Not all of us can be great scholars, doctors, lawyers, scientists, etc. Not all of us can be great athletes. But all of us have the ability to develop our emotional intelligence and I’d argue that emotional intelligence is the key to the survival of both our species and our planet. Academics and physical fitness are both important, but so is our emotional and spiritual health. We are multi-faceted beings and all aspects of our make-up must be treated equally. Today I am looking at the matter of emotions, which we are never taught to study. In fact, emotions are seen most of the time as negative, something to be avoided at all costs. The truth is that emotions are neither good nor bad; they just are. Problems arise because of our ignorance surrounding our emotions, ignorance which leads to inappropriate expressions. When we don’t understand what we are feeling, we can react in ways that others will find to be negative. When we don’t take time to look within ourselves to see why we are feeling the way we are, then we can and do lash out in ways that harm our relationships.
In earlier posts I have written about my reactions to anger. I react badly to anger which is expressed violently, and my reactions are triggered by my own childhood traumas and my PTSD. Anger is just one of many different emotions which all of us feel. Anger is neither good nor bad. But our society is quickly becoming much more violent as the expressions of anger take on confrontational and even physically violent expressions. The old adage that “sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me” is horribly false. Words have the ability to inflict enormous harm as well as enormous good. Weapons harm, whether they are actual guns, knives, fists, etc., or whether they are verbal weapons, and personally, I fear the angry word more than any physical weapon.
I recently had a friend tell me that she hadn’t lashed out at me in anger, but rather that she’d been really hurt. I don’t know if she is aware of it, but both emotions were operating. Yes, she was hurt, and yes, in her pain, she lashed out in anger. Anger isn’t always the primary emotion. It is, as far as I can tell and I am not an expert by any means, also a very common reaction to both hurt and fear, among others.
For example, while anger is definitely not my first defense strategy, I have certainly been known to be snippy or cutting, lashing out towards others when my pain levels escalate. I have lived with constant pain for a number of years now, and I have had to learn to guard my tongue very carefully, especially when I am really hurting. My pain can make it easy for me to lash out in anger, trying to take out my pain on whoever is close by. Obviously, this is not only inappropriate, but it is also shooting myself in my foot as actions like that only drive people away.
I have seen people lash out in anger as a defense against various fears as well. People yell at the clerk at the grocery store because they can’t find what they want. Maybe they are afraid to go home without it as they will then disappoint someone they care about. And possibly the yelling prompts the clerk to find or get whatever the person needs. As another saying notes, “the squeaky wheel gets the oil.” However, in the long run, such strategies are neither the most effective, nor healthy for either party.
I lived through three years of remodel and I witnesses a number of angry shouting matches when things weren’t going the way people wanted. I tried to say that getting angry and yelling wasn’t going to help anyone, and I was told that I am “too nice,” and that if you are nice you will get walked over. Unfortunately this is a common belief, that being ruthless is power and nice guys finish last. I don’t believe that. I believe that kindness and gentleness are not weaknesses and that “you get more with honey than you do with vinegar.” There are ways to set my boundaries so that I am not getting walked over, and at the same time I am able to live effectively and productively.
With a growth in our emotional intelligence, we could learn better techniques. First, we need to acknowledge and honor our emotions. Emotions are part of us and they are not evil. When our emotions get triggered, I think we need to take the time to figure out what is going on inside us. Why are we feeling whatever it is we are feeling? How is this emotion speaking to us? We must get in touch with our inner being first, before we do a knee-jerk reaction.
