Welcome to week #3 of my 5-week series inspired by the the book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, a compilation of the stories of longtime caregiver to the dying, Bronnie Ware.
The book is stirs up thoughts on how we can ensure that we show up fully for our limited time here on earth. My series highlights some connections to how we can be mindful of the regrets that Ware identifies, as we focus on ways we can dream and set meaningful goals.
Ware’s first two regrets are: I Wish I’d Had the Courage to Live a Life True to Myself, Not the One Others Expected of Me, and I Wish I Hadn’t Worked so Hard. If you haven’t, go back and check out my first two messages inspired by these.
Today, we will explore #3: “I Wish I’d Had the Courage to Express My Feelings”
When I first listened to Ware’s book I felt pretty certain that this regret is one that I am confidently avoiding in my day to day life. But…when I started to consider this week’s message I reflected on the fact that while I can express my feelings, doing so in a consistent and healthy way can still be quite hard for me.
Through much practice, and the grace of God, I have learned how appropriately verbalize my honest emotions most of the time, in many scenarios. I can have purposeful conflict with reconciliation. I can tell people how much I love them.
But, I still feel, and have always felt, so much. I have often allowed myself to be swept away in positive emotion. And, I have also at many times made incredible stupid, immature, damaging choices to avoid feeling negative ones. Even though I have gained awareness, wisdom, and some skills, emotional regulation has always been, and continues to be, my biggest struggle and largest barrier in many parts of my life. Thankfully, I have realized the impact of this truth, and so I am putting the work in to be able to make meaningful changes.
I won’t take you deep into my journey, but simply put: as a young person I was not taught the tools to be able to feel, and then respond to what the world defines as negative emotions. Instead I reacted. I did this in many ways: through control, disassociation, distraction, blame, and manipulation. In learning these ways of reacting to negative emotion, I was stuck in a cycle of avoiding them and pushing them all down, then eventually acting out and/or erupting like a massively dangerous volcano, and afterward falling into shameful despair. After a period of time serving my shameful “penance,” I would do it all again.
Eventually, the relentless journey of training for endurance sports helped open my eyes to the fact that the above methods were not only preventing me from wholly experiencing my goals, but I was essentially missing the fullness of my human existence. I realized I had to be able to be present throughout. And this presence includes feeling. But, it also became clear that blindly reacting to these emotions was not going to serve me well either. After several seasons of racing and coaching, I started to realize that we can reach our fullest potential while fully experiencing negative emotions like boredom, discomfort, anxiety, etc. But, I had to learn how to regulate them in the moments of vulnerability, and regain self trust that I can feel–and not react. And then I had to create pathways for my athletes to do the same.
First of all—what’s the difference between responding and reacting?
A reaction is what you feel and do at the moment of change. It’s immediate, instinctive, and it happens before you process the change. Responding is a conscious choice you make to move forward. Although our culture has defined emotions as “negative,” they are just as important and informative to our bodies. They are part of being human. And we can respond to them in a way that is not only not damaging, but have a lasting positive impact.
Like most things, I have developed a lot of grace for myself surrounding this topic, believing that I have learned a lot, even if I know I have not even come close to mastering it (especially in conflict with Jamie). Here are some things I am practicing that help us respond, and not react to emotions.
- Broaden your emotional vocabulary. Being able to put language to emotions helps us to understand and communicate more clearly, with ourselves, and with each other. Most of us can identify 10-15 different emotions, but Brene Brown identifies 87 in her book, Atlas of the Heart. Check it out–but honestly, this reads a bit like an emotional textbook. I think it’s great to have as a reference, but I recommend checking out her special on HBO Max where she covers the book.
- While expanding your terminology, learn how to identify how emotions feel in your body. When you feel frustration—what does it literally feel like? For me, it means a bit of a racing heart and sweat under my arms. Anger feels like a pounding heart and heat from within, that I feel mostly on my face. But, don’t only focus on the negative ones. What does joy feel like? For me, it is a cozy feeling of warmth, and as you know if you are a regular reader—a lump in my throat with tears.
- Learn the importance of taking a pause. When you feel something, take a deep, grounding breath. Then ask yourself what you need to process the feeling. This not only works to prevent you from losing your temper, but it also helps while in pursuit of a goal. In endurance sports we have the opportunity to practice this often. In all honesty, if we were to immediately react to every signal that we are experiencing negative emotion, we would never complete an event.
- Gather some diversion tools to help you take the time needed to respond. When you feel a negative emotion stirring up inside of you, have some ideas on how you can create the space needed to respond, and not react, to the trigger. Let’s be real— sometimes a deep breath isn’t enough. When I feel like I am starting to lose my cool in an argument, I know the best option is to get some space and rely on these tools. In those cases, praying and journaling are two of my fave options. When I feel like I am losing a grip on progress to a physical goal due to negative emotions, either while training or racing, I may walk for a short time to regroup, take in some hydration or fuel, chat with a stranger, or when possible change songs on my playlist.
- When initially setting goals, be careful to not do so in a reactive state. Practice the above to be able to make sure your next goal responds to your current reality. For example: if you DNF (did not finish) a race, do not immediately sign up for the next one. Give yourself some space to fully think it through and respond in a way that honors your core values, etc.
Give yourself permission to feel. It may feel like you will be overwhelmed by it, or even taken down by it. But, the emotion, even the negative ones, will not harm you. It is what you do with them that can create more problems, when setting and reaching goals–and in all of life.
One reason I love writing these blogs is because my dedication to being authentic to all of you brings some of the truth of my own blindspots to the surface. While I have developed many skills to do this in goal actualization, I truly still kinda suck at it in marital conflict. BUT, I know I have made steps down the path toward responding over reacting. And sometimes that’s the best we have for today. I hope if you struggle with this (or anything else), you can have some grace for yourself too.
Feeling feels good. It helps you know you are fully alive.
Cheers in immense gratitude,