Whew, what a summer! I don’t know how you all are holding up with the extreme astrological energies we have been grappling with, but it has been INTENSE! If you are feeling rocked and discombobulated, raw and vulnerable, bogged down and stuck or unexpectedly liberated, know that you are not alone.
What has been coming up is all of our wounds, limiting beliefs, and dysfunctional programming so that we have an opportunity to consciously examine and then shed them as we move into the next stage of our evolution, personally and collectively.
This is definitely for our highest good and greatest freedom and happiness (we don’t want to take all that old painful baggage into our next creation), but the process has certainly been daunting and has required us to dig deep into the reserves of courage and commitment, as well as be creative about finding our way through.
In my last post, you heard about my crisis of confidence in my professional journey this summer. This post features my parallel crisis of confidence in my personal/relationship life—and the tools that I gained from that experience that I want to pass on. Since so much of our current collective experience has featured heated communication, dramatic changes in relationships and circumstances, and the arising of our deepest hurts and core challenges, I figured other people could benefit from what I’ve learned and what has helped me navigate this time and come out stronger and happier on the other side.
I’ll begin with an excerpt from my book project of this summer, Learning from Polyamory: A Spiritual Seeker’s Guide to Love (one of a series of offerings I’m planning to call the Fresh Perspective Series). And then I’ll present the toolkit that I developed for dealing with strong emotions which sustained me through some pretty intense challenges this season.
Learning from Polyamory
My partner is on an overnight date with someone else right now, so my polyamory skills have been getting a workout lately. Though my partner and I have been polyamorous for our entire relationship, it has mostly been me who has engaged in extramarital explorations, especially after I went on testosterone and became attracted to men for the first time. So I am very grateful for this opportunity as it is increasing my capacity to love. As my heart is breaking, it is stretching open and expanding. I have choices every day, even every minute, about whether to choose feeling victimized or finding my ability to love, fighting to have my needs met or experiencing peace.
I remind myself, I want my partner to have fun. I want my partner to have a great experience. I want my partner’s needs to be met. These all feel like true statements. When I speak them, in my body I feel a sense of calm and resonance. My partner was only 27 when we got together, and only had one 2 year relationship prior to me, so I could hardly expect that all the learning she would need to do around love and romance and relationships would come just through me.
So I want her to experience all the steps, the fun of dating and sex and romance. Because it is fun so I wouldn’t want the person I love more than anything in the world to be denied that fun, even if it’s with someone other than me. Because the dating and sex and romance between us is excellent and I’m extremely grateful for that—so the tithe to express my gratitude is that I can’t just keep that all to myself. I value sharing so this is my opportunity to live that value.
Of course, there are other feelings as well. Whenever we talk about polyamory in class, my students always assume that polyamorous people simply don’t get jealous. Not true. There’s always the underlying insecurity: what if my partner finds something they like better? How much of my partner’s life energy will this new relationship take away from me? Does this mean that I’m not special anymore? There’s the resentment of not wanting to have to deal with it, of feeling put upon by having to be uncomfortable. There’s the sheer terror that makes my body so agitated and overwhelmed that the last time my partner told me she was interested in someone, I spontaneously took off running down the street.
While in any polyamory arrangement the old familiar partner cannot compete with an exciting new interest, excitement comes from uncertainty and familiarity comes with safety. So there are ways that my partner venturing out is vulnerable feeling for them as much as for me—they risk being rejected, they don’t have the depth of trust with the new person, they feel insecure. I can choose to focus on the compassion that I feel for them around that.
I know that the new person is also risking a lot and probably feeling some insecurity, stepping into an established 12-year marriage, so I can have compassion for them as well. In fact, since the new person is someone who has been a friend for the last several years, and is now someone my partner is choosing to love, I can simply choose to love them as well, rather than setting them up as a threat or enemy.
