Mo' Feelings, Mo' Problems?

My husband was interviewed a long time ago when he was first starting his company. It was his first time speaking on a podcast and he was in the early stages of his work. There was a point where the interviewer asked how he was able to be so successful when he was dealing with the challenges that come with building a company and working with family. I remember it clearly, "I just take the emotion out of it." In the moment I was like, "WHAT?" Who can just "take the emotion out of it," just like that? This was years ago and I was still in the stages of exploring whether my husband might be a robot or just really out of touch with his feelings. If you're wondering, it's true. We enter this field to help heal other people's problems and our own.

We were eating dinner the other night and I brought it up. We both had a good laugh. "Yeeaaah, that was wrong", he says. Since that interview, we've experienced plenty of growth with many emotions to accompany it. I brought it up because I was remembering how absurd and spectacular it sounded. "Wouldn't that be nice?", I fantasized mid-chew. "If I could just cut this knot out of the center of my chest, that would be amaaaaaziiiiiiing." I can't even remember what it was, but clearly, something had been stressful that day and I really wanted to put down my emotions the same way I put down my keys. My husband has owned his own life path and company for a few years more than I have. He looks at me and goes,

"If you're going to do your own thing, it never stops. You just get better at it." 


My mind wanted to latch onto the "it never stops" part. But my soul could feel relief in the truth that "you just get better at it." I had witnessed the evidence of that first hand. It made me remember that my coach had asked me to list my greatest accomplishments of 2017 and one of them was: I effectively held my emotions and human ego in self-compassion. I gave myself a well deserved pat on the back for all the dang work I put into being aware of my emotions so I could let unhelpful feelings simmer and keep my focus on my big audacious goals. 

One thing I hear a lot from my clients is a desire to tame their emotions so they don't get overrun by them. They want less reactivity when they run into issues with their partners, they want to sleep better after a difficult interaction at work, and they want to doubt themselves less when it comes to stepping outside of their comfort zone. Just yesterday, I was talking to a friend of mine who is an ambitious business owner and entrepreneur about how he has managed to evolve in his capacity to move through emotions when having difficult conversations at work:

 "The feelings don't go away, but you just get more comfortable having that feeling and operating anyway. You just don't get frozen or paralyzed about it. You just feel that stuff and do it anyway. You start to think, 'I've been here before, I've felt this before, and I've gotten through it.' It's never like, 'I just love having to be the asshole that holds people accountable!' Just because I don't like it and it's uncomfortable doesn't mean I don't do it."


Whoa. HOW KILLER IS THAT?? I immediately started writing that down as a reminder to both myself and every other human being on this planet. I know the truth of this incredibly well, but some things you just have to hear a thousand times before it starts to sink in. The feeling can seriously suck sometimes, but it's just a feeling. It will pass and you will get through it. Just because it feels sh*tty and annoying, don't let temporary emotions stop you from moving into places of growth that require discomfort. 

If you're wondering about how to start a new process in your relationship with your feelings, start with working on becoming aware of them. Therapy is like strength training. It's a process and you build up over time. We start by helping you better understand your mind, how you tick, and gain new strategies for how to engage with your world. As a team at Modern Therapy, we're huge advocates of mindfulness and talk a lot about strengthening our client's capacity to be the "Observing Self." If you want to start settling down the emotions that come up for you, begin a practice of gently noticing what you're experiencing. This will help you cultivate a healthy capacity to recognize what's moving inside of you. That way, you can make a more conscientous response rather than dive head first into reactivity. It's an absolute practice and it requires a shift in your mental lifestyle. The practice doesn't mean your feelings go away, they'll just become less severe and distressing in your experience of them. Your core self will remain intact as you notice the experiences that move around you. It's no surprise so many ambitious and driven people take the time to meditate every day. They have bigger sh*t to deal with.

If you're a skeptic of the mindfulness meditaiton movement, here's a final point to bring it home. I was reading an interesting dialogue last week by The Atlantic between Matthieu Ricard, a molecular biologist turned Buddhist monk, and Wolf Singer, a neuroscientist as they discussed their new book, Beyond the Self:

"So far, the results of the studies conducted with trained meditators indicate that they have the faculty to generate clean, powerful, well-defined states of mind, and this faculty is associated with some specific brain patterns. Mental training enables one to generate those states at will and to modulate their intensity, even when confronted with disturbing circumstances, such as strong positive or negative emotional stimuli. Thus, one acquires the faculty to maintain an overall emotional balance that favors inner strength and peace."

Sounds pretty epic to me and a solid encourager to get back on my daily meditation practice. On that note, a mindful break is calling my name.

Yes feelings, less problems.

- Dr. B



[original publication date 2016]

I was curled up on my couch reading Tuesdays with Morrie. It was one of those dark, drizzly kind of days that make everyone move slower but doesn’t keep you from going about your business. It’s a book about an elderly college professor with ALS and his weekly meetings with an old student of his. Each week they get together and Morrie discusses his philosophies on life as he endures his unforgiving disease. I had never heard of this book before and after hearing the “oh of course” tone in my grandmother’s voice when I mentioned it to her, it appears my age might be partly to blame. I was really taken in by it. It’s full of all kinds of life lessons. The stuff you know you should try to live by but it’s still hard to.

