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Spend Time with Your Emotions this Valentine’s Day
14 February 2017
Barbara read Pathways to Possibility and learned a new way to neutralize negative emotions on Valentine’s Day (and every day).
For some of us, Valentine’s Day is fraught with emotion. I know people who thoroughly enjoy the day, others who dread it, and many who think it’s just a ridiculous nonevent. Expectations of what people should do to show their love are rampant. Given all these different feelings, expectations, and disappointments, it’s important to take a look at how we identify and deal with negative emotions when they show up in our lives.
Pathways to Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander has recommendations for how to improve relationships through a process of addressing our negative emotions. She explains that relationships, whether romantic or not, can get into trouble when unconscious emotions from our childhood are running the show. We tell ourselves stories about our youth and then keep living them out unconsciously when we are grown even if the story no longer serves us.
To help the reader experience what she is describing, she wrote, “List some conditions you are convinced are critical to your happiness—for example, ‘I can’t really relax until I know everyone is safe (or there is enough money in the bank, or people around me are happy, or I have finished my work).’ Note where the story comes from, and how you have memorialized, over time, a condition you were once worried about, or were too young and powerless to change. Notice, too, how disempowered you are by your story.”
I had an immediate reaction to one from her list. I was an anxious child, and I refined that habit in adulthood. A story I’ve told myself is that I can’t really relax until people around me are happy. I thought back to my childhood and remembered when I’d felt that before. My paternal grandmother lived with us until I was ten. She didn’t want Daddy to have married Mama. She was grumpy back in her room off from the kitchen, when she came out for meals, and when she wandered around the house. I felt sad about the unhappiness in the house and afraid about the fussing. I always felt the tension and tried to figure out ways to make it go away.
I still have that desire for everyone to be happy as my emotional default setting, and often I will try to make it happen. That was an understandable survival tool for a child but does not always serve me well as an adult. I have to learn to be happy enough with my own life to be as productive as I want to be no matter what is happening with my spouse, my children, my friends, my country, the world. It doesn’t mean I don’t care and don’t try to help those in need, but it does mean I have to manage my anxiety well enough to do what I can and then as Frederick Buechner wrote, “… remember that the lives of others are not your business. They are their business.”
My childhood story about my grandmother that I’ve carried with me is that she was mean. So I decided to retell myself the story from an adult point of view. Here goes—My grandmother was old, didn’t feel well, had left her gorgeous farm in Spotsylvania county after her husband died. She didn’t want to live with us any more than I want to live my children.
Even if the story you tell yourself is a generous interpretation, it can help you let go of your childhood feelings about it. Why is that an important process for me? Because all the people I want to be happy are not going to be happy at the same time. They have their own life journey. I have to grab my own happy moments and enjoy them. I can pray for and wish for their lives to work out, but I don’t need to have my worry about them pollute my good moments.
Zander had a tip for how to help yourself realize you might be dealing with old, powerful emotions that are not warranted in the present situation. “You are being captured by the child in you if you are certain that your views are true, and you make no attempt to question them. Whether your ‘information’ comes from family beliefs, newspapers, or a religious manual, your certainty blocks you from learning, and changing, and being present to the flow of the world in front of you, hallmarks of the adult mind.”
She posed this challenge, “Can you feel something acutely in the present, like anger or disappointment or guilt, and (switch) almost simultaneously feel it as a memory of another time?” Switching to the memory will help lessen or neutralize the present negative feeling. When I tried her technique, my body had a relaxing sensation and my mind thought—ah, that intense feeling is from another time, not now.
Next time you have a strong, negative emotion, try to stop, breathe, remember, and examine the story you have been telling yourself from your childhood point of view. Then try to change your reaction.