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20. Regarding Uncomfortable Feelings pt. 1

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Good Morning Families, today is Monday April 20th, 2020 and it is now time for a moment of SEL.

How are you feeling? What thoughts are you thinking? How are you feeling in your body? How would you like to express yourself? How can you express yourself?

These questions can really help us recognize and manage uncomfortable feelings and unwanted conflict. In particular the questions, “How do you want to express yourself?” and “How can you express yourself?”. Those questions help us recognize and understand our desire for expression and help us measure our desire within and sometimes against the social norms or expectations or rules for expression in different environments, contexts, and cultures. And by the way, norms, expectations, rules, those are all devices of social management. And social management devices are enacted within culture and context and can act upon culture and context. So, we are now stepping fully into the looking glass of Social Emotional Skill building. Particularly as we start to recognize social management devices and the distance that can sometime exist between the desire for expression and the self-management that is actually used to express within or without the parameters of the social management devices in the environment. Boom! Big Time Feelings today. Kindergarteners stay with me, you’ll like this next part.

But first, uncomfortable feelings; there are so many, where to even start? Worry? Apprehension? Anxiousness that something bad will happen. Boredom, that’s a big one for students and for the boys in my house right now. Loneliness? Alienation? Fear? Repulsion? Hopelessness? Helplessness?

Oh, here’s a good a one, it’s a thing I call a “wincing memory”. In the English language we use the word “wince” to mean the sudden show of pain on the face, often accompanied by the head moving back at the same time, and can come from the sudden experience of pain, or disgust, or regret. So, you can wince from touching something hot that you thought was not, that would be a physical burn. But, did you know that you can also wince from an emotional burn? A “wincing memory” is what I call a sudden surprise memory that causes me to scowl and physical jerk my head back. I could be doing the dishes, or landscaping, or doing nothing and boom wincing memory. Here’s one that I have from time-to-time. I don’t know why, well, that’s not entirely true, I’ve spent a lot of time exploring my own thinking and feeling and memory so I have some inclination, about why I wince over this thought, but, what I definitely have not yet discovered is how or why or when this though comes on. Let me give you some context and culture to fully appreciate this wincing memory. When you are from West Virginia there are many things you know. Many, many wild and wonderful things. There are also some really hard things you know. The first is poverty and the second is the woods. Forests. Nature. There is poverty everywhere. And everywhere there is the woods. In fact, side bar, two summers ago my wife and I dropped our kids with my folks in WV and took a trip up to Washington, D.C. It was great. We wound up having coffee with our state Senator Patti Murray, and we almost succumbed to heat stroke. Don’t be fooled by the distance between the Russel Office building and the Lincoln Memorial, it’s like the distance between the New York New York and the Bellagio. Also, surprising similar cultures, except you can see it a little easier in Vegas. But as we were driving back to my folk’s place, right down US Interstate 79 the misses kept asking me, “Where do all the people live?” Because it’s basically all woods for as far and as long as you can see. Exactly. Where are all the people? They’re in the woods! Being poor. Okay, to be fair to my kinfolk, not everyone is poor…but everyone knows someone who is!

So, forests and poverty. Okay, back to my wincing memory. Around the time I was 8- or 9-years old camping was a big thing. Everyone loved camping. Now, for whatever reason, I do not like camping. Not a fan. I like hiking, I like a campfire, but when that’s done, I’d much rather be home. At some point during that time I developed a joke that I thought was really good. More of a one-liner actually. When someone would ask me if I liked camping or would I like to go camping I would suddenly become Thurston Howell III and say, “my idea of ‘roughing it’ is having to stay at a Ramada”.

Ouch. Total wince.

Here’s some comedy and some tragedy about this. You may hear my story and think nothing of it. The actual facts of me being offered to go camping and my Millionaire’s Waltz of a one-liner may not produce any feeling for you. However, let me unpack it and start to describe what’s going on underneath.

When that 1983 moment is suddenly brought back in mind and I recognize my 2020 real-time physiological change, sudden facial tension accompanied by a head jerk back and to the left, my brain makes sense of this by providing me with a set of feelings I would describe collectively as embarrassment. If I break down embarrassment, I could recognize a sense of shame, likely coming from the knowledge I’ve since gained about social propriety. That is, I now have a different sense of what “proper” behavior looks like, and with my years-of-earned-knowledge I can go back and admonish my younger selves for acting in the ways they did before I knew what was proper. Not necessarily a healthy or productive thing to do, but something many of us have elevated to sport! And on the side here, I think there’s room for a new kind of MMA where a single “fighter” enters the octagon, is given a microphone and just beats themselves up verbally. I can also recognize a sense of failure from where I had hoped to be perceived as witty, but where I may have in fact been perceived as foolish or immature the eyes of others. Also, I’m not sure what my knowledge of the Ramada Inn was like or why I choose that particular establishment as the butt of my joke, but I would like to say, during college I worked at a La Quinta in Austin, TX so to the good folks at Ramada, I’m sorry. And lastly guilt at possibly hurting another person’s feelings with my flippant response. Instead of responding with something like, “yes, that would be fun” or “thanks for the offer but I’ll need to miss this one” I used their kindness to tee-up my stage at the Catskills. So, whether they wanted it or not, I made the straight man so I could play fart-smith.