Morrie was talking about the concept of “presence,” truly being with another person and in the present moment. I believe wholeheartedly in this ideology. Mid chapter I realized that I was away from my iphone. It instantly pulled me out of the lovely moment I was having. It bothered me that it bothered me to be away from my phone. I normally wouldn’t care so much but I just started a new venture so I want to be connected when I’m needed. I fidgeted on the little part of the couch I had managed to settle into. I struggled but I stayed with it. After finishing my chapter I strolled into the bedroom where I found my little electronic friend waiting for me. 1 missed call. Life, you ironic butthead. Didn’t you know how present I was trying to be? This is how you repay me? I laugh to myself after returning the call and confirming that I was a little too late and lost a potential client.

I’ve heard this anecdote numerous times and I can’t stand it: basically, forget the whole “balance in life” thing. It’s a farce. Something is always going to give so if you invest too much in your work life, your personal life will start going to shit and vice versa. You can meditate and eat as much kale as you want but there’s no secret door called “balance” that will open for you. At least not for long. Soon enough you’ll be thrown back and forth into that struggle of time and energy again.

I was wondering about what to do about that as I ran out of my house 10 minutes late to meet a dear friend for coffee (presence problems). I paused at the red light, getting ready to turn right when I noticed an older man beginning to walk across the street from the other side of the road. I could have gone ahead but decided to sit there a moment instead. I still had Morrie on the brain so I took a deep breath and waited for him as he made his way across. He looked at me and smiled, offering a gentle wave my way. I smiled and waved back. A brief moment of human connection between strangers. I feel the warmth build inside my chest and thank Morrie for the sweet moment I would have otherwise missed.

The coffee shop is modern with a hint of hipster. I like it. There are panels of dark wood on the walls and modern fixtures hang from the ceiling with Edison bulbs. I order a cortado and take a seat when I get a text. My friend was running late as well. I generally have a book in my handbag because why wouldn’t I, so no big deal. I reach for my bag when I remember that I had purposely not put one in there because I was reading Morrie and had thought to myself, “you’re meeting a friend. What do you need to bring a book for?” Effing Morrie. I smile to myself. I take the remainder of my time to sit and just be.

There are macs everywhere. Some folks are having meetings. Others appear to be students. Many look like creatives and small business owners themselves. And then there I am. Present and hanging with Morrie feeling all warm and happy. I wonder to myself: being present, mindfulness meditation, all that jazz has become so popular within my field of psychology. My own interpretation of why this practice of being attuned to the living, breathing moment is becoming so big is because we’re losing our everyday capacity to engage in this way of being. I think we’re spiritually shriveling up as we lose sight of the importance of cultivating fulfilling, grateful moments. We get swept up too easily in another wave of work and life responsibilities. It becomes too tempting to be plugged into technology more than necessary for those moments in between. I think that’s why we have so many hipsters. We’ve gotten too out of whack with how we live so people are starting to grow beards, listen to vinyl, and blog about how horrible technology is. Case in point (minus the beard…).

Psychologists are now turning to mindfulness meditation to help treat depression and anxiety and the research is ridiculous in how effective this practice can be to our emotional well-being. The practice of being present in the moment can actually change our brain. It helps us break away from depressive thought traps and access these “present-moment” neural pathways better. Research findings indicate that it may even decrease the density of grey matter in the amygdala, a part of the brain that is implicated in stress and anxiety. These moments of connection, and more so, the feeling of connection with something greater than ourselves, opens the door for emotions that far exceed happiness and can lead us to feelings like joy and awe. So I’m thinking about all of this as I’m sitting with no barrier between me, my cortado, and the world. Present, alone, and engaged, I can’t help but think to myself: is this kind of creepy? I mean, like really. I’m just sitting here with nothing and no one and looking around at my environment completely fascinated. I wonder about our ever-evolving modern day culture. In our need for greater presence in our lives, is the approach in doing so going to become creepier and creepier?

Morrie didn’t write a chapter on that so I guess I’ll have to finish it myself. I’m thinking that we’re going to have to make an honest fight for our spiritual sanity. We’re going to have to actively engage and challenge ourselves to be fully alive and not caught in that in-between state too long as we run from task to task. And that might mean missing out on a potential client sometimes and it’s going to be totally OK. I would rather my headstone read “lived in the present moment” than “never missed a potential work opportunity.” Of course we will always be caught in the struggle between the two, but I know which side I will gladly err on at the end of the day. Plus, the more fully engaged and alive I feel, the better work I’ll be able to do anyway. So there’s that. I think I’ll stick with this whole presence thing, even if it does border on creepy sometimes.


Brain References:

Albom, M. (1997). Tuesdays with morrie: An old man, a young man, and life’s greatest lesson. New York, NY: Broadway Books.

Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly. New York, NY: Gotham Books.

Lu, Stacy (2015). Mindfulness holds promise for treating depression. Monitor, 46, 50-55.

Segal, Z. V., Williams, J. M. G., & Teasdale, J. T. (2012). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression (2nd ed.). New York, NY: The Guildford Press.