Tag Archives: choices

What We Didn’t Learn in Kindergarten: Thoughts and Feelings

One of the most important distinctions I’ve ever learned is the difference between thoughts and feelings. Sadly, I didn’t learn it in public or higher education. I didn’t learn it from my family. I didn’t learn it from my culture. I didn’t learn it, in fact, until I was 50 years old.

Photo by whoislimos on Unsplash

What I understand now is that ignorance of the difference between thoughts and feelings effectively cripples us in every area of our lives. Our misunderstanding, fear and confusion about thoughts and feelings lie like a Gordian knot in the center of our psyches, inhibiting authenticity, clear communication, satisfying professional life, and healthy relationship. Our experience becomes a murky pond, breeding anxiety, fear and isolation.

To be human is to have feelings. It’s unavoidable. Some feelings are pleasant, and some are not. As very young children, we take our cues from others and label some feelings “good” and others “bad.” That is the starting point of our confusion, because “good” and “bad” describe thoughts about our feelings rather than the feelings themselves.

Feelings 101: Mad, sad, glad, scared and ashamed. This is a short list of basic human emotions that we all experience. Our feelings occur far faster than we can use logic, reason or language. Most of us recognize these core emotions in ourselves and others, though we often deny that recognition because of our thoughts about them. For example, many women of my generation have been taught that anger is unattractive and “bad.” Men are discouraged from feeling or expressing sadness. From our earliest childhood, we are taught how to think about our feelings, rather than how to identify and express them appropriately.

As a result of all this thinking, we suppress, distort, deny, and try to amputate our feelings rather than welcoming, exploring, experiencing, and discharging them in a way that hurts neither ourselves nor others.

The problem is that if we don’t properly manage our feelings and allow them to pass through our bodies and our consciousness the way clouds pass through the sky, they become locked in place, festering and putrefying and eventually tearing us apart, both emotionally and physically.

Now I think of emotions as data, neither positive or negative. What we choose to do with our feelings is where the trouble begins, but the feelings themselves are neutral pieces of information indicating the degree to which our needs are met or not met. Our marvelous brains are evolved to collect specifics and details such as thoughts and feelings and organize them into some kind of coherence in order to facilitate life. Glad is not better than mad. Sad and scared are not necessarily negative experiences to be avoided.

Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash

I vividly remember receiving my second divorce decree in the mail. I sat at the kitchen table, looking down at those official papers, feeling a kind of numb despair, mixed with relief.

I reviewed what seemed to me a lifetime of failure. I believed I’d failed my parents repeatedly, my brother, my kids, and both men I’d married. I’d dropped out of college. I was always struggling with money. All I’d ever done was work as hard as I knew how, and it seemed to me the harder I worked, the more I failed. I must truly be ugly and broken. It was no wonder nobody could love me. That I could feel even a little relief just showed how hateful I was. I should be thoroughly ashamed of myself. I deserved to be alone.

Now look back at those last two paragraphs. The first one is two sentences long and identifies numb despair and relief, which are feelings. The second paragraph isn’t about my feelings at all. It’s about my thoughts about my feelings. My stories. My expectations. My beliefs. The second paragraph is about depression, the way I framed my past, and my inability to either accept or forgive myself. I offered myself no compassion or kindness that afternoon. I did not congratulate myself for having successfully exited an abusive marriage. I hated myself for my furtive but honest feeling of relief.

I don’t know about you, but the inside of my head is much better reflected in the second paragraph than in the first, and I would have, at that time, told you those were my feelings. They weren’t, though. They were merely my thoughts about my feelings.

I’m convinced that feelings are not what hurt us. In fact, they help us. When I feel mad, now I immediately ask myself if I’m experiencing or witnessing a boundary violation. Nearly always, the answer is yes. The emotion we call anger is helping me, giving me valuable information, pointing at something I need to deal with. That mad feeling is righteous and rightful, and it motivates action, hopefully appropriate and effective action.

Appropriate and effective action brings me to the most important aspect of learning emotional intelligence. It turns out that our thoughts and feelings, no matter how passionately we experience them, may not reflect reality.

Photo by Aimee Vogelsang on Unsplash

In other words, we can’t believe everything we think and feel. Or, rather, we can believe in our experience, but not necessarily our interpretation of our experience, and this means we frequently do not make appropriate and effective choices.

