Every time I go to the beach, I am mesmerized by the waves. Aside from their almost hypnotic rhythm, I am reminded that no matter how often people try and stop the waves with berms, rocks, and many other man-made structures, they just keep coming. Sure, if you build a wall high enough, you might be able to keep out most waves . . . and then a particularly nasty storm comes along, like Hurricane Katrina, and all the barriers against wave and water come down. Such is the power of the ocean and its waves.
My emotions are like ocean waves. They come, often unbidden, and wash over me. To be sure, I can generally describe “why” I feel the way I do but that wasn’t always the case. I used to hate experiencing negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, doubt, and any emotional pain inflicted on me by another person, intentionally or not. So I built walls around my heart, just like dikes against waves. I isolated myself from being too connected to other people and when a bit of adverse emotion managed to splash over, whether than simply experiencing it, I sought a way to numb that feeling. My motto and practice was simple: better not to feel at all than to feel bad.
Over time I learned several things: first, my attempts to avoid negative emotions was causing me to isolate more and more from the world and people around me. And when I did that, I lost perspective on what was really happening to me. My heart became a sort of echo chamber of pain, magnifying each hurt beyond proportion. But I didn’t know that because I wouldn’t talk about how I felt with anyone. Second, I learned that the greater the pain, the more powerful the anesthetic I sought and that soon that became destructive. The “anesthesia” was more destructive than the emotional pain I felt. Third, I learned that I just couldn’t stop emotional pain. It’s a part of the human condition. As sure as the waves wash up on the shore, emotions, painful and joyful, will come. That’s a part of life. No barrier reefs, no walls, no dikes, and no rowboat for escape will ever stop these emotions unless, as I learned, I wanted to stop being human. And that was part of the fourth lesson: allowing emotional pain — really feeling it — is as much a part of the human experience as feeling joy, happiness, gratitude, and the myriad of other positive emotions I so covet. They are part of the same ocean of existence and these waves of joy are mixed in the saves of sorrow. Same ocean, different emotions.
With the help of others, I began to take down my barrier reefs, disassemble the dikes, put away my rowboat, and joined a “Full Emotional Swimming Club.” Yep, I am now a part of a group of people that actually experience the full range of human emotions. We swim in our emotional joys and pains together. Now, we’re not fools. When a hurricane flag is posted, we head for the beach and shelter. And we’ve learned what can cause some particularly nasty negative emotional waves and we avoid those whenever possible.
But we swim together and we experience, when invited, the emotional waves of our personal emotions, together. So, when one of us feels overwhelmed a bit by a nasty emotional wave, we surround him/her, put an arm around them, and whisper, “it’s okay. We’re in this together. You won’t drown. It’s just a wave after all. It will pass.” And when a “joy wave” comes our way (or in the personal emotional ocean of one of our group), we have a water fight! We slap water in each other’s faces, we laugh, we whoop and holler, and we share the joy wave of emotion.
Sometimes a nasty wave will come the way of one our club members and s/he is tempted to climb into a rowboat and leave the group. We beckon that person to stay in the water and ride that wave with the rest of the club. It’s healthier and besides, those boats always leak, can founder on the rocks, and the damage done trying to escape the wave is far worse than the wave itself can ever do to you in the water.
A friend of mine in my “Full Emotional Swimming Club” remarked recently, “You know, I’ve had to learn something. While negative emotions can be really painful, they won’t actually kill me. So, I’ve learned to just let them be. They too will pass.”
We are all swimming in an ocean of emotion with waves of joy and pain. Stay in the water if at all possible . . . we are made to swim in this ocean. But be a part of a Full Emotional Swimming Club so that you can find help when you need it, provide help when another requires it, and together share the joyous waves that do come our way.