I can choose to align myself with what is happening, and offer my support and congratulations and create positive good will in my marriage—or I can align myself against what is happening, which is a path of pain and ultimately fruitless. Even if I “got what I wanted”—which would basically be to avoid feeling fear and discomfort—I would not be happy because my partner would be unhappy. For things to seemingly work out in my favor means not working out for her, so I’d rather take on the discomfort myself.
Because my partner really deserves this. She doesn’t have opportunities very often and her last attempt at this about 3 years ago fell apart at the last minute—which was very crushing to her, so I’m thrilled that this is working out for her. I know that is very healing and very important. And I got off easy last time as the dating relationship ended suddenly before it really began. There were definitely challenging months of build up through non-acknowledged dates to give me some good practice, followed by the opportunity to be in a much easier support role of offering comfort for her broken heart. So now I’m being asked to step it up to another level. And I believe I’m being spiritually supported in that endeavor and that it will lead to many rewards, most especially increased freedom.
And my partner has certainly suffered through worse with me, especially in the early years of my testosterone journey when my sexual orientation changed: the uncertainty when I started having sex with men about whether I would end up still attracted to her, what that meant about me as a person that I enjoyed having casual hook ups with guys, all the boundary violations, the moving bar as I navigated what I wanted and needed. Truthfully, I don’t know why she’s stayed with me—I think I am actually very tough on my partners. So it would be ridiculous for me to now offer any resistance.
And I have learned, from my somewhat limited past experience, that raising a fuss puts her in the unfair position of having to choose (and she won’t choose me—or at least not without resentment). And it destroys trust in my marriage hence undermining the very thing that I’m afraid of losing. It makes her angry, upset, guilty, and afraid. And it makes me angry, upset, guilty, and afraid. It drives us apart and reinforces the separateness we’re both afraid of.
My partner spends nights away very frequently. They were just in Dallas for a week for work, they semi-regularly cat sit for a week in Boulder, and they attend a week long spiritual camp in Missouri twice a year. So my feelings about them being away tonight don’t have to be any different than that. I can remain calm, wish them well, and turn my attention to other things. This is far preferable to being up all night in agony, tormenting myself with my worst fears, replaying fictional images of them having sex in my mind over and over, ending up spent and exhausted and terrified.
My partner also frequently engages in other very absorbing and satisfying pursuits—whether musical, spiritual, or creative—often in intimate relationships with others. And why should any of these things feel threatening? I feel a sense of wariness in my chest, but why? Why would I not want my partner to have a deeply absorbing and satisfying life? Such things are the lifeblood of her aliveness so why would I want to deny them? What life would we have together if she were robbed of the things most satisfying to her—simply because they are not me and so therefore threaten me? It is not her job to keep me comfortable, to avoid threatening me. If I feel threatened by her experiencing joy and satisfaction in people and pursuits that don’t involve me, I am basically saying that all of her joy and satisfaction should come through me, which is preposterous.
Our partners are the people we love supposedly more than anyone else in the entire world. Out of all the billions of beings on the planet, this is the person we have chosen to love and we often stand up in front of friends and family to commit ourselves to their happiness. Yet this is the person whose happiness most threatens us, who we allow the most limited range of pursuits—and this is what our culture calls “love.”
Well, my contemplations have started to raise my discomfort level and I don’t want to upset myself before bed, so I’m going to end here and get to bed. Self-care is a really important aspect of this journey, and I want to maintain an even keel as much as possible, so I need to make sure I am as well- resourced as possible.
Polyamory is such an incredible path of growth because it acts like a metal detector/magnet, finding and raising to the surface anything that is unhealed in you. I think of it as a form of emotional yoga. Through polyamory we learn where our restrictions and resistance reside and then we can gently lean into these areas to expand our range and flexibility. Much like disruptions in our professional/financial lives, it cuts to the core of our feelings of safety and security. So dealing with instability in both core areas of my life this summer understandably generated in me some very strong emotions. Here’s an example:
My skin feels like it’s on fire and I’m burning burning out of control. I feel so hot and agitated I can no longer calm myself down. Though my body feels weak and shakey from strong emotion, I feel like I have to move—to walk and walk—because I can’t hold all this energy in my body. I feel reactive, like a wounded animal, ready to lash out in a moment’s notice—chasing away the love that I want so desperately to receive. Even being approached or touched in kindness feels threatening and painful. I feel like I want my life back, but it feels like it is now changed forever so all I can do is surrender and watch it transform into something new. I’m just riding the hot lava carrying me toward a cliff over which I will plunge—to my death and to my freedom.
