A common strategy in the face of disappointment, struggle, and other uncomfortable feelings is to try and pinpoint what we did wrong to create the situation. The idea is, “if I caused it, I can fix it,” which fosters a sense of power rather than powerlessness. It makes sense that we would search for any toehold that allows us to rise above our difficulty, but the problem with this strategy is that it has us constantly surveying the land for our shortcomings. It can create a “blame the victim” mentality and/or compound whatever difficulty we are experiencing by laying harsh criticism on top of what is already a painful situation. We might feel like we have a better handle on the problem, but now we also feel ashamed for having the problem to begin with.
Don’t get me wrong; sometimes we need to take responsibility for things that didn’t go so well. I’m not suggesting that there is never a time to investigate how we might “do better” in the future. It is when this becomes the primary coping mechanism that it does more harm than good. It is when our faultfinding replaces the process of acknowledging our hurt feelings that we aren’t doing ourselves any favors.
Another way we try to wrangle for control over uncomfortable feelings is to talk our way out of them with statements such as, “It’s not that big of a deal,” or “I’m being ridiculous, this doesn’t warrant any of my energy.” No matter how hard we try to convince ourselves that we shouldn’t be having a particular response—it doesn’t remove the underlying emotional experience. What it does create is a large gap between what you are telling yourself and what you are actually feeling. The dissonance between the two creates so much tension that we often end up acting in self-destructive ways. As you can see, we think that we are saving ourselves potential heartache, but we are actually creating more “dis-ease.”
Relating this to emotional sobriety, I believe that the goal is to feel all of our feelings, not to be held hostage by them, transcend or avoid them. Emotional sobriety is about seeking balance, staying in conscious contact with our current experiences, and honoring and making healthy choices around them. It’s about having compassion for this imperfect human condition, accepting that life is a never-ending process that requires the occasional growing pains.
So, how can we apply these ideas in a practical way?
1. Take a minute to look at what you are doing well in your life (seriously, right now). If the auto pilot setting has us nit-picking our every wrong move, we need to take the time to amplify the good stuff. Give yourself some credit. Own what is working in your life without putting a “but” at the end of each sentence.
2. If your default setting is: “I’m not good enough,” or you tend to rationalize away whatever you’re feeling, I encourage you to try and unpack these experiences a little. See if you can get underneath these thoughts. For example, if you don’t get the job or someone doesn’t want to return your friendship, you might tell yourself that you aren’t good enough or that you didn’t care to begin with. These ideas can offer a false sense of protection against having to feel badly, or false immunity from being disappointed in the future because, “See, it NEVER works out, so I won’t even try.” But underneath all of that is most likely a host of feelings such as hurt, disappointment, embarrassment, shame, and resentment.
Most of us don’t want to feel any of those things. But just because we ignore them, doesn’t mean they don’t exist. We can’t stick our fingers in our ears, singing “La La La” until the feelings go away. (I know this, because I’ve tried). Our best chance at freedom is in facing whatever is underneath our defensive posture. This is often a very scary proposition, but I also know that most of the time, whatever we are avoiding is much more painful when we are busy running from it. I love this quote by Rilke as a reminder of this idea:
"Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love." – Rainer Maria Rilke
This post is called, “The Illusion of Control” because tackling our disappointment with the sword of self-loathing doesn’t give us more control—it robs us of our gifts, it obscures the resources that could actually do us some good, and it sends the message that we don’t have permission to be human beings. It keeps us afraid of our inner Prince and Princess.
What if we gave love and compassion to the big, scary feelings? What if we could honor them like the royalty they are rather than beating ourselves up? When we stop blaming ourselves for every misstep or problem in our lives, we become less driven by our fears and better able to function and flourish.
I hope this post will give you a little more courage to face your own dragons, or to at least think about your inner-struggles as something you might want to embrace. I know that embracing shame or fear sounds almost impossible, but as compared to fire-breathing dragons...
Ingrid Mathieu, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and author of Recovering Spirituality: Achieving Emotional Sobriety in Your Spiritual Practice.
Copyright by Ingrid Mathieu, Ph.D., 2012. All rights reserved. Any excerpts reproduced from this article should include links to the original on Psychology Today.