One of the biggest obstacles to finding more wellness and equanimity is the belief that we shouldn’t be feeling what we’re feeling; that if we were more evolved or healed or with a different partner we wouldn’t feel so ________ (anxious, depressed, lonely, confused, empty, bored). Because we live in a culture that disseminates the message that everyone else is living a happy life, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that there’s a manual that you didn’t receive that outlines the steps for happiness. There is no manual, and if you look closely enough you will find that everyone struggles. The problem is that very few people talk about their struggles and so we collectively perpetrate the illusion that everyone else has it together.
One of the ways we perpetuate this illusion as a culture is that we’re not honest about our inner worlds and the struggles that populate our daily lives. When asked, “How are you?” we dutifully respond, “Fine.” Are you really fine? Probably not. Or maybe. But because we’ve been conditioned to offer a rote response, we don’t allow others to peer into the true reality of our world. The other day my son asked me, “What do I say when someone asks me how I am?” which launched us a very interesting discussion about how our cultural norms and mores are designed to keep up the happy face mindset. As Jungian psychoanalyst Marion Woodman once said, “We walk around all day with a happy face and then go home at night and cry.”
So when the normal emotions of life arise, our initial knee-jerk response is to bat them away. Our second response is to analyze them and try to figure out why we’re feeling what we’re feeling (attaching story). And the third response is to project the feelings onto something external – partner, job, house, city – as an escape-hatch attempt to abdicate responsibility. None of these responses actually work, yet because we’re not taught how to attend lovingly to feelings, we resort to ego habits and learned tactics.
What does work? Simply being with the feeling. I’ll explain this more through discussing the specific feeling that arose repeatedly in my work with clients last week: loneliness.
“Sometimes I’m with my partner and he just doesn’t get it. I can see as I’m talking that he doesn’t really understand what I’m saying. He listens but I know it’s not really going in. And then I start to think that maybe he’s not the right person for me.”
“What would happen if you didn’t go into the projection that he’s not the right person for you?” I ask.
“I don’t know. I guess I would have to feel what I’m feeling.”
“And what is that?”
“Yes, it can feel lonely when you sense that the person you’re talking to doesn’t really get what you’re saying. Can you handle sitting with that core feeling?”
“Maybe. But why would I feel lonely with my partner? Doesn’t that mean I’m with the wrong person?”
Let’s pause here for a moment to splash some truth water on the belief that you should never feel lonely with your partner. This erroneous and damaging belief is part of the template encoded into our psyches that says that our partners should be our perfect match. They should read our minds. They should predict our thoughts. They should know how we want to be loved and then proceed to love us in exactly that way all the time. Essentially, they should be our clones. Why? Because then we would never have to feel lonely. This belief comes from the partner-as-soulmate mindset that proposes that if you meet your perfect match you will feel seen, loved, attended to and adored every moment of every day for the rest of your life. In essence, this fantasy model of partnership is an escape-hatch mindset that convinces you that the “right” person will lift you out of life’s pain.
There is no such partner and there is no such remedy. The truth is that you will never see everything the exact same way as anyone else: your partner, your best friend, your therapist, a respected teacher. Part of being in relationship with others is learning to tolerate differences of opinion and ride through those moments when you feel unseen. It’s learning to be with the feelings that arise when your partner looks at you blankly or doesn’t respond in a way that makes you feel heard and “gotten”.
Now that we’ve addressed the cognitive distortion around loneliness, we can circle back around to the conversation about what it looks like simply to tend to a root feeling of life. It means that you become a friend to the feeling. It means you sit with it without judgement, shame, or resistance. When you befriend loneliness, you ease an edge off the loneliness and, paradoxically, feel a little less lonely. So here we arrive at an interesting layer of loneliness: part of it might stem from a moment of feeling unseen or unheard but a deeper part is when we abandon ourselves in a moment of difficult feelings. In other words, our partner or a friend may trigger an internal state but we perpetuate that state when we discount or avoid the feeling in any way.
When we befriend a feeling we bring compassion to it, just like we would if our best friend shared that same feeling. We’re often much kinder to our friends than we are to ourselves, so when we’re practicing bringing compassion and curiosity instead of judgment to our internal states it can help to imagine what we would say or do if we were talking to our closest friend. When we allow for the feeling instead of resist it, it moves through us. After we meet it with compassion, we can then encourage it to flow through us by breathing into it, writing about it, drawing it or dancing it. It’s in this way that the inevitable feelings of life move instead of stagnate, and we eventually learn that when we meet ourselves with love, moment by moment, there is less room for fear.