Indeed this summer has been one of the most intense and most relentlessly challenging times of my life. While the reasons were particular to me, I knew I was not alone. Given the intense astrological forces working on us right now—the still present energies of the July lunar eclipse as well as the multiple planets that have been in retrograde—I feel like the inner challenges I’m facing are not just mine alone.
Collectively, this is a time for us to courageously grapple with our conditioning—with the dysfunctional familiar beliefs that keep us small and limited and our habitual strategies for dealing with our inner pain that might serve to temporarily keep that pain at bay, but prevent us from actually moving beyond it. Part of our unhealthy cultural conditioning is how we are trained to deal with challenging situations.
Being raised in a masculinist culture that highly values control and deeply fears vulnerability, I haven’t been given very helpful tools for working with intense feelings. Here is what I have been taught—see if any of this resonates with your experience.
American Toolkit for Dealing with Challenges and Strong Emotions
Don’t have challenges—if you do, there’s something wrong with you
Don’t share challenges –if you have challenges, pretend like you don’t
Medicate away strong emotions as they are dangerous
If you can’t get to a doctor to be prescribed medication, try these to disconnect:
Distract yourself away from the pain
Change the circumstances that are upsetting you
Blame the circumstances that are upsetting you
Better to be numb
Especially for women, find a way to hurt yourself to process the pain
Especially for men, find a way to hurt others to process the pain
Sam’s Toolkit for Working with Strong Emotions
“Usually we regard loneliness as an enemy. Heartache is not something we choose to invite in. It’s restless and pregnant and hot with the desire to escape and find something or someone to keep us company. When we can rest in the middle, we begin to have a nonthreatening relationship with it, a relaxing and cooling loneliness that completely turns our usual fearful patterns upside down. When you wake up in the morning and out of nowhere comes the heartache of alienation and loneliness, could you use that as a golden opportunity? Rather than persecuting yourself or feeling that something terribly wrong is happening, right there in the moment of sadness and longing, could you relax and touch the limitless space of the human heart? The next time you get a chance, experiment with this.”
Pema Chodoron from When Things Fall Apart
American culture teaches us to aspire to be comfortable and, especially for privileged folks, to sound the alarm anytime we are feeling discomfort. We see discomfort as an aberration—a sign that something has gone wrong—and we are trained to quickly identity the cause of our discomfort and to focus our efforts on changing our circumstances, rather than changing our reaction to our circumstances.
Polyamory is fundamentally a path of self-responsibility. My emotions arise from within me, they are not “caused” by my partner. While consciously negotiating boundaries is an important aspect of living polyamory, the goal is not to eliminate discomfort, but instead to use it as an opportunity for growth and healing.
And the focus is on self-change rather than demanding or manipulating your partner to change their behavior. While your partner may be an ally in your healing, ultimately working with your own emotions provides an opportunity to know yourself better, to see where you have blocks to happiness and peace, and to work to free yourself from them, enhancing the quality of your life overall.
Here are some of the things I’ve found helpful this summer in working with my own intense emotions. I hope that you will find something within this list that might be useful to you.
Breathe into your heart
Deep slow breathing generally is excellent for helping to calm down. It soothes and de-escalates the body and mind and helps to bring spaciousness and deliberateness to the agitation and urgency of the fight or flight response. It gives us something to bring our focus to, where we can consciously apply our will power, rather than feeling out of control and at the mercy of the fragmenting explosion of emotion.
