My emotions are out of control. I’m screaming at people I love, slamming doors and breaking things, and when it passes I’m overcome with shame, guilt and even more emotions that are difficult to control–potentially starting the cycle of crisis all over again. The emotions might be anger or rage, but more often it is a kind of grief or despair at feeling so powerless. If this experience resonates with you, or feels painfully familiar, don’t lose heart. Oftentimes these outbursts are old emotional experiences being processed and released. Using some of the tools I describe below can help to ease your experience and the experience of those who support you.
What is wrong with me?
Despite what your inner self-judge might be trying to tell you, this crisis does not mean anything about you. You are not a bad person or a raging monster just because your emotions have gotten away from you. Sometimes we have feelings that we can’t accept as part of us (e.g., feelings of anger towards children/parents/God, feelings of sexual attraction/aversion, feelings of deep grief/despair with no apparent cause), and when we don’t process these feelings they rise up and, like toddlers, demand our attention in the most ungracious of ways. We’ll talk about how to process these feelings in a healthier way in a few minutes. What’s important to understand first is that there is nothing wrong with you! This is a grown-up-sized tantrum, and chances are that you were taught NOT to tantrum rather than HOW to tantrum as a child. Don’t worry, it’s never too late to learn!
Why do I have to deal with this?
I know, very deeply, the pain in that question. What did I do to deserve this? Why should I have to go through such a terrible and humiliating experience against my will? There is no answer that I can give you that will ease that pain, and I won’t cheapen your experience by trying to offer platitudes and wisdom. What I WILL tell you is how I wrestle with these questions. The “I” that doesn’t want this experience is like a man walking along the side of a road, going up a hill he can’t see over. “I” don’t want to have to walk up this hill. There is, however, a greater me that could be called my Self, higher-self, inner wisdom, etc. that is like a GPS device. This Self knows that the object of my soul’s desire is on the other side of this hill (or perhaps the one beyond that), and my only longing is to get there. It is this Self that attracts what I need into my life to fulfill that longing, no matter how much “I” don’t want it. When I am able to make peace with where that Self is taking me, and trust my GPS, I can endure anything to keep moving forward.
Get to the coping tools already!
With the understanding that (and I can’t stress this enough) there is nothing wrong with you, these tools can help you and those who love you to weather the storm and even gain a cathartic healing from it.
#1 Prepare A Safe Space
Be proactive about taking care of your needs. Do whatever you can to ensure you will be physically and emotionally safe and contained when the experience comes. This may include:
- having a specific location that you will train yourself to go to immediately when you feel it coming on
- removing breakable or dangerous objects from that location and replacing them with pillows, punching bags and disposable objects like boxes
- choosing a code word to let those who support you know what’s happening without having to talk about it in the moment
- cultivating within yourself a non-judgmental “observer” who can help you to remain grounded throughout the experience
#2 Learn To See It Coming, And Respond Rather Than Reacting
It has been said that “depression is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of having to be strong for too long.” When you feel your composure buckling, allow yourself to retreat. Communicate in advance with those who support you about what you need (company, solitude, talk about feelings, talk about anything BUT feelings, etc.) and allow them to communicate openly about what they are willing/able to provide. As you are increasingly able to contain the intensity, tensions with those closest to you may be greatly eased and they may be more willing and able to support you on your healing journey, but even without any direct support you CAN get through this by tapping into your own higher self to arrange the care that your inner child so desperately needs.
#3 LET IT OUT!
Get to your safe place, shut out the world, and feel. Let go of needing a reason to feel this way. Let go of all the reasons you “can’t afford to feel this way”. Let go of anything outside of the immediate moment and let the feelings rise up and out. If you need to pound on a pillow, or rip apart a cardboard box, or yell, or ugly-cry, give yourself complete permission to do so. As you release these feelings, keep reminding yourself that you are NOT the emotions but the experiencer of the emotions. If it becomes too intense, take several deep breaths and count down from 10 to 1. You can even visualize a control knob connected to the intensity and turn it up or down at will. Turn it up to release the pressure, and back down to regain your footing. Cycle it up and down several times to help build the capacity for holding this energy without getting overwhelmed.
#4 Reflect Without Analyzing
Emotional experiences do not conform to the scaffolding of rationality on which we constantly try to hang them. They are living and breathing things in their own right, and they need room to expand and explore. When the intensity passes, take at least another 20 minutes (even up to an hour or more, if possible) to sit with and digest the experience. Watch the feelings depart the same way you watched them approach, and recognize yourself as that which has remained constant through it. Notice any old beliefs or conclusions about yourself that might come to the surface and let yourself decide whether they need to be integrated or updated. If you find yourself trapped in thought or repeating the same thoughts/words/phrases over and over (in our house we call this a “thinky circle”), take a deep breath and use heat, cold or smell to engage your senses and come back to the moment. The point isn’t to figure anything out, but rather to absorb the experience as you would a nutritious, if sometimes bitter, meal.
#5 Re-Entry To Life
When I’m ready to re-assemble myself and come back to the world, I like to do so with an act of “seva,” which is a Sanskrit word meaning “selfless service.” In shedding the old part of myself that these emotions represent, I choose to affirm who I am becoming by performing some small act, like making a cup of tea for someone who has supported me. The purpose of this act has nothing to do with repaying a debt incurred. It’s a practice of balancing the inward and intensely personal experience of release and reflection with an outward and selfless act offered in gratitude.
I don’t have anyone supporting me!
Some paths are too narrow for more than one, and I’m so sorry if you have found yourself on one of those paths. Sometimes even when we have a loving support system, our experience can feel excruciatingly lonely. We may long for someone to understand or share our pain, while at the same time we wouldn’t wish this experience on anyone. I’ll spare you the insulting pep talk and the exhortations to “get out there and meet people.” What I will say is that, if these words resonate with you, you are NOT ALONE. I know the pain of being attacked from the inside by feelings I can’t control. I know the loneliness that comes from keeping my loved ones safe from the emotional shockwave. And I also know that it is possible to come through it a stronger and healthier person.
A message for the loved ones:
If you hold space for someone who struggles with depression, anxiety, rage or all of the above, I encourage you to use these same tools and to make it safe for everyone in your home to do so without judgment. You may not be able to directly help with their pain, but you can relieve some of the shame and grief by making the process as normal as going to the toilet. If everyone does it, not only is it more acceptable, but crises become far less frequent and everyone in the home is benefiting from healthy emotional hygiene.
If you are going through an emotional crisis and would like to talk to someone, please feel free to reach out.