When All the Normal Things Don’t Work

I wish we were all more vocal about the times when things weren’t working out, the times when we feel low, the moments that hurt us.  In my estimation, people tend to not speak on these “negative feelings” because it makes us look weak, or we are afraid to be perceived as damaged, or we are afraid to ask for help, or even, we are afraid of the answer we will get when ask for help. Sometimes, the fear is that if we vocalize how we feel, we are condemning ourselves to an eternity of feeling bad. Naming feelings and thoughts, though, is incredibly empowering. It is only when we run away or ignore our current reality that we give away our agency. And this is the point: if we were more vocal, if we all were very honest, especially with the people who make us feel safe and supported, I think we would find that most of us are incredibly talented at pretending things are fine when they are not. Just as we can be connected in the things that lift us up, it humanizes every interaction we have to realize that the person on the other side of your exhale struggles in the same way you do. Each of us are fighting battles of worthiness and belonging and striving for happiness and love. This is the work of vulnerability. Vulnerability is not just letting people see the quiet good parts of you, the secret things that light you up, that fill you with joy, that make you come to life. Vulnerability is also revealing the parts of you that you feel are ugly and unworthy and broken and hurting. The ladder is harder, but it is also where true trust begins.

There was one day this year where I legitimately cried for twenty-four hours, minus the two hours I was teaching. It was the most vulnerable I have ever been. Ever. I did all of the things that have always worked for me: I went on a run in central park at 5 am on a Saturday morning because I couldn’t sleep and couldn’t stay inside my apartment. I made playlists and flows to try to get the feelings out of my body. I let myself ugly cry. I journaled. I meditated (or at least attempted to). I walked along the river and the Jackie O. I let a few of the people I trust the most see me at my most broken and I hoped that they wouldn’t run away (not all of them stayed around and I learned a big lesson that day about who I will let into my heart). And still, all of those things didn’t work. I didn’t feel better. In fact, I look back at that moment as one which hit the gas pedal on the downward spiral. 

So, what are we to do when all of the normal things don’t work?

Essentially that moment of distress taught me that the self-soothing techniques I had acquired over my life were bandaids but not true solutions to the problem. Most of us are like that. We put bandaids on top of gaping wounds instead of address the crux of the problem: we are not taught how to be with large negative emotions. Overwhelming negative emotions are, well, overwhelming. They are not easy to sit with. Often, it feels like they will never leave us alone. What if there was a way for us to learn as adults how to navigate huge “negative” feelings? Enter the beautiful marriage of science and yoga.

I am a yoga teacher so naturally, when a therapeutic technique incorporates mindfulness, I am fully behind it. Originally developed to help people with borderline personality disorder, dialectical behavior therapy is now used as a technique to help facilitate healing for depression, anxiety, eating disorders, addiction, to name a few. The premise behind this therapy technique is to allow contrasting and totally opposite ideas coexist rather than forcing them into a binary, this-or-that, black-or-white, closed-or-open mindset. This therapeutic technique is used by trained psychologist, but ideas posited in DBT are useful for any person who feels trapped under the wave of big emotions. In four stages, DBT offers patients ways to self regulate and regain control of their lives, perception of self, and emotions even when they feel on the brink of being overwhelmed. What can we non-psycholgoists learn from DBT? It's simple. We always have a choice and the story that we do not, is just that. It is a story.

  1. Reclaim your control over your actions- Have you ever been in a moment of crisis and feel like all decisions are life or death? The circumstances and the urgency are heightened. This is where many of us make choices that we later regret. You’d be hard pressed to find a person who hasn’t made a less-than-optimal choice when they feel they are under the greatest stressors of their lives. When you feel out of control, like you are caged in by the external and internal world and you are exerting all of your force to break out of it, take a moment to pause. Literally, stop the thing you are doing. Stop moving. Stop running. Stop doing. Ask yourself to be still and sit with the uncomfortable for a moment, just a beat. Recognize that the heightened experience of discomfort is the thing that stimulating an out-of-control response. Get yourself in the present moment by acknowledging what it is you are feeling and thinking right now. Not an hour ago. Not five breaths ago. Right now. Say it out loud. Write it down. Guide yourself to focus on the present moment and circumstances.
  2. Come to terms with the past - Things have already happened. You cannot change that. You can’t change the choices that you’ve made. You can’t change what other people have done to you. Placing blame on yourself or others is not going to expedite healing or an internal resolution. The more importance you give to the past, the more of your power you give away. It’s important to know how the experiences you’ve accumulated over your life shape the way you respond to new stimuli, but not so that you have to write that same old story over and over again. You recognize the past so that you can choose to write a different story. Again, not an easy task. Coming to terms with the past will not happen overnight. Rather, it is choosing again and again to pause, assess, and decide that you do not have to relive your past.
  3. Trust Yourself - There is no rulebook or cheat code for adulting. There is no answer key that will tell you how to achieve happiness. Whatever outside source of validation you are looking for, can you cultivate that in yourself? Can you take a step back and discern whether your actions and reactions are contributing to your happiness or your anxiety? It is so normal to look to people and institutions outside of the self for confirmation that our choices are the “right ones”. Yet, we are all so different. The things that fill us up will be very different. Even the people you love, your partners and family and friends, will all have varying paths to happiness. Come back to the stillness and find the center of who you are. 
  4. Free yourself from expectations - I think of the times when I have been the most hurt or let down super hard and it all stems from unrealistic expectations I had about the way a situation was supposed to unfold. Life is not a movie. We don’t get to script out the actions and words of the other people who enter our universe. When we become tied to the idea of a certain outcome or the exact way in which our lives are supposed to unfold, we cause ourselves much more distress than necessary. We take a big risk when we are vulnerable. We risk that we might be too much, too big, too emotional for the other person to handle. And that is okay. Their reaction to you is not a statement about your worth or your wholeness. 

It is not possible for all of life to be completely wonderful and effortless all of the time. The contrast between each high and low is what helps us conceptualize and appreciate the difference between joy and despair, healing and hurting, fully realized awe and detachment. Yoga and meditation are incredible powerful tools because they allow to gain some, if not all, of our agency back from circumstances that seemingly have swallowed us whole. With a healthy perspective and a non-attachment to feelings and thoughts as our identity, we gain freedom from feelings and reclaim our ability to manifest the lives we deserve.