For the past few years, I’ve been doing a lot of work on myself, on the way I think about my identity and my experiences (wanted, or not). This was triggered by my first real relationship about 4 years ago, a lot of effective therapy, and some new perspective via the work of Brene Brown. Most of what I learned from all of this self reflection had to do with how I do (or don’t) relate to feelings. Or more specifically, MY feelings. In fact, for the first several months of therapy, I would leave the office absolutely exhausted from crying; and even though my body was clearly feeling something, and trying to bring those feelings out for me to see and experience, it took quite a while for me to be able to identify and name which specific feeling (and motivating thought or memory) I was experiencing.
Since I started this new job in July, my point of reflection has changed a bit. I’ve actually been feeling a LOT, and have been able to identify those feelings. The new step I’m coming to more frequently in this season, is trying to understand the depth and intensity of feelings that are sometimes triggered by events that aren’t matched in severity of experience in comparison to the level of the emotion I am feeling. It’s unsettling, and has honestly made me feel sort of crazy at times.
One day, after a tough conversation over miscommunication at work (not mean or destructive by any means, but some things I was very upset to have ‘missed’), I drove to my boyfriend’s house, feeling exhausted, confused and just generally terrible. After allowing myself to verbally vomit for about 15 or 20 minutes, and processing out loud while Andy listened, I came to a stopping point. I had come to the source of this tremendously icky feeling that had been making me feel so small.
It was the thought that I had failed.
Even though NO one had ever accused me of this (except that ugly voice in my own head), this is what I kept coming back to.
I’ve personally struggled with the fact that my job has had a steeper learning curve than I anticipated. As an Achiever, I am good at most of the things I do. BUT I’ve also learned, a few subtler truths about myself that are not quite as flattering. I am good at most of the things I focus a lot of energy on, because I avoid things I’m not good at. I don’t like being told I’m not good at something—and even when the intention of the speaker may genuinely be to help me improve, often the meat of what comes through to me via my internal filter sounds much more harsh, something like, “You are terrible at this. You are NOT improving, and you are not having as much fun in this ‘meaningful’ job as you thought you would.” All terribly ugly things to hear. And instead of using the majority of my energy to fight off those things, to look at them objectively and then decide what is helpful to allow to pass through and what is not–when it comes to those negative thoughts–for whatever reason, I seem to give them all a free pass to just bulldoze through and start tearing up the best parts of who I am.
One of the things that’s been the hardest for me to figure out, has been trying to understand the depth of some of these feelings. Though I did feel pretty defeated by that exchange at work, there’s no way that it should have emotionally wrecked me the way that it did. In cases like these, I’ve learned that when I emotionally respond in a way that’s bigger than what seems warranted by the situation, it’s because that same feeling (from another time/experience) is still laying around unresolved under THIS more recent version of the feeling. So I’m dealing with a pile of the same feeling stacked on top of itself over and over, instead of just this one occurrence of the feeling on its own.
Stay with me.
Here is where the effective therapy training came in. I asked myself, “Why do I feel like this? Why is failing such a big deal? Where is this original association with failure coming from? The answer totally floored me, “It’s because you couldn’t save your dad. You failed. He died and it’s your fault.” And then the crying. Holy shit.
I know as a grown up that this association makes absolutely NO sense. But this is what my emotions and my experience taught me. I’d always felt when I was little that if I’d prayed harder, or stood over my dad in the hospital and cried magic Disney tears, I might have been able to save him. That it was because I didn’t do those things that he died. That is why the idea of failure has been so petrifying for my entire life.
So. Now that I know that, what’s been interesting is that when I’ve had other hiccups while learning my new job, I don’t necessarily feel as bad. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to fail. And even those mistakes aren’t necessarily so big I would call them failures. But it’s amazing that just in being able to identify the source of that feeling, how much it’s diffused that feeling in subsequent experiences. A strange thing to learn at 34, but I suppose that mostly we don’t realize where those deep dark feelings originate from, because they’re so dark and menacing that we’re too afraid to really ask and learn the answer. Even though the answer is often the beginning of that healing process. We avoid the thing that’s really the solution because of fear.
What does that mean? I’m not totally sure. I guess just that it’s good to examine things. To really REALLY look at them closely, and not let fear prevent me from asking those hard questions. And to be kinder to myself. Much, much kinder as I navigate my way through these feelings on top of feelings.