One night last winter, my wife and I put our then five-year-old daughter, Annie, to bed. We followed our typical bedtime routine, but unlike other nights, she was a bit upset when we left the room. We tagged teamed, going back in a few minutes later. Usually, after three rounds, she would be asleep. But, not that night. That night, every time, she just seemed more and more agitated. Ten minutes later, we heard her screaming her head off. “Annie, what’s wrong?” we asked her as we raced back in again.
She explained that she was upset because her Aunt Terry had not gotten her a birthday gift nine months ago!
In reality, this was not true. Her beloved Aunt Terry had gotten her a slew of arts and crafts.
But at the moment, the facts did not matter to Annie. (And, we didn’t attempt to set the record straight at the time.)
This is what I think happened to her: she was lying in bed feeling agitated. She didn’t know why she was feeling this ick and yuck feeling, but she knew she felt it. So, in her five-year-old mind, she searched for a reasonable cause for her anxiety. She must have asked herself, “Why do I feel this way?” And, she came up with a reason – even though it was not grounded in fact. Once she figured out this was why she was so upset, it just got her even more frustrated. It was the equivalent of throwing kerosene on a fire.
I’ve done this myself as well. I’m pretty sure you’ve done it, too. When we first process a feeling, it is on an emotional level and is entirely somatic. Then we cogitate until we can come up with a justification for what we are feeling. We continue to mull on this reason for our feelings and it ends up heightening the intensity of the original emotion.
When you’re feeling anxious, you try to figure out why, even if whatever you come up with has nothing to do with what is causing you anxiety. Once you add that cause into the mix, you end up feeling more tense.
Understanding why is doesn’t help.
“In life, understanding is the booby prize.” — Werner Erhard
We get anxious simply because we are aware and alive.
If you have ever watched an infant in a crib, you will get a chance to see the full spectrum of human emotions unfold in the course of a few minutes. Back when my son Emmett was a baby, he’d be napping and then all of a sudden he would start to laugh in his sleep. I wondered, “What could he possibly be thinking about? Is he dreaming about a funny bottle of milk?” Nine-month-olds have all the emotions we have – they just neither understand nor are able to explain them.
I have learned, as you might have as well, that distracting ourselves from our emotions isn’t the best plan. And, I’m learning more and more that understanding why I feel a certain way doesn’t help either. What is better in the long run is to actually get through the discomfort by living it, neither distracting nor understanding it.
The wise statesman Winston Churchill said,
“If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
Likewise, the poet Robert Frost said,
“The best way out is always through.”
This week’s #wisdom_biscuit: Feel feelings and think thoughts.
(Caution: don’t think feelings or feel thoughts.)