Several years ago I was taking private yoga lessons from a wonderful teacher. She told me a number of times just how well she thought I was doing. During one particular session she kept correcting the pose I was learning and with each very gentle correction I felt more and more as if I were a total failure, as if I would never be able to get it right, and as that trigger of mine progressed, I became convinced that I would never get anything right ever again. I struggled through the rest of the lesson holding back my tears until I could finally leave. Later, after talking to my therapist about this, I realized that my old childhood programming had gotten triggered. This programming, especially since it began when I was so young and lasted for many years, structured my reality of the world, specifically, that I would always be a failure no matter how hard I tried. I forgot all the praise my teacher had given me; I forgot that this was a brand new pose; and I forgot that my teacher always encourages her students to do their very best. Once I was able to sit with my emotions, to look at them for what they were, I saw that I’d been triggered and that my teacher would have had no way of knowing what had happened. At my next lesson, I explained what had taken place and she and I worked out a set of guidelines so that I could feel safe to say “enough,” or whatever word we came up with, when I began to feel myself slipping.
All of us have our own set of triggers, and what is important is that we recognize them for what they are. And when our emotions get triggered, we need to be able to sit with them, figure out what is happening, and then the hardest part of all, speak our truth from our heart without judgement or blame. My teacher had no idea she had triggered me. Other times, I’ve been around people who do deliberately set out to push people’s buttons. But either way, what is important for me is that I stay in touch with my emotions, that I set appropriate boundaries so that I can look after myself, and then when appropriate, I speak my truth. The old adage about counting to ten is a good one, provided that we spend that time in reflection, rather than in thinking up a retort. Communication is a very difficult skill. Most of us are horrible listeners, and all too often we only hear what our life experiences have programmed us to hear, rather than what the other person might be trying to say. And when someone is angry, there is no point in trying to explain anything, because in anger we really shut down any ability to listen. One of our graduates last year gave a presentation on non-violent communication and it was very powerful to hear this young man explaining how we do and don’t communicate. We all have so much baggage we drag along into any conversation and we all seem to have a need to be right. The reality is that we can always find evidence somewhere to prove ourselves right, but being wedded to the notion of always being right makes for a very lonely existence. We need to listen more attentively and we need to chose our words carefully so that we speak only for ourselves, our own truth, without casting any judgement or blame on anyone else.
Our emotional health is a vital component to our overall well-being and we need to develop a great deal more intelligence around it. We need to understand ourselves to the best of our abilities, our strengths and our weaknesses. Unfortunately, in the current culture, everyone seems to be encouraged to move has fast as they can, doing as many things as possible, and this allows no time for introspection. Personally, I kept myself incredibly busy for over sixty years so that I wouldn’t have to face myself. I thought it was working just fine, until, of course, my adrenalin ran down and I couldn’t keep going at anywhere near that pace. Not surprisingly, what I found when I stopped running was that I was still there, with all the problems I’d denied for so many years, and so finally, with the help of an excellent therapist, I am discovering myself, and I am learning to “show up” in the world as an authentic being, speaking my truth and listening to the truths of others.
In my last post I promised to expand on what it is like to be an outlier and how that plays into my constant fears and anxieties. I previously discussed my need to set proper boundaries for myself and avoid people and situations which were likely to increase my already high sense of anxiety. Triggering my fears sets off a whole host of problems with my post-traumatic stress disorder and my fibromyalgia. The fact that I am an outlier, someone who doesn’t fit within the norms of society, means that my very presence can and does cause some people to react negatively. I have always been an outlier, even when I tried in my younger days to fit in, to be part of the group, to blend. It isn’t just the fact that I’m left-handed, lesbian, tattooed, a vegan, a pacifist, an animal rights activist, an atheist, a non-patriot, etc. It is much more than that. At my very core, I see the world differently from most people. And many people (thankfully not all) react angrily to differences. I now find myself once again in a position where I have somehow triggered someone and I really have no idea why or how.
I am taking an online beginning poetry class because I would like to learn to write longer poems. The ten-week class is in its fourth week, and from the beginning I have had difficulties with the instructor. His comments on my first assignment were, from my perspective, extremely harsh with nothing positive in them. I reacted badly to the comments and more than that, as a teacher, I realize all too well the importance of making positive and upbeat suggestions when critiquing a student’s work. This teacher obviously lacks those skills, at least with me. My second assignment was treated similarly, at which point I took both my poems and the comments to my therapist for her view on them, since obviously I am too close to my own work to evaluate the situation.