I’ve found breathing into my heart to be even more powerful. We’re not talking about a 20 minute meditation practice here. I find that with just one deep breath into my heart, I instantly calm down and with just 5 such breaths, I feel noticeably different overall. It doesn’t necessarily mean I won’t go back into a state of agitation, even right away, if I allow or need that, but I know if I simply breathe into my heart, I have the power to instantly calm myself down.
Stay in the Present
As I brought attention to what helps me calm down, I also noticed the things that exacerbate my upset. The quickest way to add fuel to the fire of my distress, I found, was stepping back into the past or rushing ahead into the future.
When, at the beginning of the summer, someone I felt close to decided to step away from our friendship, I found myself drowning in shame and regret, rehearsing everything I’d said and done, wishing I could go back and do something different to create a different result. I found that my thoughts were continually berating me for perceived mistakes, criticizing me for “blowing it,” and frantically searching around for some way to “fix it.” I would work myself up into a full blown panic.
Similarly, watching my partner’s emotional investment with someone else steadily grow over the summer, I couldn’t help but jump into the future. I was certain that I knew how things were going to unfold, and I was convinced that there was no possible way that I could survive that. So my mind generated a lot of resistance to what was happening in the present based on my belief about the impossibility of my imagined future.
So I needed to continually remind myself to stay in the present. I’m not being asked to survive that future right now, I’m just being asked to survive this one present moment. And in this moment, I actually am surviving. It may be at the edge of what I feel I can tolerate, and it may take all of my skills and resources, but I am surviving it.
And ultimately, it is temporary. I keep reminding myself of what I’ve learned from my experiences in sweatlodges over the years: no matter what stories my mind creates about what’s happening, it is only intensity and it will eventually pass. Just stay present, resist the urge to run from it, and face it head on.
And trust the process. Though my friend may have stepped back this summer, for reasons that I can’t really know or control, it doesn’t necessarily mean she is gone forever. As my spiritual teacher Lynn Woodland always reminds me, if we need to jump over a big gap or obstacle, we will step back to get a running start and some momentum. So the times in our lives that may feel like a setback might actually just be the preparation for a big surge forward. It could be that my friend stepping back now allows her to step forward into deeper intimacy in the future.
What I also noticed this summer, during periods of agitation and upset, is that when I tell myself lies about a situation (generally the projection of my fears, which I rehearse supposedly to “protect myself”), I exacerbate my distress, but when I tell myself the truth, it serves to de-escalate my emotions. You already saw this in my excerpt above: when I started to feel agitated about my partner’s overnight date, I reminded myself that I want my partner to have a great experience and I want my partner’s needs to be met. And these truths helped my body and emotions to relax—and allowed me to make choices in accordance with my values, even if they were emotionally difficult.
During the frantic moments about both my partner and my withdrawing friend, I reminded myself that I have survived such moments in the past. In particular, I thought about the break up with my ex a decade ago. I remembered the moments of despair and heartbreak, sitting on my living room floor in my apartment in Minneapolis, feeling like I would never love again.
And 3 truths came to mind: first of all, just on the other side of that break up that I couldn’t see (literally months later) was my soul mate, my perfect match partner who was the catalyst for my going on hormones and who changed my entire life. My relationship with my ex had to be cleared away to create space for the experience of love and partnership that I most needed.
Secondly, although my ex had proclaimed that if we broke up she would not be able to be friends with me, we actually remain extremely close, texting most every day, and I consider her my dearest family. While it had been stressful trying to do life together as partners because we had very different goals and values, in our current relationship I get to enjoy all of the positive aspects of our former connection without any of the stresses. Hence not only was my romantic life improved on the other side of the break up, but even my relationship with my ex is even better.
Finally, although surviving those very painful moments of transition were extremely challenging, once my life settled back into a comfortable place, I actually found myself somewhat nostalgic for those intense moments during the break up. During that time, I was really tested to bring forth all of my skills and tools, and I developed a very close daily relationship with my spiritual guides and teachers, because I really needed them to survive. Though challenging, it was a period of tremendous growth and aliveness and empowerment that I actually missed during the somewhat bland days that followed. I wondered if, on the other side of this challenging test, I might too feel nostalgic for its intensity.
