I was having a delightful time enjoying the sights of Melbourne, my amazing view from my rather expensive hotel room, good coffee, a Cheese and Vegemite Scroll (only in Australia!), and time to myself, when something happened to ruin all of that. Without any warning, a hotel employee opening my hotel room door and started to enter. The hotel employee quickly realized his mistake, started an argument with me because he was clearly embarrassed, and then bowed out of my room. A 5 second exchange that ruined the previous 24 hours. I felt my space invaded, my expensive hotel room sullied, my introvert safety threatened. Here’s the sequence of emotional mental and physical events that followed, and what I did in response:
- My energy went quickly into my head – I was going to complain to the hotel management and hope they might give me something back to help me feel as if I was being compensated for my grief (a bit like a child who gets a treat for being put through the terror of visiting the dentist – “I want something to mitigate what you just put me through!”).
- I went into something of a freeze response though, and did not seriously entertain the notion of calling management – something in me wasn’t confident in standing up for myself, and another part of me also wondered if I might be over-reacting.
- I moved straight to my computer to continue with my emails because at least it was something to do.
- I felt a sense of distancing myself from something very important by starting to focus on my emails. Something about doing that made me feel as if I was abandoning myself. Another part of me didn’t want to be with myself.
- My mindfulness saw all of this and my self-compassion moved me to sit on the bed to simply notice what was going on for me. I tuned in to my body, which was somewhat numb and overshadowed by the activity in my head that rehearsed what I was going to say to management. I noticed my attention dearly wanted to stay with the activity in my head, but invited my awareness into my body because I knew that’s who was feeling neglected.
- My awareness got down to my throat which felt constricted. I started to associate the constriction with my reticence to call management, but also to thousands of instances in the past where my needs had not been met and the effect of those unmet needs were not mitigated either. I also tuned into the millions of unmet needs of sisters all over the world.
- I felt familiar soft emotions of sadness, longing, grief, loss and lack of safety. I stayed with them. I started to soothe myself by rubbing my arms and feeling the warmth of my hand on my arm. I spoke gently to myself – “Oh, dear one, I’m sorry this happened to you and that you were triggered again.”
- Feeling how good the warmth of my hand felt reminded me of how a hot shower is even more effective for soothing, so I made absolutely sure my door was deadbolted and ran a shower.
- The heat of the shower felt amazing, and I felt myself soothed. Then, interestingly, my anger started to surface. I realized in that moment that I needed to feel safe and soothed in order to get in touch with the feelings of anger in my body (as opposed to the angry machinations in my head).
- I felt waves of anger course through my body, the anger showed on my face (I could feel my face expressing itself with anger), and the anger rose up and out through the front of my body. The anger moved through me.
- After this process, I felt “spent,” as if I had offloaded something and there was now a strange space left in its wake. I finished my shower and reflected on my work.
It occurred to me that I had no trouble feeling the soft emotions that told me a boundary had been crossed. What I did have trouble finding was a way to be with the anger, the harder emotion. I remember a session with a counsellor many years ago when she invited me to practice expressing my anger by telling her to “Fuck off.” I couldn’t do it. Through tears I begged her, “Please don’t make me do that, Sheila!” The unwritten contract I had signed that said I could never get angry with someone else because they will reject me and I will be forever kicked out of the tribe was imprinted in my being. Fast forward to my hotel room in Melbourne – I felt safe enough to feel my anger alone after feeling soothed by the warmth of the shower.
My head thought it could work with the anger, but I knew that was a form of abandonment and resistance. My body did not know how to work with the anger until it felt safe and soothed. And once it did, all I needed to do was allow my body to have its experience.
Women all over the world are being triggered everyday by situations large and small. There is a groundswell of women coming forth and speaking out. As we do this, it is so important for us to work with our own emotions, starting with processes we practice in the safety and comfort of our own homes (or hotel rooms!). Following a process of encouraging our anger to express itself safely is huge. When we can express our anger safely, we help avoid perpetuating the bitterness and resentment that then expresses itself as that volcanic eruption of rage flung out at confused bystanders. We tend to our injured instincts and start the process of healing ourselves, moving to a place where we feel more and more safe with our anger so that we can midwife it rather than abandoning it. Here’s a process you might try when you have some safe space:
- Notice you’re having a difficult emotion triggered by feeling unsafe or having a boundary crossed by someone else.
- Bring stillness and soothing to your body.
- Tend to the soft emotions in your body through behavioral self-compassion.
- Once the soft emotions have been tended to, give yourself space to allow the expression of the hard emotion of anger in your body, keeping your awareness in your body (rather than moving up into your head).
- Once anger has expressed itself, bring stillness to your experience again – allow the experience to land, allow your system some time to integrate what just happened.
Here at HeartWorks, I’m working on programs to support women (and men) in finding that safe place to be with their soft and hard emotions. I’d love to explore some of that with you. Check out the Radical Emergent Self-Wisdom Mentoring program. I’ll also be running another Thriving Woman Toolkit early in 2018. See you there!