The Emotional Swirl

A technique for coping with life’s highs and lows

I’ve been practicing something kind of interesting lately when I’m really emotional and I want to tell you about it. It’s one of the best coping strategies I’ve discovered in this year of sobriety and maybe you’ll find it useful.

It’s pretty simple. I track my strong emotional reactions to life events then I insert a dose of the opposite into the pot. If I’m ecstatic, I throw some sadness in. If I’m really bummed, add joy. If I’m angry, humor is a nice addition. If I’m disgusted, empathy. If I’m surprised, add relief.

Let me give you a real life example.

I really like this new guy. I enjoy his company and attention. He’s handsome and charming. He likes to clean and dotes on me when we’re together. I feel excitement at the idea of seeing him over the weekend. I’m suddenly attached to the idea. It’s gonna be wonderful! All the good things will continue indefinitely! Happily ever after, here I come!

As I start to feel excitement take over my system, a voice in my brain clears its throat.

“What if it doesn’t work out?”

At first, it’s crushing. The sour feeling of despair runs through me and my heart falls. But after a moment, I am able to breath and let the excitement back in. With both feelings present, I arrive at a new feeling: acceptance.

It very well might not work out. He might move for work or I might meet someone else or we might realize we want different things.

Either way, it will be okay. I will be okay.

I’ve done this with all kinds of happy anticipation. From finding apartments I fall in love with that could turn out to be scams, to arranging a ceramic vase on a high shelf in my earthquake prone apartment, to publishing articles on Medium that nobody might read.

And I’ve done this with sadness or fear. When the new management of my apartment building put someone in charge a few months ago who started harassing tenants to get my rent-controlled neighbors to move out, I was becoming a moody mess. I absolutely love my home and have grown close with my neighbors. I didn’t want to have to uproot my life here. I also didn’t want to spend hours every week parsing tenant rights laws and showing up at the rent board. The stress of the situation started to affect my sleep and overall well-being.

I knew I needed a new perspective, so I considered that a fresh start might be a good thing for me. Maybe I can live somewhere with a balcony! And much of what I love about where I am, I’ve created. I can do that again. I started looking for a new place to live and found something I liked even more. I was feeling trapped and angry with the situation, but by switching my focus, I got really excited about the prospect of a new home. I ended up having to guide myself back out of excitement.

It’s almost like a vaccine, injecting a little of the hurt into a situation so I can sit with it long enough to grow stronger. I don’t particularly like unnecessary pain. Who does? But experiencing the fullness of life means some hurt will show up as I go for the things I want. Failure is part of success. Pain is part of joy. I start to appreciate it in a way because of that association.

And the more I work with holding space for the joy and the hurt, the more I feel able to cope with life’s surprises.

The more I recognize how interconnected all the feelings are, the more I start to see that they’re all sides of the same die. They can roll from one to another with a minor shift in perspective. They can lead to each other and back again. We can survive them and learn a hell of a lot in the process.

When hurt does come, from a disappointed client to the new apartment indeed being a scam to a crystal pitcher that came from my grandmother shattering, I don’t have to spend a long time in panic mode. I have done some preparation. It’s hard for a moment, and then I remember that I’m going to be okay. A new feeling is around the corner.

When we find a creative solution with a client, there’s joy.

When I climb into bed in a home I love, there’s joy.

When I imagine my grandmother telling me with a big smile not to worry about the broken pitcher (as she would most certainly do if she were still here, she was the ultimate hostess), there’s joy.

There’s treasure in the ebbs and flows of pain and there’s joy in how it helps us connect with each other. There’s joy in knowing I can survive it, that I can feel it’s depths and come through it stronger and brighter and a little more complex. I have insight I can share with others and I have a sense of humor that only the suffering know. It offers a really wonderful opportunity to take the reins on our mindset, redefine this thing called hurt.

Everything we care about can hurt us. But everything we care about can bring us the greatest joy.

Are we at the mercy of our circumstances? Only we can decide.

A thinking thot.

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