The truth is inherently peaceful.
Affirmations are another way to counter the lies we continually tell ourselves. You may notice that much of your inner dialogue consists of disparaging self-judgments. Rather than feeling victimized by our negative thoughts and their resulting emotions, we can be proactive and begin to create a positive inner landscape that nourishes and affirms us.
For those of you who think affirmations are just new age nonsense or silly self-indulgence, I find them to be a crucial aspect of the deprogramming process that I shared about in my last post. Not only do we need to identify the unhelpful beliefs that we want to shed, but we can also consciously choose the beliefs we do want.
To me, that is an aspect of creating the foundation for the new world: consciously utilizing our attention and intention in new ways. Whether individually or collectively, we need to stop focusing on what we don’t want and what we are against and instead use our creativity and our will to envision and keep our focus on what we do want—and use our energy to bring it into being.
While I have used affirmations regularly for much of my adult life and have healed many imbalances in my body and thoughts through this practice, this summer I discovered a wonderful numerologist named Kari Samuels (KariSamuels.com). She custom designs affirmations for your particular life path and sets them to meditative music that you can listen to every day to begin to reprogram your conscious and unconscious mind. I’ve found her recordings to be very nourishing—and moving. When I saw the list of affirmations she sent me, my eyes instantly welled up with tears as they touched upon all of my lifelong core struggles.
I am safe and at home in the world. I claim my space in the world.
My sensitivity is a gift. I shine my inner light brightly.
I am safe being seen and heard. It is safe for me to speak my truth.
I love and accept myself exactly as I am; I am loved and appreciated for who I am.
What is one area of life where you feel perpetually stuck or would like to see change? Come up with a one sentence positive statement about being, doing, or having the life that you actually want. So if you imagine yourself on the other side of where you feel currently stuck, what would that look like?
To give a couple examples, if you feel physically exhausted and stagnant, maybe yours would be “I have abundant energy for my exciting life”—or if you feel stuck living your life for other people, it might be “I choose to do what brings me joy.”
There are 5 guidelines you want to keep in mind for your statement:
1) It should be in the present tense—you are experiencing it now, not in the future
2) Your statement should be positive—what you want instead of what you don’t want
3) Use the language of being, doing or having instead of wanting
4) Focus on changing your own experience instead of controlling the behavior of others
5) Affirm the end result you want, not the steps you believe will take you there
Give it a try and let me know how it goes.
To see results, consistency and repetition are key so I suggest repeating your affirmation 15 times a day. You are building a new belief system so consider how many times over the course of the day that you tell yourself something negative and actively counter this with your statement of what you are choosing instead. You can repeat it silently as you move about your day, speak it out loud (looking in the mirror is the most powerful), or write or type it up. Keep it posted where you will see it often: on the bathroom mirror, on your steering wheel, on your computer. And let this be a reminder to keep your attention trained on what you WANT rather than what you don’t want.
During moments of intense emotion this summer, my affirmations were a lifeline. There were times when I felt swamped by some emotional tidal wave and didn’t know how to right myself. In those moments, I would put in my headphones, set out on a walk, and just listen to my affirmation recordings again and again until I felt calmer.
Not only did they aid me in feeling more peaceful and trusting, they also helped me feel more empowered. Especially when I was feeling bounced around by the choices of other people over which I had no control, I could actively choose to nourish my mind and heart with the beliefs and life that I wanted to claim for myself.
I am surrounded by people who love and appreciate me and relationships that nourish my well-being.
I relax and trust the process of life. My life unfolds beautifully in divine timing.
I create and maintain healthy boundaries and make my happiness a priority.
I see myself thriving in every way. Every day my life gets better and better.
I have the power to manifest my dreams and effortlessly manifest the life I love.
