Turning towards

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Blogs by their nature are exercises in navel gazing. And I’ve never kidded myself that my blog had a wide appeal, mostly I ramble on about things that interest only me/hair.  But this post is so incredibly narcissistic that I give you my regular reader aka mum complete permission to skip this post.

But I have to write about turning towards. Because this revelation has been so fundamentally important in my life that to not mark it here feel wrong. Maybe this might help other people struggling with the same thing. Plus when I inevitably forget this lesson, before the universe slams my head against the wall again I can re-read this post again and tell myself turn towards doofus, turn towards.

As I hinted in my beginning of the year post for the past six months I’ve been struggling. In short:

There are two things I really want. I’ve been doing anything I can think of to accomplish these goals. And running face first into the universe’s indifference as I realise how completely out of my control everything is.

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In response, I’ve felt very sad, hopeless and useless. I don’t like feeling sad, hopeless and useless  – these feelings bummed me out. So I would do whatever I could to make myself feel better. I have *takes deep breath* journalled, gone to therapy, cleaned, seen friends, isolated, eaten chocolate, meditated, drunk many fruity cocktails in different shades, gone on the holiday of a lifetime, distracted myself with books and TV.  I even whisper it exercised. That is how desperate I was 😉

And all of these things worked. I’d feel better for an a hour, an afternoon, a week. But inevitably because I want things, and those things aren’t happening, I would feel very sad, hopeless and useless again. I flipped so fast between hope and despair I gave myself emotional whiplash.

Even worse the negative thoughts began: ‘you’re a trained counsellor. If you’re so good at fixing your clients, why can’t you fix yourself. What’s wrong with you?’ So in addition to feeling crappy, I then beat myself up for feeling crappy. It was if I imagined after gaining my diploma that I’d be teflon coated never suffering again. Fellow counsellors, I’ll give you a moment to stop laughing at me.

This cycle (feel sad, try to make self feel better, while beating self up for feeling bad) might have continued ad infinitum. If not for one weekend when something happened.

During the break in a experiential counselling group (think a therapeutic group for counsellors) I took a walk. It had been an emotional day and I’d connected with an old wound from childhood. I felt off, like a small animal was scritching a hole in my breastplate. I needed… something. I went into the bookshop and stared at my books, my drug of choice and familiar companions. No, that wasn’t it. I went into Waitrose and stared at sugary things, hoping they could satiate my pain. Nope, not it. I walked scrolling through my phone desperate to find somebody who could help take this feeling away.

In that moment I would have done anything, taken anything for the momentary cessation of that scritchy feeling.

Instead I did something different. I sat down on a bench and (in my head) I began to talk to myself. ‘OK’ I said to myself. ‘What up with you?’ I turned towards those feelings blossoming within me like a dark flower. And I felt it all the sadness sloshing inside of me bigger than any ocean, the anger juddering like tectonic plates moving and there at the base of it all a raggedly old wound that never healed.

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It took almost everything I had to not turn away from those feelings. Instead as each feeling emerged I acknowledged it. I tried to name the feeling: was it grief or despair that I was drowning in? I put my hand to where the feelings where located and breathed through it.

Was turning towards those feelings pleasant?

No.

It felt like shining a light into my soul and seeing creatures wiggle in the darkness. It was intensely painful but mixed up in that pain was a relief at those feelings being heard. An ‘Ah yes, there you are!’

In that moment I drew on a couple of ideas that had inspired me but I’d struggled to integrate. Buddhist notions of acceptance, vulnerability from the work of Brené Brown, and techniques from mindfulness and focusing. I accepted those feelings. I embraced my vulnerability instead of turning away in shame. I open myself up to my current experience whatever they were.

I knew from my counselling training that feelings need to be heard. But I had been ignoring mine and worse telling myself that what I felt wasn’t valid.

Let’s get all metaphorical for a minute. It felt emotionally I was in Hull but I really wanted to be in Brighton. It was almost as if for the last six months I spent all my time either distracting myself or being self critical that I wasn’t in Brighton. Neither of which actions got me anywhere. If I ever want to get to Brighton I need to accept I’m in Hull.

I need to accept the reality of my current emotional experience before it can change to make way for something new. 

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For years I’ve had this quote pinned to my fridge. ‘The only way out is through’ by Robert Frost. The thing is going through our feelings hurts, it’s uncomfortable, the terrain is unwieldy. Wanting to avoid pain is human nature. It’s in my nature. But when I avoided my pain it only reinforced my secret fear that my pain is bigger than I am and I am not resilient enough to handle it. By trying to shut of my pain I’d limited my ability to feel pleasure. By turning towards I remembered that there are no shortcuts, the only way out of a feeling is through.

So for the last month I’ve been practising turning towards my feelings. I can feel the ripples spreading. I don’t know where I’ll end up but this feels huge and revolutionary.

For the first time in months I’m feeling like myself. I feel… better (she says tentatively eyeing the skies for more thunderbolts).  Nothing externally has changed but I’ve changed. I still want things that aren’t happening. I still feel sad, useless and bummed out. But instead of ignoring those feelings or telling myself I’m not allowed to have them more often than not I turn towards them. ‘Who are you?’ I ask. ‘What do you need me to hear?’ And whatever I hear and no matter how uncomfortable it is to bear I try to turn towards.

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