Oh Pink Floyd, that lyric could have been the soundtrack of my life for the past several years… okay, okay – and all of my 20s.
Flash back to 2006 –
I’m driving to the beach with my best friend. I’m wearing a F*ck Tom shirt (a MySpace reference I don’t really understand) and a hat that says Beer is the Reason. We are laughing as we sing at the top of our lungs ‘I got this icebox where my heart used to be’. I feel happy (and proud) that I haven’t let the heartache in my life so far bring me down.
Now fast forward to early 2018 –
Recognizing how guarded I have become, I attempt a guided How to be More Loving meditation with an app I have on my phone. It starts by instructing me to breathe deeply and focus on relaxing different parts of my body. No problem. Next, to focus on the center of my chest and feel as if I am breathing through my heart. A little odd but okay, got it. I’m then told to bring up feelings of love. Hmmm… not really sure how to do that but I’ll give it a shot…
Nothing. I can’t make myself feel love… and I’m not even really sure what I’m trying to feel.
The guide helps, chiming in that if it is difficult to conjure up those feelings, just picture someone you love or admire. Okay, that’s easy.
One by one I start to picture the people I love (family, friends, on-again-off-again-boyfriend) and each time… nothing. I can’t feel love, whatever it’s supposed to feel like. Instead I just feel frustration that I suck at this meditation.
And then I picture my first nephew and his smiling little face lunging forward to kiss me… and there it is – just for a second – the feeling of love. I try to focus on it – to amplify it – but it quickly dissipates. I immediately try to get it back, picturing that moment of love with my nephew again and again. It’s almost like a physical struggle inside my heart as I try and try to get the love back. But the only thing I feel is an actual pressure… an uncomfortable pressure… bubbling up below my heart. I check to make sure I’m remembering to breathe, wondering if that’s causing the pressure. Yep, still breathing. It’s like a lump in my throat but instead in my chest. Suddenly tears well up in my eyes and start to roll down my cheeks. It’s a weird kind of crying though… like even the tears are struggling to come out.
Frustrated and confused, I give up and open my eyes. I sit there for a minute, trying to understand what happened. I just effing cried during a meditation on love. That can’t be good.
While I always thought I was emotionally mature – overcoming disappointment and heartache with strength and determination – I now understand I wasn’t mature at all. I was emotionally ignorant. Because just like I confessed in my let it burn blog, I avoided dealing with the pain. I wasn’t overcoming anything; I was overlooking it. And it wasn’t until that failed meditation attempt that I fully understood the consequences of that coping mechanism… or lack thereof.
Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston. Her TED Talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” is one of the most viewed TED Talks (I highly recommend it). Part of her research focuses on the concept of numbing – ways we dodge dealing with feelings that are uncomfortable. Historically, drugs and alcohol have been the numbing agents to speak of. But today, numbing can take many more forms, i.e. food, gossip, Netflix, snapping, tweeting, swiping right… you get the point. It is anything that distracts or delays us from dealing with the harsh realities of our life. Anything that puts the attention on something (or someone) other than us.
My favorite numbing agent over the years has without a doubt been alcohol:
Feel insecure or uncomfortable in a social setting? Order a drink.
Unhappy at work? Happy Hour.
Bored on a Saturday? Day drink.
Ghosted? Night out.
Unexpectedly see an ex-boyfriend? Shots.
Last year, when I realized this numbing tendency of mine, I decided to give up drinking. I didn’t drink for nine months (no, I wasn’t pregnant). It had nothing to do with being against alcohol in general – I still love me some vodka. I just wanted to become more aware of my whys for drinking. Was I having a drink because I really wanted one or because everyone else was drinking? Or because I felt uncomfortable? Or because I wasn’t having fun? Or because I was avoiding pain? I wanted to get to a place where my intention for drinking was always a positive one.
Those months of sobriety started out extremely uncomfortable… for me and for those used to drinking with me. I felt awkward being the only one in a social setting not drinking; almost like I was off balance without a beer in hand. But I pushed through that awkwardness and slowly but surely it lessened, and eventually I found my footing with a La Croix filled koozie instead.
During that time, a few people were brave enough to ask me if I quit because I had “a problem.” I always answered “no,” but it didn’t feel like an honest answer. Because I think it depends on your definition of problem. Was I an alcoholic by society standards? Not at all. But I would argue that drinking to avoid really facing your feelings… numbing your life… is kind of a problem. Same goes for social media, TV and the thousands of time-sucking apps at our fingertips. If I wasn’t drinking my feelings away, I was deflecting by focusing on other peoples’ lives, or binge watching six seasons of Game of Thrones in two months (yea, that really happened). There are so many ways to escape our reality.
Escape. That’s a word I used a lot to justify my numbing. “It’s my escape” – I’ve said it countless times. Either that or “it’s my release.” And people usually nod along in understanding. It took me almost 20 years to finally ask myself but why do I want to escape my life to begin with? Or what do I need to be released from?
All of my escape routes were really a means to avoid just being; something to do other than sit quietly alone with my thoughts and feelings... and think about my life – the choices I’ve made or didn’t make, the resulting consequences, and the impact they’ve had on me. Instead I tried to constantly distract myself from those thoughts. Probably because deep down I knew really facing my life – really acknowledging that my choices were MY choices – wouldn’t be all rainbows and butterflies.
But as Brené points out, “We cannot selectively numb emotions, when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.”
And there it is - the consequences of my numbing. That’s why I failed miserably at the How to be More Loving meditation. All those years spent escaping the pain resulted in a loss of love… a loss of joy. The guard I put up was blocking me from experiencing the full range of emotions, good and bad.
And that’s when I realized being comfortable sucks. I don’t want a life I try to escape from. I don’t want to struggle to feel love… or even struggle to cry for that matter. So now I try to not just face it all – the pain, the discomfort, the fear – but to also lean into it. Embrace it. Because we can’t pick and choose the emotions we let in… it’s all or nothing. And I want it all.
It’s uncomfortable at times but it beats being numb. And I’ll cheers to that.