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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

Questions Before Engagement

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When I came to Maine in 2015, I had a short list of goals. One of them was to learn everything I could about relationship and connection. I had so many questions. Why did I feel I’d failed practically every relationship I’d ever had? What was different about the ones that did work well? If I was bad, ugly, unlovable and unworthy, why was that? Was it something I could fix? Or was that a false belief, and if so, where did it come from?

Why did it seem so impossible to find the kind of relationships I had always wanted to have with others?

All my life I’ve struggled with these questions.

I realize now that all of us struggle with these questions, at least at some point and to some degree. It’s called being human.

Emotional intelligence training was a revelation, and as I learned about boundaries, needs, reciprocity and many other aspects of relationship, I began to appreciate the complexity and art involved in healthy connections.

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Relationship is a skill, and most of us don’t have great models for how to do it appropriately and effectively. Relating well to others is messy because being human is messy. I learned, and believe, that healthy connection is a primary human need and driver of behavior. I also learned to build and maintain better boundaries and separate what I have power over (myself) from places where I have no power (what others say, believe, think and do).

Over the last years, my partner and I have continued to be fascinated by the way in which we humans interact with each other as parents, family, partners, coworkers and members of the community. We observe ourselves and others and read with interest current research and insight into all the ways humans connect and disconnect, motivate and manipulate, perpetrate acts of violence and hate, build community and parent.

I’m an information junkie on some subjects, so I enjoy all this learning. I don’t want the information so I can speak learnedly or advise or persuade others. I’m not interested in labeling, judging, feeding my fear or getting bogged down in an empathy swamp. I have no ambition to be an expert in anything but my own life.

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What I want to do is see myself and others clearly. I want to understand what I don’t understand. I want to learn how to keep myself safe and meet my needs for connection.

I want to take better care of myself.

My partner and I sat in the sun this morning, watching the birds at the feeders and newly-wakened insects buzz around the rotting wood of the porch looking for summer quarters. I picked up paper and pen and we jotted down a list of things to look for when considering a relationship. I titled the list Rules of Engagement, but then crossed it off and retitled it Questions Before Engagement.

I like questions. I’ve told you that, right?

Does the person you’re interacting with:

  • Accept no for an answer?
  • Demonstrate the desire to cooperate and connect (power-with) or win and be right (power-over)? (Carmine Leo)
  • Consistently treat self and others with respect and kindness in action and word?
  • Speak in either/or black/white terms, or do they appreciate shades of grey?
  • Employ blame and shame tactics or take responsibility for their own choices? If they take responsibility, do they take too much responsibility (a sign of weak boundaries)?
  • Employ DARVO tactics: Deny, attack, reverse victim and offender? Does he/she see him/herself as a victim?
  • Make your life bigger or smaller? (Clarissa Pinkola Estes, How to Love a Woman.)
  • Communicate clearly, honestly and consistently, or avoid responsibility (“I forgot”), gaslight, give inconsistent or mixed messages and refuse to answer questions?
  • Demonstrate consistency between what they say and what they do? Keep their word to self and others? (Chronic lateness, for example, is a red flag).
  • Leave you feeling good about yourself or as though you’re hopelessly bad and wrong and/or completely drained?
  • Have boundaries (even if messy) and respect yours (even if messy)?
  • Present themselves as a whole, healthy, independent person with something to contribute or are they needy and dependent and looking for someone to nurture or “fix” them? (Co-dependency is not a healthy relationship!)
  • Demonstrate a full range of feelings and appropriate expression and management of those feelings? Is their life one long drama and trauma? Do they flip abruptly from rage to affection and back again?
  • Demonstrate flexibility, curiosity and the willingness to learn?
  • Provide an equal and reciprocal level of commitment, time and energy to the relationship that you do? (Carmine Leo) Are you doing CPR on a long-dead connection all by yourself? If so, why?
  • Last but not least: What does your intuition say? Do you feel safe with this person, physically, sexually, creatively, emotionally, financially? Listen/feel for a yes or a no and don’t second guess or negotiate a no! Extricate yourself and move on.

The strength in recognizing these questions and their answers does not derive from judging or labeling others. The power is in our own ability to navigate intelligently through the world of people we all live in. I myself have communicated poorly, been codependent, been self-destructive, made myself small, and had poor boundaries. I’ve also worked hard to learn to be more effective and heal. Now and then we’re all inflexible, or disrespectful, or unkind.

