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21. Regarding Uncomfortable Feelings pt. 2

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Good Morning Families, today is Tuesday April 21st 2020 and it is now time for a moment of SEL.

How are you feeling? Did you recognize any uncomfortable feelings yesterday?

Uncomfortable feelings, always more from this guy with the uncomfortable feelings. It’s true, uncomfortable feelings do tend to get more attention than comfortable ones. Take for example film. Not too many films start out with people feeling great, continue with people feeling great and end with the same people feeling great. “Never once did they not feel great!” would probably not be a review that would bring people to the theater. So, much to the chagrin of the positive psychology world, there is likely an inordinate amount of time spent focusing on uncomfortable feelings. However, it doesn’t all have to be uncomfortable. It can in fact have positive aspects provided the experiencer of emotion, that is us, understands emotions as information and is provided roll modeling of moderation and balance.

Here’s our work for today and it’s something we can all do. In fact, it’s likely you already do it, all the time. Let’s call it the Game of Opposites. That is, if you except this reality as true, then you are excepting duality. If you notice, things in our world tend to come in pairs, often across the spectrum. Now, before we get started, please know that just because things are opposite, does not mean they are at “odds”. Despite the extremely low SEL political theater that has been officially performing for us since Boogie Man himself Lee Atwater ran amok with our emotions, being on opposite sides of a spectrum, can be positive. Take for instance humans. Double XX chromosomes need to meet with XY chromosomes to make little baby chromosomes. These chromosomes travel in bodies that are on heterogenous. There’s nothing inherently negative or opposing about that. However, when you act upon those bodies with social management plans in ways that are inequitable, you’ve imposed opposition on what was just opposite.

Rather, try to recognize today that emotion is information. It is the brain helping make sense of the experience in the world. The brain, and its symphony of interpretive feeling is not the enemy of productivity. Emotion is not the enemy of rationality. Exclusivity is not the enemy of empathy. And apathy is not the enemy of feeling. These things do not exist to fight one-another. Yin and Yang, exhale and inhale, day and night, cats and dogs living together…(that’s from Ghostbusters) Ghosts and Busters…okay this metaphor tired.

We need these things in order to recognize and understand the world we live in. But we need them in moderation, and we need them in balance and we need to not believe that everything is constantly taking swings at its’ opposite.

So how do we do this? We approach our thoughts and feelings as emotion scientist. That is, we look at emotion as it is, information. It is telling us something. What it is telling us? Maybe the experience of fear is alerting us to danger? Maybe the awareness of danger is producing fear. Let’s take a safe example of this danger/fear model. Not a bear in the woods but a math test in the class. Students experience this danger/fear or fear/danger cycle all the time. And if math is not something that you experience this with substitute “public speaking” or “moving to a new school” or any variety of common social occurrences that could produce an outcome that your brain may meet with uncomfortable feelings.

Consider this, true story. A student comes to my office like Paul Revere alerting me about the British. A math test is coming! A math test is coming! The student is worried. They are apprehensive about their performance, they are concerned that they won’t do well, not doing well could lead to remediation with more math, it could lead to lowering their social standing in class, it could lead to confirming what they’ve already been telling themselves for weeks that they are in fact stupid and should never have been in this class because they imposters! Then they swing wildly toward anger, “Math sucks anyway!” then toward exhaustion, “No one uses it in the real world” (and just so you know, as they say this, they take out their phone/pocket computer!!!) Yes, all of that has been said and more, by many a student about many a math quiz to many a counselor, teacher, parent, friend.

Now, if as a counselor I were to panic along with them and say to the student “Oh no! Run! I’ll burn the school down tonight!” I’d be fired at the least. But I’d be contributing directly to the idea that emotions, particularly uncomfortable ones cannot be managed and must be immediately acted upon. Fortunately, this is not true, no matter how dire they seem. What is true, is that they are information, we need to learn to listen.

We go through the student’s feelings. Worry, maybe the future is uncertain regarding the degree of difficulty of the test. Maybe there is a past experience with a test that ended negatively for them and they don’t want to repeat that. Maybe both of those can be positive information about preparation. Maybe math remediation is unpleasant, maybe it is provided during a lunch which is a crucial social time, making the remediation feel more like punishment as it requires losing something positive in response to something that is already difficult. Maybe the social context of the math class is not as healthy as it could be if social standing is based on quiz performance, or maybe the student is distorting the experience or catastrophizing a potential outcome. Regarding confirmation of stupidity, maybe the math test is what is finally bringing them to the awareness that they need additional support in the class, or they need to put in some more time practicing math in order to be successful, or maybe, possibly math is the catalyst by which we discover they are self-bullying or holding some negative thinking about themselves.

Whatever it is, the worst thing to do would be for me to try to convince them right away that math doesn’t suck. That would be a miscue of emotion information, and sadly, the easiest for the listener to engage with.

Emotion is information. You need to give yourself the permission to sit with it. To not act on it until you understand it. And, if you are experiencing difficulty in understanding it, then you need some strategies for it. So, for uncomfortable feelings, here are some strategies. Exercise, meditation, talk to a trusted person – I can’t emphasize enough how powerful it is to ask people like you if they have experienced things like you are experiencing and what did they do about it. Never underestimate the power of social learning. Maybe take up a spiritual practice that is right for you, that would include secular humanism. Art, theater, music, dance, poetry, film, books, these things can do wonders for the emotions. And, if it does feel like too much to handle and you are able, try reaching out to a professional. If we had of been provided a robust Social Emotional Learning system when we were young, maybe we’d be better with these things. But it doesn’t mean we can’t start now.

When we move back from social distancing and when we get a vaccine for the coronavirus there could be an outpouring of uncomfortable feelings. Many, many people are experiencing very difficult things right now. Loss of a job and extreme income insecurity, loss of a loved one, trauma, fear, worry, anxiety, panic. All of those things can be met with very uncomfortable emotion information. It will be very important for all of us that we have given ourselves some time to practice interacting with these feelings and that we understand what is being communicated, and what we can do with it.

This is not to suggest we wallow around in uncomfortable feelings or we deprive ourselves pleasantness. If anything, treating our uncomfortable feelings as emotion information may give us more immediate strategies to manage that information and move on. The hope is that we start to lesson preference for one end of the spectrum of feelings, and start to stop thinking all opposites are opposed and start to see ourselves as whole only when we are able to be with all of feelings in moderate and balanced ways.

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

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