Kathryn Foster, Ph.D. Psychologist
Excerpt from When Your Relationship Changes
Learning to sit with your feelings
We are inculcated to believe it is “only natural” to run from difficult emotion, to keep our lives busy and distracted. We avoid being still and fully present. But take a moment to experience your feelings, your bodily sensations, the clock ticking, the silence or chaos in your mind. Imagine riding the wave, or, if it’s really hard, riding the wild bull of your emotions. Judge none of it–only experience it. Over time, train yourself to settle into your circumstances and feelings. Don’t run. Be with it like you would sit beside a friend who’s just lost her mother. Know your restlessness, but don’t change it, just accept that this is part of every human’s experience. Yes, you are bored, just let it be. Yes, you are lonely, but feelings are, by nature, transient. If you don’t search for reasons for the emotion, if you don’t label it as “intolerable,” it will simply slip away. Self mastery of your feelings is one of life’s big challenges and begins with acceptance.
Once you sit with and make friends with your feelings, you will feel relieved and empowered. The magic of psychotherapy is the art of fully experiencing your pain, with the therapist helping to stabilize you and normalize your feeling-experience. Then, and only then, it vanishes and you are free. Watch a rumpus dog, told to “sit.” He gathers his agitation, settles into his body, lays down in acceptance, makes eye contact with you, and eventually, utterly relaxes into sleep. So, too, you feel your disruption, settle into it, and find peace.
Self mastery of your feelings is one of
life’s big challenges and begins with acceptance
If you have just experienced a break up, you may be languishing, feeling you can hardly breathe. Be assured, you will come to the bottom of your misery and go up from there. It will be temporary. Remember that millions have experienced the loneliness you now feel and have overcome it. You cannot escape it, no matter how hard you run, shop or drink. Stop. Face it. Embrace it. Love yourself. Let the tears come.
Recognize there is a basic loneliness to individuality, so let these feelings stand. They are a natural part of the human experience, nothing more. We are all separate, alone, and that is ok.
Our over-stimulating world doesn’t allow us much time to be alone, be quiet, and sit with our feelings. Smokers find this when they walk out of their workplace and smoke alone in silence, taking a ten minute break. Don’t smoke, but do find moments to stare without a goal and without expectation. Give yourself time to find and appreciate your connection with yourself.
Older people more easily identify
their feelings and accept them
Research has shown that adolescents are the loneliest age group of all, probably because they have a hard time identifying what’s going on emotionally as they individuate.[i]
They cannot label their loneliness because, so far in life, they have had little experience with it. Older people have the easier time with loneliness, because they, having so much life experience, easily identity it. They have a greater grasp on the human ups and downs of emotion. Identifying and accepting your feelings will give you a leg up on being a successful human being.
Quiet your run-a-way ego
Being in solitude means shushing the voice of the ego, that psychological entity that invents a future filled with fantasy worries and past regrets. It will not center in the now; it refuses to be at peace. You will not get rid of it because it’s part of being human, but you can pat it on the head and say, “It’s okay, Little Fella.” If you feel embarrassment or self consciousness, your ego is being fed and is growing. Calm it so you can move beyond and experience the higher parts of yourself. It is much like being both firm and reassuring to a child.
The ego fills us with expectations: I am entitled to this, I should have that. But it is unrealistic expectations that cause loneliness, according to research. The old, for instance, are generally not lonely; they have chosen to expect less and are satisfied with less. Perhaps they have learned from experience the limits of relationships.[ii]
Unrealistic expectations cause loneliness
We seek a permanent partner because we cannot bear to concede to the fact that life is ever-moving, changing, and flowing. We want security, permanence. Yet there is no such thing; the ground is always shifting. You may long for certainty, believing you cannot find fulfillment without it, and seek a relationship for relief. But a relationship will only bring other changes into your life. The mad rush, the intense search to stabilize life is fruitless. All humans are always changing, so relationships change too. You yourself are a fluid and open system. Smile at change; it will always be with you. Finding a relationship will not “solve” it.
In peace, be present for the ever-changing human experience
All people move in and out of feeling comfortable or masterful, then feeling insecure or down and then finding enjoyment again. It is the state of our being and will not change. This may be why older people report being more content with life. Accepting the ups and downs as normal allows you to consciously ride them out. In peace, be present for the ever-changing human experience—changes in weather, health, mood, circumstances, relationships. Stop catastrophizing and inventing stories of disaster about your future. This one moment is truly yours. Comfort is to be found in acceptance. If you are willing to undergo surgery so you can feel better, also be willing to undergo staying with your feelings, without judging them, to come out on the other side. It isn’t circumstances that bring joy; it’s your attitude toward them.
Our feelings are constantly shifting, too. If you journal, you’ll see the negative ones coming less often. Self expression will alter them. Highlight positive feelings in your journal and note the shifts in your perspective.
[i] Hartog, J. The anlagen and ontogeny of loneliness. In J. Hartog, J.R. Audy, & Y.A. Cohen (Eds.), The anatomy of loneliness. New York: International Universities Press, 1980.
[ii] Young, J.E. Loneliness, depression, and cognitive therapy: Theory and application. 379. In L.A. Peplaud & D. Perman (Eds.)., Loneliness: A source book of current theory, research, and therapy. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1982.