I was recently speaking to a woman whose plans to move in with her girlfriend of 11 months were thwarted. Her girlfriend decided repentantly, after they had looked at a few places together, that she was not quite ready to move in, although she did want to keep the relationship.
As you can imagine, it was painful. All the pictures of starting a new life, the feelings of moving towards another and building something new with them now had nowhere to go. It was a harsh disappointment. Even though the relationship was intact and nothing had yet materially formulated, there was a lot of loss involved. And as you probably know, loss involves a whole subset of feelings including shock sadness, anger, etc.
As the woman recounted what happened, she shared quite a bit of narrative that was not applicable to the situation. These sayings included things like: “I am such a failure at relationships,” and “I am never going to have a long-term life partner.” As she continued, she became more and more morosely focused on the apparent truths of these statements, rather than on the feelings of the loss itself.
Does this sound familiar to you? How did she come to the conclusion that her love life was doomed? It is very difficult for many people to differentiate between the feelings that a situation evokes and their projected, self-hating interpretation of the events. In this situation, the sudden loss of a plan to cohabitate is comingled with a projection of personal sense of relationship failure. I experience this confusion in myself and witness it in people all the time when they encounter unexpected events that spark uncomfortable feelings. Recently, a man whose job was a casualty of downsizing took a similar track. He went from “I can’t believe I was let go from my job” to “I am such a loser. It’s going to be hard to get a good reference . . . I might never work again” within seconds. Feelings of discouragement and rejection are normal in the experience of being laid off, but the idea that you are loser doomed to perpetual unemployment is not a feeling; it is a baseless conclusion.
What is the purpose of engaging in catastrophizing, nasty, self-recriminating behavior when we are down and need it the least? The events of our lives, and especially in relationships, are always knocking us off center. As bad as it may feel to call yourself a loser, it might actually make you feel stable in a time of inner upheaval and the chaos of the unknown. If you feel certain that you are a failure, at least you can have certainty about something, and know where you stand (even if the thought is keeping you between a rock and a hard place). Telling yourself a story that keeps you stuck in a negative dead-end thought loop is a defense that clamps down on the flow of emotion underneath and gives us the illusion of being stable. It is an attempt to make something known, but it blocks us from the love and inner space we need to recover. So strange that our own thoughts can be comforting and psychologically damaging at the same time.
We will not change this habit until we acknowledge the value of our feeling responses, and define stability in a new way. Feelings are the cornerstone of our humanity, they bring with them knowledge and wisdom, and evoke in us an essential experience of empathy, which connects us to others, and allows others to connect to us. Feelings help us to integrate the impact of experiences in our lives. We must create access to safe, grounded environments inside ourselves, and with others, for our true emotional experiences to thrive: That is where true stability comes from.
So, how does one actually do that? How does one create a safe and welcome environment for their feelings after a lifetime of doing the opposite? We must first commit to breaking the habit of collapsing into self-hating talk and build the muscles to endure the straight up flow of life within, and it is going to take time and assistance and energy. You all know some practices that are supposed to help you do this: therapy, meditation, yoga, etc. but I want to remind you also of the power of groups, which are incredible in this regard. The power of a group gathered in the name of safety, whether it be a therapy group, an empowerment group, AA or other meetings, can bring emotions to the surface and allow them to be witnessed and pass through and cleanse. Women’s groups are especially potent for women looking to build this skill. Women have an innate ability to mid-wife, which carries over into a natural ability to hold the space for others to birth emotion.
If you can’t find this type of group in your area and even if you can, there are ways to practice alone. When you find yourself in negative self-talk, convincing yourself about how bad things or you are, stop. Stand with your feet on the ground and hold on to something like a firm table, and brace yourself, so you are stabilizing yourself in a different way; you are signaling to yourself that stability is there, at least physically. Breathe. Feel your feet on the ground and feel into your body, even if hurt is there. See if you can name the feeling. It will not be a sentence. It will be a word, or a body sensation. If you are feeling, after a bad meeting at work, “like you won’t ever, ever get through to your boss,” you have not accessed your feelings -- you are still in Storyville. You need to breathe again and go deeper. If you come up with a one-word answer such as “helpless” or “frustrated”, or come up with sensations like, “a lump in your throat,” then you are there. Stay with it and courageously prod or dive into it. The reliable thing about feelings is that they always change. As you give space and airtime to yourself in this way, you may find new feelings emerging, like anger or sadness, until you return to a sense of peace.
In order to further facilitate staying with your feelings and out of your nasty thoughts, you can close your eyes and move in a way that expresses the feeling underneath the story you are telling yourself. You might express a feeling of anger by punching the air, or comfort sadness by swaying. Remember that you have every right to feel the way you do but that the stories you are telling yourself can’t possibly be true. Authorize the feelings; resist the stories.
Finally, after feelings of disappointment or shock have been dealt with and acknowledged, create a story about what has happened and let it be one of honoring yourself, one that resonates. The woman mentioned earlier might let herself know that by choosing to be with someone who knows herself and is not willing to move forward unless it is the right time, she is gravitating towards people with integrity and that is a good thing for building successful relationships.
Are you up for the task? Practice. If you found this useful, do send me an e-mail through my site at blairglaser.com/contact and let me know how it goes!
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BLAIR GLASER, MA, LCAT, RDT has taught women around the country innovative skills and new ways of thinking to improve their experience in their bodies, at work and in relationship. She has run workshops at retreat centers around the country, including Omega in Rhinebeck, NY and at her studio in Woodstock, NY. She is a New York licensed creative arts therapist, teaches drama therapy at a graduate level at Pratt Institute, and has guest-lectured about drama therapy at New Rochelle College, The New School, and New York University. She has run drama therapy groups with several different populations, including a group for teenage girls that she was recruited to facilitate by actor-activist Jane Fonda . She is in private practice and also speaks at conferences and gatherings.
Blair also worked from 1998 to 2004 as part of the core staff of Eve Ensler's V-Day, a movement to stop violence against women and girls, corresponding with women all over the world about issues of empowerment. Blair's articles have appeared online in UK's feminist e-zine, FLOW, at Sexual Health.com, and in the Hudson Valley Arts/ Spirit / Culture publication; Chronogram. You can visit Blair's web site at www.blairglaser.com.
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