Managing our feelings requires we take responsibility for them.

As an example, many people walk around with PTSD triggers in their brains. I am one of those people. Now and then, specific circumstances trigger my panic, but that trigger is about me, not anyone else. I don’t expect the world to accommodate my PTSD. I don’t blame others when I get triggered. I feel the panic and all the other wretched symptoms, and those feelings are physiologically real. I’m not making them up. Yet I know what I’m experiencing is not real trauma in the moment, but a memory, a ghost, an echo of an old hurt.

Our thoughts can also lead us astray. We all have convictions, opinions and beliefs, but, and I can’t emphasize this enough, we can be wrong. In fact, we frequently are wrong. We misunderstand. We assume. We deny and distort. Our logic is flawed or we are ignorant of important pieces of information. We don’t think critically or for ourselves. We make up stories in our head, tell them to ourselves until we believe them, make choices as though our stories are true, and wonder why our relationships are disrupted and our lives don’t work well.

So, what to do?

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

First, we need to go back to that 101 list of feelings and start recognizing, naming and accepting them when they come up for us. Where do we feel those core emotions in our bodies? What do we notice about our experience when we’re feeling mad, sad, glad, scared or ashamed? How do we manage the feeling? How is our coping style working for us? What happens if we sit down and hold an emotion in our laps without feeling compelled to take action, simply allowing it to ebb and flow through us? Who in our lives allows us to feel what we feel, and who doesn’t?

Secondly, we need to stop blaming anyone (or everyone) around us for our emotional experience. If we find ourselves in relationship with people who consistently make us feel angry, sad, exhausted and valueless, we need to take responsibility for exiting those relationships. We are not powerless. Chronic difficult feelings are asking for help, but we need to think clearly and carefully about the choices we make in order to help ourselves. Trying to feel better at the expense of someone else’s well-being is not appropriate. Self-destructing is not effective. It’s up to us to respond to our own emotional experience with kindness, acceptance and support.

Lastly, we need to monitor our thoughts, and challenge them frequently. I am constantly overhearing myself mindlessly repeating old beliefs and conclusions and saying, “Wait, is that true?” Nine times out of ten, it’s not true, or it only might be true. Another tactic I use now is to open my mouth and check out my perception. I live with a person I trust. If an interaction between us results in difficult feelings for me, I circle back around and talk about it, frequently finding out in the process that my thoughts and feelings have once again been skewed by old scars. I have misunderstood, or imperfectly understood, and leapt to mistaken conclusions and assumptions.

Photo by Jonathan Simcoe on Unsplash

Talking it over with someone we trust, someone who won’t gaslight us. What a concept.

Thoughts and feelings flow through our lives, sometimes in a destructive torrent and sometimes in a slow, life-giving trickle. They arise within us, are of us, and are our responsibility. Thoughts and feelings are two distinct pieces of data, and they do not necessarily reflect reality. We are not entitled to have them validated by the world. Our thought-and-feeling experience is not more important or true than anyone else’s.

I will not be a slave to my thoughts and feelings, or those of anyone else. My emotions are my friends and guides rather than my enemies or masters. They are not a matter of shame. I don’t believe everything they tell me about reality, but they do help me understand the places in which I can heal and grow, and they are part of my decision-making process.

I feel satisfied. I think this post is complete. My daily crime.

Garden of Thorns

The seed for this post was a piece of writing by Dr. Sharon Blackie about the protective nature of thorny plants. This is a subject I’ve researched, not just as a gardener but also because of my fascination with folklore and tradition. I’ve written previously about brambles being a deterrent to vampires.

Reading Blackie’s musings on thorns reminded me of a honey locust tree I lived with in my old place in Colorado. It was covered with long, sharp thorns that could puncture tires and easily passed through soft-soled shoes and sandals. It stood just off my porch, giving generous shade in the summer. I hung bird feeders in it, touched it, talked to it and moved respectfully and mindfully under and around it. The thorns contained some kind of irritant, and a scratch or stab from one of them resulted in several days of painful swelling.

The tree commanded attention, not only because of the fabulous covering of thorns and its harsh beauty, but also because it was the neighborhood tenement for birds. During the summer I often expected to see the whole tree rise into the air and fly away, powered by what seemed like hundreds of birds that mated, nested, hatched, quarreled, sang and lived their lives among its thorny branches.