Yes, all of that is real. That is, I’m not making it up. I said that and those are the feelings that can come up, even 37 years later. Of course, I have internal supports so that I don’t berate myself or ruin my day. But those are definitely some uncomfortable feelings. Some of those feelings have somatic response, which is something that can be felt in the body. That is, the body reacts, maybe with a stomachache, or tension in the shoulders and neck or in this case, a wince. That’s why you need to check in with how you are feeling in your body. The body is a great communicator if you lend it an ear. (that’s another zinger I’ll regret)

So, what do I do with these uncomfortable feelings? Well, that’s what we are going to focus on this week. What do you do with uncomfortable feelings? What do you do with unwanted conflict?

Those are really important questions right now because there are many, many things that can bring about uncomfortable feelings. Just look around. Maybe there are things out in the world that can be assigned uncomfortable feelings. Maybe they are some sources right there in your living space. Whatever those things are for you, you will know because in order to make sense of them, your brain may deliver unto you some uncomfortable feelings. Humiliation, anger, shame, regret, helplessness, hopelessness. Don’t worry, you have a say in what you do with those feelings. That’s what we’re working on. Here’s what you may want to know for today.

In my experience, it can be very hard to assign shame or guilt or humiliation without other’s being involved. I don’t know if it’s impossible, but I know it’s difficult. Those things that happen, that I assign those feelings to, at least for me, tend to be related to social interactions on some level. For example, if I strip out all other peoples’ presence and just think of my Ramada zinger, there’s not much too it. It’s the connection of me, in the social setting that gives me the opportunity to respond with such a wide array of uncomfortable feelings. So, this week and the next we’re going to be using our self and social awareness to really apply it to social management. Here is why that matters. Social management refers to all the devices groups of people use (written or verbal, explicit or implicit) to manage how groups of people interact within an in-group, with out of group people, and between groups. To be able to recognize social management devices is a truly great skill for students. Some social management devices are super obvious. Things like school rules, or expectations. They are so pronounced that these devices often hang on walls as anchor charts for behavior or class expectations or hallway rules or The Big 5 or The Big 4 or Emotional Intelligence Charters. All social management devices. When they are obvious it is easy to spot them. However, many, many social management devices are not written or obvious. They can be very covert. They can be known only by a few and understood by even less. Willfully violating a social management device can be empowering as in a protest or act of social disobedience. That would be using social engagement to make a change. Un-intentionally breaking a social management device can bring about other feelings though. Feelings of alienation, of incompetence, of humiliation, or many other things.

My wincing memory is related to inadvertently breaking some social management devices that folks then would have called etiquette. As an 8- or 9-year-old, when I responded with my Ramada comment, to my friend and their parents, I was transgressing social etiquette. Now, was anyone truly hurt by my early attempts at stand-up? Not even in the slightest. But that’s how uncomfortable feelings can work. It doesn’t really matter what “actually” happened, it only matters what feelings I assign to what happened. That’s where the work is.

It is also important to know that as we start to look at social management, we recognize that this domain of Social Emotional Learning is very significant in our society. Historically, social management devices are the mechanisms with which groups that held more power were able to create laws and devices to maintain that power, in ways that made it difficult for others to gain entry into the power holder community without full assimilation. And you can imagine, when the criteria is based on things that people can’t do anything about, such skin color or country of origin, the social management devices can be felt as cruel to those that are kept out. That is why we have the gift of another social emotional learning domain which is Social engagement. Social engagement is the parameter by which our nation has worked to address and replace those unequal and/inequitable devices in effort to work to the freedom of all us. Including those that have been included in the power holding communities. But more on that later.

For now, just recognize, if later today you experience a wincing memory. And, if you are a student recognize if you have an experience that produces uncomfortable feelings.

The truly great thing about Social and Emotional Learning for students is that you are getting the skills as they happen in real time. See, the secret here, we are never trying to not experience uncomfortable feelings. Quite the opposite. We are trying to learn how to interact with them in a way that is productive for our growth. Again, we’re not preparing roads for the kids, we’re preparing kids for the roads. I need my pain from my wincing memory. It is an important part of who I am. So even though it is uncomfortable, it is valuable, and I wouldn’t trade it. Especially not for actually having gone camping. What about you?

I look forward to connecting in whatever way we can tomorrow. Until tomorrow, may your thoughts and feelings be with you.

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