Feelings and colors

Few of us have a large vocabulary for our feelings. We are angry or sad or happy – but we need more words than that. It is like trying to paint a picture with just red, yellow and blue.

Color theory teaches us that the colors blend – we can have happy and sad together in the way that yellow and blue make green. Or we can have angry and sad together, in the way that red and blue make purple. Sometimes we are more happy than sad, or more sad than angry. It isn’t equal, changing the color blend. We could be a bit of all three together, creating a really big mess. Is it possible to be happy and angry at the same time, in the way that yellow and red make orange?

We don’t have a place in our bodies for these weird colors, these blends, so we need to know how to be with them and deal with them. Just noticing them can be a good start. It isn’t about getting rid of these feelings. I don’t think it is healthy or natural to strive to be joyous all the time.

Another part of color theory is the rule of complementary colors. Red’s complement is green. Green is a blend of the other two primary colors – yellow and blue. Blue’s complement is orange, which is red and yellow. Yellow’s is purple. Complementary colors make each other look their brightest and best. So with that I get that we need to have a balance in our lives. It can’t all be yellow (happy) – because you can’t appreciate yellow (happy) without a blend of blue (sad) and red (angry).

Notice in the complementary color the balance is half-strength of each other color. Yellow is full strength, but we use only half of red and blue to create an equal amount of purple. Thus, we need to get our proportions right. Blue (sad) is balanced out by half red (angry) and half yellow (happy). That makes it not overwhelming. Red (angry) is balanced out by half blue (sad) and half yellow (happy). It isn’t about having equal amounts of each thing to get the balance.

Container

We need containers for our feelings just like banana bread needs a container in order to shape it in the heat of the oven. The container gives the feeling shape. The container is a ritual or a practice.

We have to have places to put our feelings. Rituals are the way to do that. Western culture has some rituals and ceremonies for how to handle big events – birth, marriage, graduation, death. But it doesn’t have rituals for much of anything else. Perhaps this is why so many people suffer from depression and anxiety.

When your culture doesn’t have the tools you need, you have to make your own.

Feelings are difficult to handle. Our culture tells us how to handle the feeling of having to go to the bathroom, but not other feelings. When you have the feeling that you have to go to the bathroom, you need to know what to do with that feeling otherwise you will make a mess everywhere. If you have that feeling you know what to do because you’ve been trained. That feeling you have is what lets you know that there something that needs to get out.

Other feelings are harder to figure out, but they are just as important to get out. There isn’t a physical thing that needs to come out of you, but there still is a need to release that feeling. Emotional, spiritual, and psychological pain will manifest in physical ways. Just like with having to go to the bathroom, you need to know how to deal with it.

When you have a sensation of tension in your shoulders, chest, or gut it is a sign that you have a feeling that needs to be processed. The poet Rumi reminds us that grain has to be broken up before it can become bread. But I’ll add that in order for it to become bread it has to be mixed together with other ingredients, poured into a form and put into the oven.

Difficult feelings aren’t ever alone – we aren’t just grain that has been ground up. And the form is our practice. It gives shape to our feelings. What do you do to stay balanced? Do you drift through your days, or are you intentional?

Our practice is our form, our mold for our feelings. If we don’t use it, our feelings will pour out all over everywhere and be a big mess.

When I found out that my coworker had died unexpectedly, I felt a pain in my stomach. I chose to sing it out. Rather than yell or cry, I chose to give it shape. Deep from my gut I sang out a long clear note, simply saying “Ahhhhh……” for as long as I could. Then I took another breath and did it again and again until I released the tension. I have since found out that this is from yoga. It is called “Lion’s breath”, except in yoga, you just breathe out hard. Here, I sang.

I have also used the technique “praying in color” to process my feelings. I have created some other art and started a prayer book that I will use to memorize prayers. I did all of this in his memory. I have chosen to use what I already do to stay balanced as a way to honor him and acknowledge his passing.

And, of course, I’m writing.

It doesn’t matter what you use to process your feelings – whatever form you use is good, as long as it works for you. What matters is that you use it.

Don’t wait until the storm hits to have a place to go.
Don’t wait until something bad happens to have a practice.

If you stick with your practice every day, then you will have something to rely upon when the inevitable happens. It will help you keep your balance and not get swept away. It doesn’t mean that you escape your feelings – it means that you don’t let your feelings overwhelm you. You still have them – they just don’t have you.

Food abuse

I see obesity as a symptom of food abuse. It is the same as alcoholism and drug abuse. It is a sign of an abuse or mis-use of food.

