing both of these simultaneously, so it seems like our thoughts control what we feel, or that we are in control of our feelings. Wouldn’t that be great!? We’re not though.
And that is o k a y.
So why might we feel some emotions when they seem completely irrational? Because something about that emotion actually makes sense. Hear me out: There is something that you are thinking around whatever scenario is playing out, that goes along with what you are feeling. Maybe it’s humor because you’re in full disbelief and thinking you’re very sure that we are in a nightmare where this situation isn’t happening. It could also be euphoric relief that whatever was previously going on is over. Whether it’s a relationship that should have ended a long time ago is finally over, or a dear loved one is no longer in pain-- we have reasons to be grateful for a situation that is otherwise painful.
Letting ourselves acknowledge what we are feeling and thinking without judgement is part of fully processing through tough experiences. When we try to control what we’re feeling, we shove away important communications from our mind, and those emotions fester. Give it some time, and those festered emotions come out sideways or continue to bring themselves back to the surface; which means they bring the circumstances you’re trying to move on from back to mind as well. This also applies to the thoughts that come to mind along with those emotions. Accepting and liking our thoughts are two different concepts. Instead of deciding what we ‘should’ be thinking, we can acknowledge what’s happening behind our eyes, acknowledge how it fits with what we’re going through, and then continue on. This is how mindfulness is part of coping with distress.
And sometimes, we get static. We feel numb. That is just as okay as feeling any other emotion. It is our mind communicating with us, too. It’s telling us that we need to take time to get through the initial shock of the experience before we take on the task of feeling our way through. That doesn’t make someone stronger or weaker than those who feel immediately. It’s just different.
No matter what you feel, or how many emotions you feel when your world is turned upside down, it is acceptable. What is required of you is that you allow yourself to feel and take the space you need to take care of those feelings. Feelings move and will not stay forever. It’s not what they’re for.
Be gentle with yourself in these moments. They’ll come to an end soon enough.