Just imagine if everyone in this country—every time they felt enraged or despair over what Trump is doing—chose to focus their attention and energy instead on imagining AND CREATING the world that they want to live in. Rather than getting lost in the downward spiral of emotion and helplessness, empower yourself to be an active creator of our emerging collective world.
My loving presence is a gift to the world. I have a positive impact on the world.
I use my words to uplift and inspire. My voice is clear, confident, and strong.
If I imagine it, I can create it. I am a powerful creator.
Creating Inner Safety
Those of you who have been in my classes or attended my workshops might be familiar with this super helpful guided meditation (courtesy of Lynn Woodland—check out LynnWoodland.com) for creating inner safety. I consider it to be an essential tool for being a peacemaker in the contemporary world and a terrific way to empower yourself to take ownership of your own emotional state.
Take several deep breaths, relax and begin to imagine a feeling of safety. Say to yourself, silently, over and over, the words, “I am safe.” It’s not necessary that you believe these words. “I am safe” is the belief you are creating, not necessarily the belief you hold.
Let this feeling start in your stomach as a soothing, peaceful sensation and allow it to radiate through your entire body and then slightly beyond, forming a safe, comforting pink cocoon around you. Feel your stomach relax into deep safety and well-being. Feel your shoulders relax as though you’ve just had a weight lifted from them. Imagine a hard and heavy layer of protective armor now dissolving out of every part of your body because it’s no longer needed. Imagine that you’re naturally protected by this state of peaceful defenselessness.
Picture this safety as a beautiful light of unconditional love that fills and surrounds you. See this light attracting to you everything that’s for your highest good and repelling everything that’s not. Imagine this light to now be in place around you all the time, even when you’re not thinking about it.
Remind yourself many times each hour of the day that you are safe and put yourself to sleep this way at night. Take this even further by spending a day imagining that everyone you encounter has your best interests at heart.
Tonglen is a Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice that reverses our American training to seek pleasure and avoid suffering. In Tonglen practice, with every in breath you take onto yourself the suffering of others and with every out breath you send out whatever will benefit them. In Tonglen practice, we resist the urge to disconnect from our own suffering, as well as the suffering of others. In Tonglen practice, we transcend the isolation and self-absorption that often fuels our suffering. Instead we allow our own suffering to connect us to the suffering of others—who else on the planet right now is feeling this same weight of shame, terror, pain, loneliness, rage, desperation? Our in-breath welcomes the difficulties of the human experience; our out-breath shares what is most precious to us.
If you are going to be experiencing suffering anyhow, you may as well intend for yourself to take on the suffering of others, that you may seek to spare them some of the difficulty of what you are experiencing. And you can maximize whatever joy and success you experience by sending it out to all others to share as well. This practice not only cultivates compassion but can give purpose and a sense of empowerment to whatever challenges you are experiencing.
This practice of loving kindness also comes from Tibetan Buddhism and can be used to cultivate peace and compassion when your mind feels like a battlefield. Doing this practice not only helps to shift out of the stubborn deadlock of ego conflict, but it can open doors to mutually beneficial solutions to whatever interpersonal challenges you might be facing.
Begin with those who are easiest for you to love (either individually or as a group). May my friends, family, those I admire be happy, healthy, successful, abundant. May they know peace and be free from suffering.
Then move on to those about whom you feel neutral—acquaintances, strangers, service professionals, co-workers, neighbors. Recite the same words (for individuals or the group): May they be healthy, happy, successful, and abundant. May they be free from suffering. Be sure to include people everywhere and all living beings in your remembrance. Wish them happiness and health in the present, past, and future.
Practicing loving kindness with strangers can not only create a more humane world, but it can help us to feel more safe and empowered as we move through life. We begin to see others as less inherently threatening to our well- being, as well as realize the power our love has to change people’s lives.
Finally, bring to mind those who it is difficult for you to love—those who have hurt you, those with whom you experience conflict or competition, those you blame for your own unhappiness or the state of the world (Donald Trump and his supporters, parents, lovers/ex lovers, bosses). May they be healthy, happy, successful, and abundant. May they be free from suffering. If this is exceptionally challenging for you, begin with “May I let go of this resentment. May I be free from this anger.”