I used to be obese. I’ve had to work hard on relearning what (and how much) is healthy to eat and how to incorporate more movement and exercise into my life. But I’ve also had to work hard on addressing the root cause of why I wasn’t taking care of my body and my soul.

The problem is, we have to eat. We can’t just stop eating food. We can’t drop it like we can alcohol or cigarettes or any other addictive substance.

So we all need to develop a healthy relationship with food – and to address the issues that are causing us to use food to (not) solve our problems. Food can heal us, but it can also harm us if we use it improperly. It can be too much of a good thing, but it can also be the wrong thing.

Food wasn’t the only substance I had a wrong relationship with. Back when I smoked pot, I would smoke it to feel better. I’d have a bad day at work, or my family was hassling me, or there was some other stress to deal with. I’d smoke pot to numb the pain. It would ease the pain long enough that I’d forget about it, until I’d sober up again and the problems would come back. The thing is, the problems never went away in the first place. I just anesthetized myself to them. Instead of dealing with them, I ran away from them in my head. When I got sober, I’d still have those problems, and I’d still reach for pot to “fix” them.

It was a terrible cycle of stupid.

Plenty of people do the same thing with food. Because food isn’t seen as a drug, and because it is not only socially acceptable but normal to eat, food abuse is an easy addiction to pick up. And it isn’t like our society in general has a healthy relationship with food. Everything is super sized and fried. It is too much of a bad thing.

Is this fat shaming? No. Not any more than pointing out that someone who drinks to solve their problems is an alcoholic. This isn’t “blaming the victim” either. It is pointing out that when we use food to solve our problems, we are creating our own problems.

Victims are people who have things done to them. They are passive agents in the story. A person who gets hit by a car, or lightning, or something falling out of the sky is a victim.

If you hurt yourself, you aren’t a victim. You have done it to yourself. Thinking about why you do it is the wrong direction of thought. Blaming your parents or society or your friends for your action is self-defeating. You choose your life and your actions. You have control of what you do. You can also make a choice to change.

We need to start naming our demons so we can slay them. If we pretend like everything is fine then we will continue to kill ourselves bit by bit and bite by bite.

Food won’t fix our problems. Facing them will. No, it isn’t easy.

We have gotten into the habit of shoving our feelings and anxieties down, ramming them into our mouths with food. We have to learn how to let them out rather than shove them down. We have to learn that it is OK to speak up and be heard.

Poem – the meal of grief

Grief is a meal that must be eaten.

You cannot leave the table until it is finished.

You can cut it up
into tiny little pieces

or try to wolf it down

but either way you must eat it.

It is harder when it is cold
when you have waited so long
that your tears are the sauce.

It is impossible when it is fresh,
when it is raw.

Then your body barely has room
for breath,
much less anything else.

However it comes to you, it is your task.
No one else can do this for you.

However it comes to you
sit down
look at it
and accept it.

Give thanks for it.

For grief blesses you
and breaks you
and puts you in Communion
with God
and everyone else.

Grief is the great equalizer.
And the great humanizer.

Angry is just a feeling.

It’s okay to be angry.

“Angry” is just a feeling. It is the same as being tired or being hungry or having to poop. It is a sign that something is lacking or there’s too much of something. It as a sign of imbalance but it in itself isn’t a bad thing, and it’s okay to feel it.

You don’t have to explain it. It can just be. It is what you do with it that matters. It’s not the feeling itself, it’s the action you take when you have the feeling that matters.

When you’re hungry do you overeat? When you’re tired do you sleep too much? What do you do with these feelings?

Perhaps having to go to the bathroom is the best example.

When you have to poop do you poop right where you are, or do you go to the bathroom? Do you wait and wait and wait when you have to pee, until you feel like you are going to burst? Or do you take care of it right away, and in a healthy way that is good for you and those around you?

To poop right where you are isn’t healthy, and it isn’t considerate of others. To wait and wait to pee might be considerate of others if you are in a meeting, but it isn’t healthy for you.

Going to the bathroom is learned. That isn’t instinctual. We had to learn how to handle that natural occurrence. I propose that dealing with anger is the same.

It is possible to learn how to deal with this natural feeling in a healthy and safe way, one that is healthy and safe for you, and for those around you.

Some things that work for me –
Go for a walk.
Have a hot bath. Bubbles help.
Write.
Paint.
Deep, focused breathing.
Prayer.
Playing the drums.

Think about the things you do when you are happy, and try one of those when you are angry. Sometimes that is enough to flip the switch.

No matter what, don’t try to escape your anger by using intoxicants. It isn’t about escaping it, it is about allowing it a safe way to get out.