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Perfectionism is a black hole I refuse to get sucked into and certainly don’t expect from others. We need and form all kinds of relationships in life with all kinds of people. Certain behaviors from a colleague or roommate might be acceptable; the same behavior from a lover could be a deal breaker. There is no one size fits all in terms of relationship. We have to figure it out for ourselves.

We all have good days and bad days. This list is intended to specify red flags that might occur intermittently or consistently across time. A pattern of red flags is a sign to go carefully and stay present and aware with our interactions. There are millions of well-meaning people in the world. There are also millions of narcissists, borderline and other Cluster B personality-disordered people, psychopaths, sociopaths and other predators and vampires. It’s up to us to figure out how to spot them and avoid or free ourselves from them. Failure to do so wastes our time, energy and love.

Questions before engagement. My daily crime.

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Identify Yourself

Identity is everywhere. Identity theft, identity politics, job applications and social media profiles confront us at every turn. We are constantly being commanded to prove our identity, not only formally, as in logging on to our bank accounts, but socially, in order to justify our existence, our beliefs and our values.

Technology has created new challenges in the way we talk about, understand and shape our identity. AI is no longer a piece of science fiction, and evidence grows regarding websites, social media trolls and other online entities that successfully manipulate, divide and interfere with social discourse, information and opinion.

We are woefully easy targets.

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Merriam-Webster online defines identity as “sameness in all that constitutes the objective reality of a thing; the distinguishing character or personality of an individual.” The online Free Dictionary says identity is “the set of characteristics by which a person or thing is definitively recognizable or known; the awareness that an individual or group has of being a distinct, persisting entity.”

Objective reality. The term objective means “(of a person or their judgment) not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.” (Oxford Dictionary; emphasis mine.) This means a purple-polka-dotted snake cannot claim the identity of a green-striped zebra, no matter how indignantly and vociferously it insists it feels like one. Personality disorders are recognized as such because those who suffer from them are not always dealing with objective reality. A purple-polka-dotted snake who wants to be a green-striped zebra is divided tragically from itself and others, not only other purple-polka-dotted snakes, but all others, because it persists in trying to behave and be accepted as something it’s not, ultimately self-destructing.

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I’ve written before about labels, denial, arguing with what is and pseudo self, all of which ideas intersect with identity. Have you watched a potter at work with clay on a wheel? As they shape a vessel, one hand works inside and one outside. Identity is like that. The tribe we’re born into gives us our earliest sense of identity, and we take our cues from them. If our tribe is critical and we feel unaccepted and unloved, we internalize those voices and viewpoints and give them power in our psyche to mold our identity. At the same time, we go out into the world and our schools, jobs, communities, places of worship and other organizations identify us from the outside.

Years ago I worked with a group of gifted and talented middle and high school students as a school librarian. None of them fit in terribly well with their classmates. A young man I was very fond of was quite lonely, as well as being brilliant, and he said one day he was nothing but the “fat boy.” He was sixteen years old, and seemed resigned to carrying the identity of “fat boy” to the end of his life. I told him, entirely sincerely, that I never thought of him as the “fat boy.” He was obese. Obviously, I noticed. But to me he was a funny, interesting, curious, compassionate, vulnerable human being. His weight concerned me because of the social stigma and quality of his health, but I never thought of him as the “fat boy.”

He could see that I was telling him the truth. I haven’t any idea what happened to him or what he’s been doing all these years, but I’ve always hoped he remembered there was an adult in his life who saw beyond the limitations of “fat boy” and recognized other pieces of his identity and potential. I hope he learned at some point that he didn’t have to settle for a life defined by his weight.

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Over the years of my lifetime, more and more people seem to never mature past teenage identity. We build websites, profiles and a social media presence, desperately trying to sell a successful identity for attention, true love, power or money. We are so compulsive about taking selfies that we die doing it. There’s an explosion of people seeking plastic surgery in order to match their digitally-altered pictures. We have the technology to alter hair color, eye color and physical characteristics, and we’re saturated with digitally-altered images on media that keep us firmly convinced we’re unattractive and imperfect as we are. At the same time, we socially reinforce and perpetuate ridiculous gender, racial and ethnic roles, limitations and expectations.

Perfect strangers insist on imposing labels on us, or try to bully us into choosing one label over another. It’s an either-or black-and-white world, and new labels proliferate like maggots in road kill, creating ever-increasing lines of division and arenas for conflict.