With every round, notice what’s happening in your body and emotions. Notice your personality’s preferences: who it likes and dislikes, with whom it feels safe and unsafe. Watch for any tension or hardening of the heart as you bring to mind those with whom you may feel conflict or competition.
DON’T FORGET YOURSELF! You may start with yourself, with the recognition that if you cannot give loving kindness to yourself, you actually cannot give it to others with sincerity. Or you may be in the final round, among those who it is most difficult for you to love. This is an opportunity to practice giving loving kindness to all everywhere without conditions.
Imagine if we taught this practice in elementary schools all over the country. Doing this practice regularly literally changes the world.
Dealing with strong emotions together
Since so much of the current astrological configuration has involved communication challenges and relationship hot spots, I thought I’d end with some suggestions for how to deal with strong emotions in partnership.
Share a breath
This is a very simple but powerful practice for cultivating intimacy. I’ve mostly used it to grow closeness and partnership, but it can also be used to de-escalate charged emotions. You simply face your partner, look into their eyes, and breathe together (breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth is easiest as then you have visual cues). This practice helps to sync up your energies to facilitate working together, to come together as one being, breathing together.
When I was in the midst of an attack of panic and having trouble staying in my body, my partner asked if I wanted to share a breath and it really helped me settle down. While at first it was hard to stay present and to sync up with her, focusing on her eyes and breath and trying to match it eventually brought me back into my body and into a comforting rhythm that ended the crisis I was feeling and allowed me to access other inner resources.
Burn some sage and/or palo santo
Treat your potentially charged conversations like a sacred ritual. Prepare yourself by burning sage and cleansing one another’s energy fields. This will help to bring the proper mindset to your discussion as well as energetically support your work. While sage has been used for cleansing for centuries on this continent, palo santo is especially good for lightening the energy when something heavy or toxic has come up. After a heated discussion has arisen, cleanse your space afterward so that there’s no remaining energy of conflict. This practice can also be a useful habit in polyamorous explorations to create energetic containment so that you are not bringing the energy of one encounter/relationship into another. If you spend your days in a toxic work environment, this practice can also be invaluable so that you are not bringing that energy into your home space.
Share something you are grateful for and something you are proud of
My partner and I do this practice together most every night before bed and it was a helpful ritual to draw upon during times of conflict. It can be a way to ease into dialogue about troubling issues (reinforcing a more neutral tone, rather than jumping into debate) and it reminds us to be mindful of both our own experience and the other person’s experience (either of which I can forget about during moments of conflict).
Rather than arguing, practice active listening. Instead of countering what the other person is sharing, state “What I hear you saying is…” and then state back in their own words (rather than your interpretation of what they said). Ask if you got it right and allow them to make adjustments. Then ask “Is there more?” until there is nothing else. We have so few experiences in life of actually just being heard and acknowledged, just this practice alone can create miracles in your relationships.
When people feel heard, and are encouraged to go deeper into their perspective rather than instantly being told they are wrong, their defensiveness decreases pretty immediately and they are capable of much more than you might imagine. Try this with family members, co-workers, especially folks who don’t share your political perspectives. Just this practice alone can help to free us from the incredibly painful polarization we are currently trapped in collectively.
Remember that you don’t have control over how other people show up for you, but you do have control over how you show up so resist the urge to feel like it’s unfair if you offer active listening and the other person does not. You are changing the dance, even if you don’t feel the effects right away.
Hold the container for one another, one at a time
There is a time and place for venting. The key to its purposefulness in releasing intense pent up energy is to have the discipline to hold a neutral container. This means that one person has the floor—I’d say a half hour is a good amount of time. One person is the sole focus during that time and they simply get the chance to be unconditionally heard. This means no arguing or debating or problem solving about anything they say.