Consider a balloon. The pressure builds up and builds up, and the air has to get out somehow. Either it can get out the way it got in (the neck), or the balloon can burst. Burst balloons don’t work as balloons anymore. They are broken bits. We are like that too when we don’t let our anger get out in a safe way.

Now, in the middle of all this it is a good idea to think about why you are angry. What about this situation is making you feel angry? Does it remind you of some earlier situation that went wrong? How did that situation make you feel? Was there someone in your past who taught you how to react in this particular situation?

You can unlearn old habits and take up new ones. You are forever able to rewrite yourself. Nothing is permanent. Just because it always has been that way doesn’t mean that it will always be that way. The past does not predict the future.

You can’t escape anger, but you can redirect it and you can learn from it. Anger is a part of life, just like night is a part of day. It isn’t bad, in and of itself. It is what you do with it that matters. Use it wisely and it can teach you a lot.

Poem – losing our hearts

Defense of the heart
may be the only way to
be whole.

Remember the time
when you
opened yourself up
so wide
that your heart
fell out?

Even though the
reason you did it
seemed good at the time,
even though the
person you did it for
seemed good at the time
you still got hurt.
You still lost your heart.

Anybody who is anybody knows
that being heartless
is worse than being
gutless.

Maybe
both are bad.
Maybe part of being
human is losing our hearts
and finding them again.

Christmas, and bottled up feelings.

I hate Christmas. I don’t hate the idea of it. I hate the execution of it. So painful. So hard. So tedious. Many Christmases I’ve washed down with a bucket of tears and a side of regret.

One was with my boyfriend, now husband. We met with his brother and then wife at a Mexican restaurant. Jeff gave him presents. Scott gave both of them presents, some of which were from me. I got nothing. Not even a token something. I wanted to go sit in the car and cry. I wanted to remove myself from all of it. I wanted to just leave, because it was obvious that I didn’t matter, I didn’t count.

I didn’t leave. I sat there, being ignored. I ate my chicken enchilada and chalupa in silence. I drank my sweet tea. I held in my hurt and my anger and my sadness.

I cried all the way home, wee wee wee, just like a little pig.

Sadness and anger are the same thing. They are signs that expectations aren’t being met. They are a sign that what you think should happen isn’t happening.

Perhaps I need to lower my expectations. Perhaps I need to not care so much.

Life was a lot easier when I was stoned. Things didn’t hurt as much. Feelings were further down. Pain didn’t last as long.

Last year was another painful Christmas with that family. I’m married now, and I’ve known them for ten years. The years previous were awkward. I kept feeling like nobody knew what to get for me, and that I didn’t know what to get for them. Since there was a new member added to the family I decided to go to the effort of getting each person to fill out a gift list. I asked each person what they liked and didn’t like. What is a good present, and what is a terrible present? I figured it would make it easier. I gathered the lists from each person and made sure each one got a copy of all the others. There. Done. Everybody knows what everybody likes.

When Christmas Day came, I made sure that each person had at least two presents from me. Some were handmade by me. All were picked with that person’s wants and personality in mind. Somewhere in the middle of the opening of presents I realized that I had gotten two presents. Two. For me. That is all. And one of them was a blanket. My sister in law got a similar blanket, but hers was in the color I liked.

Why did I go to the bother of that list?

Why do I go to the bother of caring?

Why do I keep allowing myself to be hurt by these people that I did not choose?

When I commented on my Facebook page how hurtful that Christmas was, my sister in law insisted that I take it down. She’s a therapist. You’d think she’d know something about pain and hurt, and how dangerous it is to suppress it. She cared more about her husband’s feelings than mine. That is her right. I should have taken it as a sign of who she really is.

Once again, I don’t count. I don’t matter. I’m ignored, and forgotten, and left out. I’ve asked my husband to tell his family that it would be easier if nobody bought presents for each other this year. That way, everybody would save money. That way, no feelings would be hurt. He hasn’t taken the time to do this. It would be really embarrassing to show up at that house with no presents and they actually, for once, got me something.

Perhaps I shouldn’t go. Perhaps I shouldn’t care. His mom has had cancer all this year. She should be dead by now, according to the doctors. It is a big deal that she is even still alive. Perhaps I’m just not caring. We are all dying, and it doesn’t make anybody special. She announced that she had cancer before Christmas of last year and it was super difficult – people pretended like everything was fine.

I’m sick of pretending.

Being emotional and getting upset is embarrassing. It is right up there with vomiting or defecating in public. People can’t handle it when your insides come outside. They want you to take it to a private place and do it all by yourself and clean up the mess. Don’t show. Don’t let anybody see that things aren’t fine.