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We are in such a hurry, we’re so overstimulated and anxious to not be left behind and to be validated, we’ve forgotten the simplicity of identity, and we’ve forgotten we don’t owe the world a public explanation or justification of our identity. Having a Facebook or Tinder profile does not constitute an identity. Having feelings and opinions about who we are is not an identity. Our carefully constructed pseudo self is not an identity. Our identity is not maintained and created by what others think, feel or say about us. Identity is not an endpoint, but a journey. Healthy identity is flexible. It adapts and changes as we live our lives. We are not who we wish we were, who we are afraid we are or necessarily who we think we are. We are not exactly who we were yesterday or who we’ll be tomorrow. We’re certainly not necessarily what others tell us we are, or must be, although objective reality always trumps our internal fantasies.

Our identity, like our power, is ours alone. We need not sell it or give it away, and it cannot be stolen from us. On the other hand, we must take responsibility for our own self-sabotage and mental disorders if we seek a healthy identity.

Healthy identity is complex and multi-dimensional. I’ve been daughter, sister, wife and mother, and I’m much more than any of those single roles. I’ve worked several jobs over my lifetime, but I’m more than any of those jobs. I have a physical identity in terms of vital statistics, Caucasian skin, blue eyes and female biology, but none of those markers identify me as completely as the fact that I’m a human being. A healthy identity also accommodates shadows, scars, less-than-useful coping mechanisms and behavior patterns.

“My wish simply is to live my life as fully as I can. In both our work and our leisure, I think, we should be so employed. And in our time this means that we must save ourselves from the products that we are asked to buy in order, ultimately, to replace ourselves.”
Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays

Tech allows us to create superficial fantasies of bright colors and pleasurable images, but those worlds are empty and brittle, like an enticing piece of candy that melts in a minute on our tongue and leaves nothing but the taste of sugar and artificial flavor. We cannot judge identity by houses, gardens, cars, vacations, pets, children, selfies, clothing, jobs or partners. Our possessions, our pictures and our memorabilia are not our identity. Somewhere, under all that stuff, behind all those pictures of success and happiness, apart from our fear and unwillingness to come to terms with our objective reality and our denial, lies the powerful, complex, fascinating, valuable person we really are, and that person longs to be identified and welcomed into life. That person longs to give and receive love, make a valued contribution and live authentically.

I’m interested in the way people self-define and introduce themselves. It always points to either what we ourselves feel is the largest part of our identity or what we think others will value or connect with most readily. This is what lies beneath every dating profile. What do we imagine prospective partners will be most attracted to? What’s the perfect thing to say which will limit unwanted matches and encourage those we imagine might provide whatever we’re looking for? How can we optimize the algorithm and make it work for us?

Sometimes I walk away from meeting a new person feeling overwhelmed and deafened by all the ways they labeled themselves and with no sense of the real human being I just interacted with. Instead of an easy, exploratory, getting-to-know-one-another conversation, I was bludgeoned with political jargon and identifiers, patronized and gratuitously instructed out of some kind of claimed expertise. It feels aggressive, weak and demanding. This is who I am and you will recognize my status, authority and identity! If you don’t apply one of my proud labels to yourself, you should. All the best people do. In any event, my labels are better than yours.

“I look like vanilla pudding so nobody knows that on the inside I am spider soup.”
Andrea Portes, Anatomy of a Misfit

Our identity is not for others, but for ourselves. We’re the ones who need to know who we are, experience our feelings and monitor our thoughts. We’re the ones in charge of our dignity, our sexuality and our choices. We’re the ones responsible for our own integrity. As my hair greys and my fertility wanes, I become more and more physically invisible in the world. At the same time, I’ve never been as strong, as resilient, as wise and as compassionate as I am now. I’ve never loved so well. I’ve never felt so whole or comfortable in my own skin. I have no social media accounts and no cell phone. I don’t use any kind of apps, dating or otherwise. My identity is strong and dynamic, and it’s not for sale or on display. In fact, I’ve always felt being invisible is a great advantage. People who attract no attention are invariably underestimated and overlooked, especially aging female people.

At the end of the day, a life well lived is about being who we are, objective reality included, because everyone else is taken. Or a fantasy. Fantasy is fun, but real life is where all the juice is.

My daily crime.

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Jennifer Rose
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