by Michelle Cove, founder and Executive Director of MEDIAGIRLS
Most of us are making decisions at rapid-fire pace without knowing what life will look like in a month, a week, or, let’s face it, tomorrow. Of course, the reality is that we never know what’s coming; we just like to think we do. Now, the jig is up, here we are, many of us really understanding how little control we have in some fundamental ways for the first time. In the meantime, there is a sea of decisions to make, whether it’s related to work, parenting, school, leadership, connecting, or how to wash our fruit right now. The idea of tending to our feelings right now–on top of everything else–may seem daunting yet it’s a key to our well-being.
Our feelings need tending to today
We can’t keep putting off tending to our feelings until we have time. Here’s what happens if we don’t: “When we suppress our feelings,” says Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LCSW-C, psychotherapist: “it’s like we’re standing in the water and trying to shove down a beachball (the beach ball being our feelings) under the water’s surface. It takes so much energy to do that, and when we least expect it, that beachball pops up with total intensity.” Like say, when we don’t express anger at our colleague for missing two important Zoom meetings in a row, and then end up screaming at our kid for leaving a dirty mug on the counter.
Maybe you’re thinking there’s just no time for feeling right now (“I’ll get to it after I figure out whether to sanitize those cardboard boxes all over our house”)? Feeling our feelings fully, says Rollin, takes about 90 seconds, according to research. We can get caught up for many more hours in thinking about those feelings but it’s less than two minutes to experience feeling a feeling. There’s also a major reward to crying; our tears help release excess stress hormones (look up cortisol for more info), allowing us relief.
I can vouch for trying out both methods: suppressing my feelings a couple of weeks ago and then finally having a big old cry. Like a whole lot of other nonprofits, I had to shut down our programming for the nonprofit I founded. The college volunteers who teach our program were being told they had just days to evacuate their college campuses. The middle-school girls enrolled in our program had their lives upended as their schools shut down. In addition to everything else they had to contend with, they did not even get to say goodbye to our college volunteers, who were mentoring them.
As called for, I went into management mode: communicating to our partners and staff and board and volunteers and our followers. There was figuring out budgets and what’s next and contingency plans. And then there was waiting to hear when my daughter’s high school would close, and what this would mean for her practically and emotionally. What would my husband’s job look like? My brain was practically smoking from overuse.
Tears for the win
Then I sat down and did what needed to be done. I cried. I allowed myself to feel fear about the virus, sadness about all the collective loss (large and small), general anxiety about not knowing what’s coming, the grief of not being able to call my mom, who died this winter. I even felt the guilt about feeling bad when millions of people have it so much worse. Who was *I* to feel these deep feelings?
The answer is I’m me, and I’m having my own experience. The best thing I can do – that we can all do for ourselves and for each other– is to truly experience our feelings. The sadness and anger are already in us, getting stored up, and we need to move that energy through our bodies. It is only in doing so that we’ll continue to be able to manage well and make our best judgment calls at any moment. Experiencing our feelings allows us to soothe ourselves, continue to empathize with others, and role model for those around us that doing so is a high priority.
Don’t know where to start?
Find at least a few minutes during the day to be still (you may have to hide from your family for this, that’s okay), take a few deep calming breaths, close your eyes, and just watch what pops up for you. Don’t try to fix anything. Don’t force any feelings to come. Just observe and allow yourself to be. If you want, place one or both hands over your heart. You don’t have to. Obviously, you don’t want to do this right before a virtual meeting or other time that you have to be “on.” Scared of what you might find (“What if I feel so sad that I just can’t come out of it?”) Remind yourself that emotions pass. Says Rollin, “Think of your feelings as waves in the ocean. They come and go, rise and fall. No feeling lasts forever.”
Sharing this message with our kids
Let your girl(s)–and, of course, boys too–know that you’re making time to check in each day with your feelings and why. Tell her you’d love if she would try the same, and that there’s no right way to do this. If it helps her, she can share her feelings with you (or a friend or aunt or mentor). If she’s more private, she can jot down her feelings in a journal or express them through art. Or if that’s all too much, she can just feel the feelings for right now. Practicing making this part of our daily lives will not only help us as we move through this incredibly stressful experience, but it will remain in our coping toolbox for the rest of our lives. What a perfect investment of time and energy.
Michelle Cove is the Executive Director of MEDIAGIRLS, a nonprofit organization that teaches girls how to critique the way girls and women are portrayed in pop culture with an emphasis on creating empowering content. She is also an award-winning filmmaker, journalist, and author whose projects have been featured on numerous national platforms including “The Today Show,” The Washington Post, and The New York Times.
Jennifer Rollin is a therapist and founder of The Eating Disorder Center in Rockville, Maryland, who specializes in working with adolescents and adults with eating disorders including, anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder, body image issues, anxiety, and depression. See www.theeatingdisordercenter.
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