Honey Locust Tree

I loved that tree. It was one of the hardest things to leave when I came to Maine. Several people, including the people from whom I bought the house, advised me to cut it down. The thorns were destructive and dangerous. It was ugly, a nuisance.

I was fiercely protective of the tree, seeing in it what I wanted for myself, the ability to self-protect and still be beautiful and nurturing to others. Since I’ve left that place I’ve often thought of the locust and wondered if the new owners have cut it down. I hope not. If so, I don’t want to know.

I came to Maine and learned about needs. Then, in the course of writing my books, I researched thorny plants and learned that thorns are in fact modified leaves, roots, stems or buds, and plants evolved them in order to protect themselves from being eaten.

Some plants evolved with thorns in order to protect themselves from being eaten. In order to survive. No plant evolved thorns in order to scratch, sting or pierce you or me specifically. The adaptation of thorns is about the needs of the living being we call a honey locust, a bramble, a hawthorn or a rose. Self-protection is about the life form employing it, not anyone else.

Photo by Andrey Grinkevich on Unsplash

This seems to me an important distinction, and a metaphor for human choice and behavior. When I came to Maine I believed it was my job to protect everyone around me. Self-protection, however, was absolutely taboo. Any attempt to have boundaries, say no, speak my truth or move from the place the blow was going to land was severely punished. As I learned emotional intelligence and my priorities began to move from caring for and pleasing others to caring for and pleasing myself, I felt threatened and disliked from every side. I allowed myself to be made to feel destructive, dangerous and ugly.

Just like my beloved locust tree.

Sometimes it’s hard to understand why people make the choices they make. This is particularly difficult in the case of close relationships. In fact, it can be difficult to understand our own behavior and motivation. We humans are quick to make what others do about ourselves, to exercise our outrage, be critical and judgmental and disempower those who we feel threaten our beliefs, our position, our power to choose. Most of the time, though, the people around us are doing exactly what we’re doing ourselves. They’re simply trying to meet their own needs.

It always comes back to some kind of a need. When I became aware of my own needs, I quickly understood that nearly every choice I’ve ever made had been motivated by trying to stay safe. For a long time I was trying to get loved in order to stay safe, but it didn’t work and I’ve shifted now to the true bottom line.

Honey Locust Thorn

I need to protect myself.

That’s pretty clear and simple. I am not confused or ashamed about it. The difficulty arises as I interact (or choose not to) with others. That simple, clear bottom line gets buried under emotion; my stories and assumptions about myself and others; my eagerness to be understood; my hope to be validated and supported; and my justification, explanation, shame and guilt as others react to my choices for self-protection.

I don’t think most of us have trouble understanding and recognizing the core drivers for human beings. We want to be loved, accepted and seen as we really are. We want healthy relationships. Some people want money and power. Some seek control. We want to protect ourselves and others, as well as maintain autonomy and freedom of choice. We may not agree with the priorities of those around us, but they’re not foreign to us.

The methods we use to meet our needs are where the trouble begins. I know from personal experience that pleasing people and having no boundaries lead to neither love nor safety, but it took me decades to discover that, decades during which I strove desperately to earn love and achieve security using those methods without success. To an outside view, I can understand why now I seem like a different person, hard, uncaring, unloving, selfish and disloyal.

This is terribly ironic, as no one knows of our private anguish and suffering as we strive to grow, heal and change, unless we reveal it, and I work hard to never reveal mine, not necessarily because I want to shut people out or hide things, but because I am trying to stay safe, and bitter past experience has taught me that revealing my soft underbelly is dangerous.

Because I realize my own methods for meeting my needs are frequently problematic and inefficient as well as inscrutable to others, I’m able to have more space for others and the choices they make. Life protects itself. Life wants to go on living. Sometimes the strategies we use to achieve those goals hurt others, and sometimes they hurt ourselves, but in a world so full of people it’s bound to be a confusing mess. This is a perfect frame for the current debate around vaccines. Both sides are trying to protect against perceived threats to self, others and freedom of choice. There isn’t going to be an easy answer.