Regardless of what is said (“I’m honestly contemplating breaking up with you”), do not take the attention back to yourself, your emotional reaction, what that means for you. It is simply a time for one person to just verbalize anything that’s going on in them without consequences. Sometimes all it takes is saying it out loud and you can move on from it. It is a time to listen and learn and, although when I do this practice, I usually struggle in the beginning to not have an argumentative tone (the ego does not want to give an inch), invariably at some point I learn something surprising about the other person’s experience that shatters my assumptions and generates compassion in me.
This also means no encouraging or egging on when someone is sharing. If someone is complaining about their boss or job, for instance, this is not a time to commiserate or exclaim “That’s terrible!” It is simply an opportunity for them to externalize their upset. A better response (whether you agree or disagree with whatever they’re saying) would be “That sounds like it’s really painful for you.”
You can take turns holding the container for one another, but I would recommend doing that in separate sessions. You want to have a clear buffer between trading so the experiences are totally separate and each person just gets to have their say without challenge. You don’t want the second session to feel in any way like a counterargument and it is good practice to just put aside your own feelings and reactions for a time to just hold space for someone else.
Even more important that sharing the story of why you are upset is simply releasing the emotional energy from your body. Emotions are physical energies and when we store them in our bodies we create tension that can compromise our health and keep a lid on our happiness. We don’t even need to know what is causing the emotion for us to release the energy from our bodies. We don’t even need to be actively feeling the emotion in the moment. Just embodying the physicality of the emotion (whether the big dramatic external movements of anger or the curling up and turning within of sadness) will take us where we need to go. And we become aware of the complex layering of emotions—how when we release the defensive volatile anger on the surface, it might reveal the hurt and sadness and vulnerability lying underneath.
While just having a primal scream in your car can be very helpful for letting go of all of those daily hurts and frustrations (just grip the steering wheel and shout AAAAAHHHHH at the top of your lungs—emotional release doesn’t need to be directed at anything), maximum healing happens when our emotional release is held and witnessed by others. Consider for yourself the difference between crying while another holds and comforts you and the tears you shed alone in your room behind closed doors. While sharing your feelings with others might create uncomfortable feelings of vulnerability and embarrassment, you are also likely to feel more connected and genuinely healed afterward versus the ways that solitary tears can actually increase our feelings of aloneness and isolation.
Releasing the emotional energy that has been activated prior to trying to dialogue can be key to having more productive and less heated negotiations. For instance, one family with teenagers kept a supply of thrift store dishes in their garage. Whenever conflict came up in the family, they would retreat to the garage together and take turns smashing the dishes against the wall until their emotional energy was discharged. Then they would return to the house to sit down to talk about it.
During times of conflict, we can forget to have fun with one another. Fun and play require us to step away from our protective defensiveness and let our guard down, which can feel threatening during times of disagreement. But when fun and laughter leave a relationship, it can be challenging to remember why you are doing the hard work of healing in the first place.
My partner and I have actually received homework from therapists to NOT process, since we are so prone to talking about everything. It is easy to feel the weight of the world on your shoulders during periods of disharmony, so it is important to lighten up and laugh together. We take ourselves so seriously and forget that fun and play are crucial aspects of growth and success, whether individually or together. So take a time out from the serious matters of life to reconnect with your joy and innocence.
REMINDER: The perspective of non-violent communication is that conflict comes from unmet needs, so, if you can keep this in mind and just step to identifying and addressing the unmet needs, oftentimes you can redirect or sidestep the conflict entirely.
I hope that you have found these tools helpful! If you try any of them out, please let me know how it goes and what you learn from the experience. And if you have tools or suggestions that I have not named, I’d be super appreciative to expand my toolbox so please feel free to share them with me!
Peace on your journey,
5 thoughts on “Working with Strong Emotions”
Though long yet read it. Awesome.
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Well written, Sam. You have always impressed me, and influenced me in very positive ways.
Hey thanks Larry! That’s very sweet. I appreciate you reaching out and I hope your recovery is going well! You are in my thoughts and prayers.