But sometimes you’ve bottled it up for so long that it doesn’t come out in a clean way. Sometimes it doesn’t come out when you want it to. Sometimes it bubbles up and out and over and it leaves a big mess right there, all over you, standing there, right in the middle of the room.

Handshake

Have you ever listened to the odd sound that a fax machine makes when it is trying to connect with another fax machine? There is a weird series of sounds and whirs and chirps and whistles. This series of sounds is called a handshake. Machine number one is trying to figure out what frequency machine number two is on so it can send the fax correctly. When they are able to properly connect it is the same as two people shaking hands.

When people shake hands they are communicating in a basic way. At a primal level they are saying they don’t have any weapons in their hands. Simply to touch another person is a big deal. We have a lot of rules about personal space. It is seen as rude to get too close to someone. People stand about a foot and a half away from each other in line. But to shake hands you have to get within that space.

Just offering to shake someone’s hand is a big deal. They can refuse. They could want a hug instead. There is a bit of jostling about to figure out where the other person is coming from, and what they want out of that interaction.

What about a wave, or a smile? Have you ever noticed that if you wave “hello” to a stranger they will invariably wave back? The same is true for a smile. The saying is “laugh, and the world laughs with you, cry, and you cry alone.” Substitute “smile” for “laugh” and you are on to something.

When I was at Cursillo I cried a lot. It was overwhelming. Symbolically it was Christmas and Easter and my birthday and my wedding day all together. It was a lot to a take in. I cried out of surprise and joy and relief. Towards the end I knew that we were going to be standing in front of a huge crowd of friends and strangers and we were going to be welcomed into the Cursillo family. We were going to have to stand up in front of them and answer the line “Christ is counting on you” with “and I am counting on Christ.” I had a pretty strong feeling I was going to cry, because I’d cried the whole weekend anyway. I prayed that I wouldn’t cry, but while I prayed I heard the answer.

Sometimes it is important to cry, because it lets other people know it is ok to cry.

It is as if we need permission to have feelings. By leading the way with a difficult emotion, it frees up others to have that emotion too. There is a sense of relief. Nobody wants to be the first to cry, but they definitely need to and want to.

It is very healing to let others know they can have feelings, that it is OK for them to let them out. Our society is really heavily into the idea of keeping a stiff upper lip. “Boys don’t cry” – yes, and then they grow up to be abusive and have heart attacks. Boys should cry. Girls should get angry and yell. When girls get angry, they are told they aren’t “ladylike.” Our society tries to shape our emotions as to what is OK and what isn’t. And then we have huge rates of depression and addiction and emotional disorders.

Let them out. Let others know it is OK too. If you stuff emotions in you get out of shape. Pressure builds up. Go ahead. Cry. Yell. You’ll feel better. Then go for a walk and maybe some yoga and a nap and have some decaf tea with your teddy bear.

Spiritual midwifery

We can’t really teach feelings easily. It isn’t like we can say they have a certain color. We can’t use our normal senses to know that something is happening that we need to deal with. When you see the color red on a traffic signal, you know to stop. When you smell smoke, you know to look for fire. When you hear an ambulance siren you know to pull over to the right hand side of the road.

But we don’t have such easy clues with feelings. When we have feelings in our bodies we just have to experience them and learn what they mean. When we are children our parents teach us to recognize what it feels like to need to go to the bathroom. We learn that this feeling means we need to tinkle, while this feeling means we need to poop. Knowing what those feelings represent means that we then know how to handle them. We know to find a bathroom. We learn that we can’t ignore that feeling. The same is true of being nauseous. We soon learn that sad lurching feeling means it is time to get up close and personal with a sink or a toilet or a bucket. Something very unpleasant is about to come out. If we hold it in we will get very ill.

We don’t have that kind of training with other feelings. We don’t learn how to recognize and deal with pain, with anger, with anxiety, with grief. We don’t even talk about the feeling we have in out bodies when we feel these things. We don’t name what is going on, and we don’t train in how to deal with it.

When my parents died I was alone in my grief. I was young, and most of my friends were just as inexperienced as I in handling such an overwhelming situation. They didn’t know what to do so they did nothing. They left me alone. I didn’t have any idea of how to handle an estate, much less how to handle my feelings. Coming from a family where real emotions weren’t discussed didn’t help either. There was an elephant in the room and his poop was piling up. And there I was alone having to shovel it.

So I didn’t. I didn’t know what the problem was so I certainly didn’t know how to handle it. In the meantime I handled the estate and fended off my opportunistic brother. My brother disappeared for a year when Mom was sick and dying with cancer. You can be assured he showed up when it was time to handle the estate. He had not only not helped while she was dying, he had attacked me, saying I wasn’t doing enough to help her. Hopefully you see the irony in his words.

Because he was older, I was hoping I could look up to him. I was hoping to be able to get help from him. Instead I got pain, and deceit, and manipulation. In a time of great vulnerability I got swooped on by a vulture. There had been glimmers of this attitude of his all my life but especially while Mom was sick. She was so sad to realize how he was acting towards me. In a way, it wasn’t a surprise. The title of “big brother” was just a place holder. He had never protected me or mentored me as a child. Why would he start now? I said to her that it was like I was going to go on a hike up a rocky mountain, and I’d just bought a walking stick. I’d rather it break on the lower levels than break higher up when I needed it. My brother had shown me that he wasn’t dependable. I had learned that I would have to rely on myself.

But I still hadn’t learned how to identify and deal with my feelings about this. This was just a part of many co-occurring problems. Boundaries? There were no boundaries in my childhood. Both my brother and father stole from me. Both of them found it was easy. Both of them felt it was their right. Neither apologized or repaid me. Also, I’m just now coming to realize how much time I was alone as a child. Neglect is a form of abuse. I was tested and declared “gifted” in second grade. My Mom noticed how quickly I picked ideas up, so she thought she didn’t have to teach me. This makes no sense. Yes, I generally understand things quickly, but I still have to learn them. I didn’t come out of the womb with pre-loaded instructions like in The Matrix. She never taught me how to clean the house or cook or garden. I can write a fine English essay but I can’t keep house.

So there were many feelings at that time, and even now. Grief. Betrayal. Abandonment. Loss. I didn’t even know I was supposed to feel angry then. I didn’t even know that anger was healing. When you are angry you stop being passive. You stop letting things happen to you. In the beginning there is a sense of victim-hood. Move past that into knowing that you don’t deserve what has happened to you. Move right into a sense of here is my line in the sand, and from here you can go no further.

Perhaps we don’t recognize our own hard feelings because we are embarrassed about them. But if we don’t name them and face them we end up being consumed by them. When I didn’t process my grief, my anger, my loss, I turned it inward. It grew. It festered. I smoked pot for years to keep it at bay. Then I decided I wanted to get sober. I decided it was time to grow up. Four years after my parents died I quit smoking pot and all those feelings came back. I was constipated with grief. I was nauseous with betrayal. I got sick. I had been self-medicating for years but I’d only been covering up the symptoms, not treating the disease.

The result? I had a manic episode. Everything got amazing. Everything became suffused with the light of God. I felt safe and loved and protected in a way I’d never felt before, and certainly never felt with my family. But something was wrong. I didn’t sleep. For three days I was up, and my brain wouldn’t turn off. For three days I was higher than I’d ever been on drugs. I called other friends and they came to look at me and talk to me. They decided it was time to take me to the hospital.

It wasn’t a surprise to me that this was happening. My father had been manic depressive. It is as if you are raised in a household where a family member has diabetes. If you develop it, you figure out pretty fast what is happening and you know what to do. I was so out of my mind that the nurses at the mental hospital thought I had been taking acid or some other hallucinogen. It was a few days after being there and getting on medication (and sleep and regular food) that I started to approach being human again. One night I felt very ill, like I needed to throw up. I was on “constant eye” at the time, meaning there was always a nurse nearby watching me. One was very concerned when I had dry heaves and asked me what was wrong. I remember saying “I can’t speak it.” Out of the depths of my grief, that was all I could say. I didn’t have words. I didn’t know how to get this bad feeling out of me. Trying to vomit made sense somehow. Somehow she understood that it was grief that was eating me up inside. Through the grace of God she knew what was the cure. We went outside, by ourselves, in that cold January dawn and we sat at a wrought iron table. We talked about loss and pain and grief. It was then that I truly started to get better.

That nurse healed me more than any pill ever could. She identified the source of my pain and knew how to lessen it. It had become a huge ugly pearl inside of me That chunk of grief and loss and betrayal had grown and grown into something larger than any one person could ever think to process. It had grown up, layer by layer, year by year.

I think there are some feelings we can’t handle on our own, but our society prides itself on people being independent. We also have a lot of alcoholism and drug abuse. This is no coincidence.

I know it is hard to ask for help and it is also hard to know how to help others. What I am learning is that you don’t have to solve the other person’s problem. You just have to listen. Just like a midwife doesn’t make the baby come out, the caring person’s job isn’t to take out the problem. The job of both is to help the other person do it by being supportive and loving. As a spiritual midwife the goal is to make a safe place so the other person can give birth to themselves.