I wish I could be like the locust tree that graced my old life. It hid nothing, apologized for nothing, stood tall and shapely and branching, and protected itself as well as sheltered all kinds of life. To my eyes it was beautiful beyond words, a powerful teacher, a being I reverenced. I accidentally trod and knelt on its thorns more than once, but I did not blame the tree. I would not have allowed it to be cut down.

Photo by Anastasia Zhenina on Unsplash

Locust, bramble, rose, hawthorn, holly and blackthorn. Thorns and prickles and spines. Fruit, flower and healing herb. Haven and shelter for insects, birds, small rodents and reptiles.

Life that cannot protect itself will not survive. Yet sometimes the price of self-protection is so high that I wonder if it’s worth survival. It’s not so very hard to cut down a tree, if its thorns offend us. It’s not so very hard to destroy a human being, either, if their efforts to meet their own needs offend us.

I never would have guessed at the pain involved in committing to protect myself. It never occurred to me I would feel forced to choose between my love and care for others and my own needs. I still don’t understand why that should be so, but it feels as though it is.

I hold in my heart the memory of my locust tree, and how the inability of some to appreciate its beauty made it seem even more precious and powerful. Fierce, unapologetic self-protection and abundant life. The memory comforts and inspires me. I want to be like that.

My daily crime.

Releasing Outcomes

Photo by Chris Kristiansen on Unsplash

I think of myself as a goal-oriented, disciplined person. Most of the time I know what I want (at least I think I do). Some of the time I’m intentional and present with my choices. I like routine and can be both dogged and stubborn.

Outcomes have always been important to me. I’ve set my sights on what I want to happen and started trying hard to achieve that desired outcome.

I don’t remember ever being taught that creating certain outcomes is the way to live successfully and happily, but that was a belief around which my choices and behavior were structured. A desired outcome was success, and therefore good. An outcome I didn’t want was failure, and therefore bad.

I didn’t consciously notice for much of my life that trying to create just the right outcome never worked that well for me.

When I came to Maine and learned emotional intelligence, I started thinking about personal power and I finally really looked at how strongly desired outcomes motivated me. I was furious when I first came across the idea of letting go of outcomes. What I heard was invalidation and rejection of my ability to make long-term goals and plans and steadily, a step at a time, work toward them. I also thought I was hearing it was inappropriate to have dreams and desires. How could one navigate through life without caring about outcomes?

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

It took time, a lot of exposure and a couple of difficult and painful events, but eventually I understood that investment in outcomes was the problematic piece, not needing, desiring or the degree to which we are disciplined and can tolerate delayed gratification.

We do not have complete power in the way things work out because our goals and plans inevitably include others.

By others I mean other people (the job, college or mate we want), whatever our conception of the Divine might be, and influences like the weather, the stock market, the tax return we counted on, the housing market, the weather, our state of health, and a thousand other variables.

Outcomes are as unpredictable as a loose cannon on a rolling deck, yet I based my happiness and sense of worth on them for most of my life.

For the most part I was unhappy, anxious and felt like a failure.

Then, somewhere I read or heard this little phrase: “However it needs to be, it’s okay with me.”

When I first came across it, I felt angry. It was a blatant lie. I was reluctant to think it, let alone say it. On the contrary, I was deeply invested in outcomes.

But it didn’t work well to live that way, and I kept noticing that.

For some time I watched myself using all my energy in the tension of trying to create specific outcomes that eluded me.

Photo by Talles Alves on Unsplash

In my usual buttheaded fashion, I hung on grimly. If I wasn’t seeing the outcomes I intended and wanted, it was because I didn’t deserve them. Or I didn’t work hard enough. Or I was so broken and stupid nothing would ever work for me. Or the world was against me.

It was much easier to hurt myself and hate myself, both old habits, than consider the possibility that none of us can really control outcomes. It was easier to blame others than change myself.

What we can control – the only place our personal power resides – is what we do with ourselves in terms of our beliefs, choices and behaviors.

Deciding how to think about outcomes is part of our personal power.

I formed a conscious intention of experimenting with letting go of outcomes. One of my very first explorations into that was this blog.

