So tell me.
Can you finally breathe again after the terriblehorriblenogoodverybadness of last year?
Or, did you emerge triumphantly out of 2018 only to have the new year kick you in the teeth? And then maybe insult your glasses?
People seem to be having fairly extreme experiences either one way or the other. (And if you’re sailing along beautifully, you can just ignore this email. This is for the rest of us.)
For me, last year was brutal, especially the final third of it, and I am finalllllly feeling a sense of lightness and possibility now that we’re in 2019. Fresh starts! New chances! Oh there WILL be frolicking again! Lambs and bunnies! Daffodils and peonies! I want to kiss 2019 on its sweet beautiful petal FACE!
But for many of my beloved kindred spirits, the new year has felt hard and relentless.
When it feels like life is pummeling us, whether it’s body blows or just a dozen tiny paper cuts, most of us have a very natural human response. We fight, we flee, or we freeze.
This isn’t always a bad thing.
For those of you who’ve had your lives turned topsy turvy by the polar vortex this past week, you might have felt your healthy “fight” response kick in. This is what adrenaline is MADE for– so that you can scramble, you can move fast, you can mobilize, you can find 39 hotel rooms in an hour and have 47 neighborhood children over to make cookies. (I mean…also sometimes maybe run from tigers.)
Adrenaline is wonderfully helpful in those situations. It makes us stronger, sharper, faster. However, it’s designed to be the exception, not the rule.
Unfortunately most people I know are on a steady drip of adrenaline, where all of life feels like an ongoing mild emergency, even when there’s nary a polar vortex or tiger in sight. We can easily get in the habit of revving our engines all the time, instead of just for special occasions and true crises. When you’re living that way, it feels sort of like an ongoing lowlevel panic attack set to the soundtrack of Game of Thrones. It goes like “oh god, what about the– and I almost forgot that we have to– and shit what we will do if– damn I’m going to be late, hurry hurry– oh no I think they’re mad at me–” and so our brain revs and revs, sending little hits of panicky energy into our system but without any accompanying action to make things happen or get the hell out of town. It’s hard on our bodies to rev like this, and it’s hard on our spirits, too.
So another way some of us react to stress is to just freeze up. While this might be an adaptive response to a poisonous snake slithering through the grass, for most of us it’s LESS than helpful. It looks like above scenario, but with even more agonizing. And dithering. Ironically, this “freeze” response stops us from doing any one thing that would actually make us feel better. Believe me, I’m a huge fan of curling up under the covers every now and then. But sometimes we can end up in a state of perpetual paralysis, where we’re so afraid of doing the WRONG thing that we do….well not much at all, really.
Sometimes we try to protect ourselves from the scariness of adult life not by fighting or freezing, but by attempting to flee. But there are so few places to run straight out to the horizon these days, and plus it’s awfully cold out there. So usually flight in this case becomes a form of mental escape– scrolling numbly through social media, zoning out to a TV show whose characters you don’t give a fig about, searching for dream vacations you have no plans to actually take, or buying things you don’t even like on those limited-time-shopping-sites that are like catnip for our poor stressed-out kitty brains.
If any of this is happening to you, let me send you my immense sympathy through the ether.
Life is hard and we are tender creatures and sometimes it’s all so intense and overwhelming and heartbreaking and beautiful that it’s a wonder any of us have SOCKS on.
(Also: I do not have socks on.)
So whatever is going on, please do NOT do that thing where you’re feeling roiling, wild, nauseating waves of anxiety or paralysis or fear– and also yelling at yourself the whole time.
Stop it, make a decision, stop being such a wimp, oh my god get up off your ass, everyone else does it, who do you think you are, you’re embarrassing…. THAT. Don’t do that.
No seriously. Stop it.
Because here’s the thing. You would never speak to me like that when I’m trapped in a wave of everything-is-too-muchness. I know you wouldn’t.
The truth is that I feel overwhelmed by life on a weekly (ok daily) (HAHAH OK HOURLY) basis. And you would never pile on by spewing scorn and disgust at me. I know you wouldn’t.
But you do it to yourself. You do, we all do, and dearheart it’s time to stop that.
Why do we do it?
Not because we’re sadists.
But because we’re trying to hold ourselves together, with brittleness and a positive attitude GODDAMIT.
Most of us worry that if give one teensy inch to our big embarrassing shameful liquidy feelings, that’ll be it for us. No more adulting. We’ll just end up huddled on the floor in a pool of snot and wailing. And adulting is really so non-negotiable most days.
So in this strange way, the mean things you say inside your head to yourself are a misguided-but-sweet attempt to take care of you. All that mean voice is trying to do is just make sure you keep adulting isthattoomuchtoask.
Here is what I know.
All those mean words don’t actually help. Trying to shame yourself into being an adult is really counterproductive.
You know what does work?
It’s so embarrassing. Brace yourself. Avert your eyes if you’re squeamish. Here’s what actually helps:
It helps more than anything to try speaking to yourself the way you’d speak to a small scared child, because there’s almost certainly one living somewhere inside you.
Oh sweetheart. This is so much, right now. You’re so scared, huh? It’s ok, kiddo, I’m here. I’ve got you. You’re all right, come let me hold you. You’re safe, little love.
Just typing those words makes my eyes well up with relief.
Because of course I do it too. I withhold tenderness from myself because I am so afraid that I will collapse; that I will melt; that I won’t be able to go out and adult.
But that’s not what happens.
Tenderness just collapses the brittle revving cycle of adrenaline. It melts the fear. It dissolves the paralysis.
I do not know why this is.
Isn’t life an odd mystery?
This is the alchemy we work again and again in my private work. Over and over I have sat with beautiful kindred spirits who were so hopped up on adrenaline and stress and anxiety they could hardly breathe, because that’s the only way they knew how to get through the day– and when we bring tenderness in, it feels just awful for a second, like breaking and ripping and then– then– oh then. They can feel their feet again, they can breathe again, their brain fog clears and they suddenly realize that actually they’re complete effing badasses and everything is going to be all right and even if it’s not all right, they are going to be fundamentally FINE. And then they go out and adult with humor and compassion and tenacity and boldness.
So wherever you are today, try giving yourself some tenderness. Just try it. If it doesn’t work you can always go back self-flagellation.
(If you’re truly terrified that tenderness will ruin you forever, you can put yourself on a tiny tenderness diet. Ten minutes of tenderness, and then you’re going to get up and make tea and do The Next Hard Thing, no matter what. Consider it Remedial Tenderness 101; nothing wrong with that.)
Tenderness will look different for everyone.
- Calling a friend who makes you laugh.
- Just putting your hand on your heart and breathing.
- Putting on emotional music and wailing along.
- Wrapping yourself in something shimmery and soft.
- Closing your eyes and putting your forehead to the ground.
- Taking a bath, reading a book, doing yoga, a guided meditation, kissing your palms.
- Taking a nap.
- Writing in your journal.
- Writing yourself a permission slip.
- Watching a movie that you know will make you sob.
- Sitting in bed with a heat pad listening to piano music. (Which is what I’m doing in that photo at the top. It was delicious.)
All of those things will help you release the tightness.
It feels like the tightness is keeping you safe. But it’s actually keeping you locked in an adrenaline cycle, locked in paralysis, locked in avoidance. So instead dive right into the tightness, greet it with tenderness, and let it release.
After that, you’ll know what to do next. It’ll feel loose and soft, with plenty of space for breath, but it’ll also have some momentum to it.
Maybe you’ll put on a kettle for tea. Or put on your “triumph” playlist and dance to it. You’ll do a brain sweep and get every thought onto paper. Or make a list. Make a plan. Print a compass. Answer that one urgent and terrifying email. Go for a walk. Go out for dinner.
If it turns out that you don’t know what to do next, just do something that makes your world a little better. Make your bed. Buy some flowers. Light a candle. Put on socks.
This is the gentle path to fierceness.
We need both energies in our lives. I always say that if you want a beautiful life, you have to be fierce about it. And if you’re feeling anxious, paralyzed, or foggy, the fastest path to fierceness is great, immense, embarrassingly sincere tenderness.
So go forth and tenderness.
And tell me what happens.