In the classic cowboy movies there always seems to be a danger of someone falling into quicksand. As the watery mud sucks them further and further under, the person struggles to get free. And they sink even deeper.
It’s a natural instinct to struggle in quicksand, it’s human nature. But you won’t get out of quicksand unless you do the opposite of your instincts. The secret to surviving quicksand (which is mostly water) is to lay on your back, relax and float on the surface.
We have the same instinct to struggle when we experience ‘negative’ or what should be more accurately called uncomfortable feelings. There are nine basic emotions of the human condition and only one-third of them give us pleasure. It is sobering to think that we spend up to two-thirds of our life trying to avoid, ignore or alleviate ‘bad’ feelings. Here is the list of emotions that most scientist agree on (although there is considerable debate):
And to add to that, our thinking self inflames the experience by telling us stories about our uncomfortable feelings. We judge ourselves – to feel this way means we’re bad, dangerous, irrational, weak, defective and lack self-control. We get sucked further and further into the quicksand of misery and despair.
When we feel bad, instead of doing what we instinctively do – struggle – we must learn the art of laying back and relaxing.
Acceptance is such a loaded word
Through my research into body image and self-love issues, I have discovered that the most problematic word in the English language could very well be acceptance.
Our common understanding of acceptance involves looking at something with favour, wanting it, endorsing it or receiving it as a gift.
I am not asking you to like, want or enjoy uncomfortable feelings. In fact, let’s get rid of the whole acceptance word altogether (here and in the self-love world as well).
Let’s make room for uncomfortable feelings instead.
Only for the brave
If you’re up for a bit of discomfort today, let’s practice how to make room for our emotions together.
First of all think of something that makes you really sad. Fuse with the thoughts and get swallowed up in the emotion.
Notice where you feel sadness in your body. Is it in your chest, your stomach, or your throat? Is the sensation hot or cold, rough or smooth, light or heavy? What shape is it? What colour is it? Think of yourself as a curious child who has never felt this emotion before … how would you describe it?
Breathe deeply now, and send your breath to the part of the body that’s hurting. Breathe all of the air into your chest, stomach, throat or wherever else it is located.
Now give this emotion a name. Acknowledge it by saying ‘Here’s sadness.’ Don’t say ‘I feel sad’ just see the emotion as separate from you.
As you keep breathing into the discomfort in your body, imagine making room for the feeling. Expand the area around it with space, air and light. Instead of feeling like the emotion is pressing against the inside of your organs and skin, open up some space. Notice that the feeling can’t get any bigger than you.
Acknowledge that feeling pain is the price all humans pay for feeling love and joy. You can choose to not feel anything at all and be numb to your emotions, but you would have to give all of them up. Decide that having love and joy in your life is worth the pain that accompanies it. Know that you’re not broken or defective, just a person who loves deeply.
Place your hand on the part of your body that is hurting. Feel the warmth of your palm against your skin. Imagine that it’s the hand of someone you love giving you comfort. Hold this feeling gently like it’s a crying baby or a frightened puppy.
Now expand your awareness and feel your feet pressing into the floor. Look around and notice something that is beautiful in the room you’re in or outside the window. Listen to the sounds around you and connect with being here in the present moment. Connect with me talking to you and sending you love from the other side of your computer screen. Realise that feelings are one part of life, but like a single actor on the stage (who you’ve been shining a spot light on), you can also bring up the lights and see the scenery, the other actors and hear the music.
You have just learnt how to survive quicksand by going against your instincts. You didn’t struggle. You didn’t ‘sit’ with the emotion (thinking about it, dwelling on it, ruminating on it and investigated all the whys of it). You noticed it, acknowledged it, made room for it and the expanded your awareness back to being in the present moment. You can remember the process with the acronym N.A.M.E.
N – notice
A – acknowledge it by name
M – make room
E – expand awareness
It’s not a ‘feeling better’ technique
Probably, the feeling subsided or went away. Although this is a lovely bonus it is not the point of the exercise. The point is to have the skill to make room for whatever you’re feeling whether it stays or whether it goes. You are transforming your relationship with ‘symptoms’ so they no longer appear as ‘symptoms’ but as a normal part of life.
It’s all about living a rich, full and meaningful live by being present, opening up and doing what matters.
Lay back and enjoy the view
I still have many opportunities to make room for the sadness, fear, guilt and anger that gets triggered when someone brings up the subject of suicide.
Each time a wave of emotion threatens to knock me off-balance I practice the N.A.M.E. process. It doesn’t make the emotions disappear and I’m not filled with joy and delight, but with this technique I can make room for the pain without it overwhelming me.
I’d love to hear if this technique makes any difference to your life. Please let me know in the comments.