One of the biggest problems with attachment to outcomes for me is that the outcome looms so large it overshadows the hundreds of small pleasures in life, as well as my delight and curiosity in the journey I take through each day. I’m too busy trying to get to an outcome to notice or appreciate anything else. Attachment to outcomes means there’s only one very specific way I can feel successful or happy, and in order for that to happen all the stars must align just right and everyone and everything around me must behave exactly as I want them to. Otherwise I’ll be resentful, depressed, discouraged, hurt, or some other kind of miserable.

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

Attachment to outcomes is also a relationship killer. Whatever it is that we want our children, parents, spouses, colleagues, bosses and friends to do or be (or not do or be), the fact is they are not pawns on our chess board. They are not paper dolls. They are not (hopefully) ours to control.

If we cannot accept our loved ones (or ourselves, for that matter) for who they are, we will lose them.

Attachment to outcomes comes with a heavy burden of fear and anxiety. As long as an outcome is “good” or “bad’ in our minds, both hope and fear attach to it. We invest energy in trying to avoid certain events and foster others. We try to figure out how to manipulate and influence the situation so it turns out the way we want.

We lose sight of the others around us very quickly. If we have our hearts set on a job, for example, even though we’re not well qualified for it, we do whatever it takes to get hired, never considering someone else might be a better fit. Someone else might be more desperate than we are for the job. The organization might need a specific set of skills and talents we do not possess. Another job opening we’re not yet aware of might be the place we’re most needed and will be most happy.

Attachment to outcomes can make us small and rigid, selfish and resentful.

So what does it look like to let go of outcomes?

Change and the unexpected are no longer fearful, but interesting. We make space for them. We have increased room for others because we’re not trying to control them. We take life less personally. We are confident and clear in our own power.

To let go of outcomes is to let go of distractions. It frees up space and energy to consider our own integrity, expression and needs. If we want to give a gift, we do it without worrying about how it will be received, if it will be reciprocated or how it will be judged. We give because it makes us happy and gives us pleasure to do so.

If we are artists, we create because it gives us joy, because it’s what we were born for. We don’t use our talent as a tool to leverage fame and riches. That doesn’t mean fame and riches won’t come or our art is not worth getting paid for, it just means that’s not an outcome that drives us.
Letting go of outcomes means letting go of feeling victimized, resentful and betrayed. We don’t take disappointment personally. Life is not all about us.

Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

Letting go of outcomes makes room for cooperation and collaboration. We see others more clearly, lovingly and respectfully. We’re a more elegant team player. We enjoy working with others without the need for competition or power and control. We look for ways to share and nurture power. We give up the blame and shame game.

Letting go of outcomes means letting go of regrets. We make space instead for all outcomes, whether intended or not, comfortable or uncomfortable. We go forward with our best, most honest and heartfelt effort and have fun, letting the rest take care of itself. We use our time and energy to cultivate curiosity, wonder and gratitude for whatever happens.

Letting go of outcomes starves our anxiety, depression and insomnia. If we can position ourselves in life with confidence, surrender and acceptance, we build resilience and joy.

Let me hasten to say releasing outcomes is hard work. I find, somewhat to my chagrin, that at times I’m invested in my resentment over the way things work out and my sense of betrayal. I don’t want to be soothed, comforted, or challenged to consider my experience from a different perspective. I want to be left alone to suck my thumb and pout, my version of a tantrum. Managing my expectations and attachment to outcomes is a work in progress.

I also do not deprive myself of the pleasure of making and achieving personal goals that have to do with exercise, building skills, playing, relaxing or learning new habits. Those kinds of outcomes are well within my power to pursue.

When I feel frustrated and as though nothing ever works out for me, I’ve developed the habit of saying that phrase aloud to myself: “How ever this needs to be, it’s okay with me.” If it feels like a lie in my mouth, I start poking at the situation and asking myself why I’m attached to a particular outcome. I put my energy into taking a step back and reevaluating the situation until I really am okay with whatever outcome occurs. I summon my curiosity, warm up my gratitude, invite my sense of humor to awaken and go forward.

It’s the difference between rolling out of bed and telling the day how it must be in order for me to be happy or rolling out of bed wondering what the day will bring and choosing to enjoy whatever that is in advance.

It’s the difference between arguing with what is and acceptance.

It’s the difference between feeling disempowered and standing firmly in my own power.

However I need to be, however you need to be, however this day needs to be, it’s okay with me.

My daily crime.

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2019
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted