A few nights ago, my BF came home at 2am. I knew he was out with “the guys” drinking, but was expecting him back around midnight (Raise your hand if you’ve been here before!). Either way, I had to be up at 7 for work, and was understandably unimpressed by the sounds of him crashing around, puking, and “napping” in the shower for 45 minutes until I banged on the door, informing him “It’s 3 in the morning!” as if that would somehow bring on sobriety. When he finally emerged and got into bed, he continued to toss about, grunting as he slumbered while my blood began to simmer. Calmly as possible, I requested he sleep on the couch, to which he mumbled that I wasn’t “being fair” and he was “going home” (he lives with me), before stumbling downstairs. But because I’m a terrible sleeper at the best of times, I proceeded to stay awake until 5, caffeinated by my anger.
Anger isn’t a feeling I notice bubbling up too often. As I say this, I’m trying to be honest with myself, because a lot of women (and men) are socialized to suppress anger (it’s not an “acceptable” emotion). So, sometimes I wonder if I’m just suppressing my anger when I really should be feeling it. Either way, because I don’t feel it that often, it catches me by surprise when I do. And sometimes, I end up losing my shit because of it. So perhaps these moments where I feel mindful anger rather than out-of-control rage are potentially beneficial, as they teach me how to react to anger in a more serving way. I could almost be thanking my boyfriend’s drunk ass for helping me work my emotional tolerance muscles without putting my emotional back out. Almost.
You see, just like we have to work our leg muscles to carry physical weight, we have to work our emotional muscles to carry emotional weight. If we always avoid our feelings by distracting, numbing, and reacting, it’s like never practising a squat. Sure, you can get by fine if you avoid any situation where squatting might be necessary, but what happens when you’re in a public bathroom and there are no seat covers and you’re like, “Damn. I wish I could squat right now.”? Same thing goes for experiencing anger. Or uncertainty. Or guilt. Or loneliness. Or humiliation. You get me?
So, the next time you feel an uncomfortable feeling, try this: Ask yourself, what emotional strength training is this an opportunity for? Identify what you’re feeling, then imagine you’re bench-pressing Anxiety. Once you’ve identified what emotional tolerance muscles you’re training, ask yourself what you need. Is it self-compassion? A reminder of impermanence? Compassion for my wonderfully imperfect boyfriend who clearly had 12 too many PBRs tonight? (In his defence, it’s really not a common occurrence). Don’t know? That’s OK, too. Just aim for distress tolerance right now. In some cases, you’ll learn what you need in that moment and be able to draw upon it more easily in the future. In other cases, you just learn how to ride out the (shit)storm.
Reminding yourself difficult emotions are opportunities for strengthening your emotional muscles is helpful for 3 reasons:
1) It encourages us to look at our emotions from a distance, rather than overidentify with them.
2) It nudges us into recognizing what it is that we’re feeling, thus making it easier to empathize with ourselves and practice self-compassion (and other-compassion, in the case of a much-loved yet obnoxiously drunk at the moment boyfriend).
3) It helps us stay with the emotion more easily, rather than trying to push it away or react to it in an unhelpful way.
To sum, the next time you feel irritation, think of it as an opportunity to practice sitting with irritation. The next time you feel rejection, embarrassment, humiliation, guilt, anger, envy, jealousy, hurt, sadness–you name it, tell yourself it’s an opportunity to sit (squat?) in that discomfort. No, it’s not going to make it enjoyable or even comfortable, but it might help you stay with your emotions and thus build up those muscles. And the stronger those muscles get, the more intentional you can be in your reaction to that feeling. You’re not dismissing the cue that feeling is sending to you; you’re just choosing to hear the message, meditate on it for a bit, and react in a helpful way (in my case, this involved an assertive, “I-statement” filled conversation in the morning. rather than World War III at 4am).
If you’re human, you’ll probably feel something uncomfortable soon, so play with giving this a try the next chance you get. Wohoo! Bring on the discomfort! And the earplugs!