There is a healthy place for anxiety, fear and anger. Fear alerts us to real-and-present danger. Anxiety, when approached through the lens of compassion, is a wise messenger alerting us to needs and wounds that are asking for attention. And righteous anger, which I’ve been hearing from many clients these past couple of weeks regarding how this global situation has been handled and the inequities it has painfully highlighted, is a powerful mobilizing force that can lead to social and personal change.
But when anxiety is left unattended and we take every thought and feeling at face value; when fear hightails into overdrive and we see danger in every corner; and when healthy anger morphs into blame and attack, these core emotions are no longer helpful. And quite often, when we slow down enough, we see that they’re protectors against the one feeling that most people don’t want to feel: grief.
We are all grieving, and during this challenging time it’s important to remember that anxiety, fear, and anger are often placeholders for grief. We are being asked, both individually and collectively, to name the defensive emotions as they arise so that we can soften into our grief. This is what we’re always being asked, but the normal invitations are heightened during times of great change. As Jungian therapist Juliet Rohde-Brown, PhD writes in this article:
This pandemic targets the lungs. In some medicines of the world, ailments in this area of the body speak to an experience of overwhelming loss. A pandemic does not separate people by race, class, gender, ethnicity, religion, geography, political or theoretical orientation. It includes all people. Pan, the mythological god of wild nature, whose parents were messenger and forest dweller, spreads the sound of a calling through the music of his pipes in a uniquely trickster way. Our collective consumerism and sense of separateness from others and from nature, and ultimately from our own true nature has caused a great deal of suffering and lack of remembrance of our sacred calling as a species. At the bottom of that suffering is a grieving, a grieving that we have mostly not allowed ourselves to lean into, a grieving that is held in the body and kept at illusory bay by fear.
We’re grieving differently as this pandemic affects us in different ways. But, as always in transitions, the current global grief of what’s afflicting our planet – the grief for the vulnerable, the elderly, healthcare workers and all essential workers, the grief for those who have lost loved ones and are suffering through the illness themselves – the global grief intersects with our personal grief, and when we soften the defenses the pain comes through.
Yet there are so many ways to a void our soft, vulnerable hearts. Since we didn’t see vulnerability modeled growing up, we don’t know what it looks like to drop down into the undefended place. Instead, when we’re feeling scared or sad we resort to the default defenses, which is to harden, blame, attack, and panic. These do not serve us, and yet it’s where we all go at times. Dr. Rohde-Brown continues:
Fear over illness and death can drive us to imagine worst-case scenarios, to grasp at our material survival and hoard more than our share, to wipe up literal and figurative excrement (i.e., the rush for toilet paper), to forget about those most vulnerable, to search for a place for blame to land, and to panic. Alternately, fear can be a teacher. We may allow ourselves to sit with the feelings that arise, to share our innermost selves in relationship with others, to be present to frailties and perpetrations without condoning, but with compassion, and become acquainted with our perennial interconnectedness.
We have a misguided belief that says that if we soften we’ll fall apart and or become paralyzed. It’s the opposite that’s true: our softness is our grace and our fire. When we soften instead of harden, we are fueled with the energy to take action and offer support to others, whether that’s for an elderly neighbor who needs help with their shopping, sewing masks, donating money, or attending to your own latent pain that is emerging with increased potency during this time. Never forget that doing your inner work is not a selfish act. Rather, it’s the first step we take toward being able to offer ourselves as healing vessels of change and service in the world.
It’s normal to armor up during times of stress and anxiety (which we’re clearly in). It’s our instinct to protect and to some degree it helps us power on. But if we become too armored for too long, we lose touch with our heart, which is the source of what makes us human and is the pulsing center that keeps us connected to everything that matters.
Last Sunday, I met virtually with my monthly new moon group, and the moment I saw their faces on my screen I started to cry. I didn’t even know why I was crying, and it didn’t matter. All of the “holding it together” broke loose like a dam and I wept in their loving “arms.” The armor that I didn’t even know I was carrying melted. My heart, which apparently was defended, softened.
The next morning, broken open now, I cried again, the weeks of sadness flooding in. I wept for the “big” and the “small” pain: the tens of thousands of people who have died and their families; the unspeakably stressful financial toll that this virus is taking; the worldwide pain that arises from living with an unprecedented awareness of uncertainty.
I feel sad that the most simple and primal task – going to the grocery store – is now fraught with risk and fear. I’m sad that human beings, even my own neighbors who I’ve known for ten years, are a threat. I feel sad that we all move to the other side of the road when we pass each other on walks.
I’m sad for our 15-year old son who, after being homeschooled his entire life, was just finding his place in the world outside our family and now is like a caged animal. I feel heartbroken for my dear friend here in Boulder who has been suffering with covid-19 for weeks. I feel sad that I don’t know how to support her, that her illness triggers my own fear, that I can’t drive up the road and give her what she’s needing most right now: a hug. I feel sad for a hundred things, some nameable and many unnameable, and I let myself grieve them as best I can. We don’t have to know why we’re grieving to let ourselves grieve.
Crying is medicine. It opens the inner aqueducts and fills the waters of the well. It’s a funny thing with tears: when we release the waters of our heart, the heart fills up again. I think of my clients and course members who struggle with letting themselves cry because of the early, shame-based messages they received: “Crying is weak. “Crying is for sissies.” “Get over it.” “Toughen up.” “If you don’t stop crying I’ll give you something to cry about.” These messages lead to other beliefs about big feelings, like “If I start crying, I’ll never stop.” While we can become mired in intrusive pain, more often than not when we let ourselves cry we find renewed energy to keep living and loving.
Have you had a big cry lately? Share in the comments below.
Note: If you’re struggling with intrusive thoughts and anxiety, one of the most potent prescriptions for healing them at the root is to allow yourself to live in whole-hearted, full-bodied expression. This means learning to spiral out of head-realm and down into body-realm where the heart taps out its song to the rhythm of our emotional lives. This is what I teach in Trust Yourself: A 30-day Program to Help You Overcome Your Fear of Failure, Caring What Others Think, Perfectionism, Difficulty Making Decisions, and Self-Doubt. The fourteenth round of this live course will start on Saturday, April 25, 2020, and I look forward to connecting with you there. If you would like to take the course but the cost is prohibitive, please reach out to us using the contact tab at the top of this site and we’ll discuss options.