My therapist agreed that the instructor lacks the skills to critique beginners, and she reminded me that we know nothing about this man. He might not be happy teaching; he might be doing this only to make some money; he might really like my work and think that this is the way to push me to greater heights; or there might be many other reasons for his approach. She said that she could make a very strong case for sticking it out to see if eventually I received some small nugget that might have made the class worthwhile and at the same time take this as an opportunity for aversion therapy, to help me with my own agenda. But she went on to say that she could make an equally strong case for dropping out of this class and getting away from the obviously horrible teacher. It was my choice, and whatever I decided would be fine.
I decided to try the class for a bit longer. I submitted my third assignment and I also submitted my revised version of the first assignment to what is called “The Booth,” a place where the entire class can comment. The instructor was no more positive in his comments on the third assignment, but he also wasn’t quite as harsh, so I thought that I was making progress. However, this morning I woke up to find his comments on my Booth posting and he ripped into me in ways he has definitely not done with other students. He started out by praising one of my classmates for the time and effort she took in critiquing my poem. Then he went on to say that he’d seen this poem in the first assignment and since I hadn’t taken any of his suggestions he had nothing further to add to his original critique. Then he went on at great length to explain what I hadn’t done. Finally, he said he would copy his comments from the first round of this poem so that everyone could see what he’d said. He has not done anything like this with any of the other students, and in fact I was encouraged by how gentle and kind his comments were to all the other Booth postings. I have no idea why he attacked me, maybe because I didn’t take his suggestions, but it was the last straw. What I found even more bewildering is that my classmate who had given the feedback he praised had said that she loved my poem and wouldn’t change a word or add a thing. She only suggested re-arranging the lines and she re-typed my poem with the lines in an order that she felt was stronger (and I agreed and have so revised it).
How can he rip my poem apart and at the same time praise another student for her very positive comments on it? I have no idea, and I am totally at a loss to understand his reactions, but he seems to demand that students accept his suggestions without question. Anyway, I’ve pretty well decided that I won’t submit any more assignments to him. There doesn’t seem to be much point to it and I don’t need to set myself up for further attacks. I will continue to read the lectures, to do the assignments for my own learning experience, and to make comments on my fellow students’ works in the Booth. I have four weeks to decide if I wish to make my second Booth submission, but for now, I think it is in my best interest not to show my writing to this instructor.
Being different is never easy and as my poem (which I will share at the end) says, I never know when my differences will trigger something in someone else. I have no control over that. And it is also true that any of us can trigger someone inadvertently. This happens all the time. But for the outlier, the probabilities are much higher that just being present will cause others to be uncomfortable, and that triggering can be expressed in anger (as well as other ways). My anxiety and fear issues are merely compounded by the fact that I am an outlier. My life would be easier if I weren’t an outlier (or if I didn’t have such anxieties). But it is who I am and I need to be aware of what is happening around me and then set my boundaries for my own personal health.
The other thing this experience has given me is even more empathy for my students, who are also outliers and who have been, in all too many cases, brutalized by the traditional school system. I have experienced (again) first hand, the effect of a bad teacher and this will help me work with my students, showing them how to overcome the adversities which have been thrown in their faces. With any luck, both my students and I will be stronger for this experience.
As an outlier, I trigger people
without even knowing why.
When I leave my door
braving the outside world,
you come ever closer,
always on guard,
warning me of dangers,
whether real or imagined.
You, my constant companion,
rule my life,
ruin my life,
all under the guise
of keeping me safe.
Ever vigilant, making me
ready to flee,
you watch and wait
for the slightest attack.
Even when it doesn’t come,
you warn me that
next time it will.
Once we are home, you step
a little further back,
giving me a bit of space–
until the next time.