My last column addressed the issue of anxiety management in this anxious world. One recommendation was to identify your demons and learn to tolerate them. A woman wrote me and said that although she is clear she has many emotions that interfere with her life, she was having difficulty understanding how to face her demons and let go.
“When I was a child, my parents screamed constantly and put each other, as well as the kids, down,” she wrote. “Eventually, my mother walked out on the family, and my father, who considered me his favorite child, confided all of his problems and yearnings (including his yearnings for love with a woman) to me. He had no clear boundaries with sexuality – I had a lot of icky feelings listening to sex as a constant discussion and jokes with sexual innuendo. Now that I am married, I find I have problems with passion with my husband and a constant feeling of pressure to do better than my parents and avoid having my children repeat my experience – so if he yells at the kids, I hear the demons or if he sends me a sexual e-mail, I recoil. I read your column with great interest and curiosity about facing the demons and letting them go, but I didn’t walk away knowing how.”
Dear reader: The task is not to let go of your demons, but to face them with courage and compassion. Yes, compassion. If you can sit with your demons without trying to banish them from your experience, you can learn some interesting things about yourself.
The human mind is creative, intelligent and resilient. The reason you have difficulty identifying your demons is because your mind is so smart and healthy. It is afraid it will be overwhelmed by the emotions your demons carry. That’s why when you begin to touch on these powerful emotions you feel icky or recoil. These emotions, distasteful as they may be, protect you from even greater pain.
So when I ask you to identify your demons, the closest you can get is to identify some of the feelings associated with them. But the demons I referred to are not thoughts, visions or recollections. They are experiences that you feel, or actually experience, in the moment. Experiences that your mind reflexively pushes away. You are doing what most of us do. When the emotions begin, you recoil from the experience that your mind knows will be difficult.
The process of learning to tolerate these emotions, ultimately learning to tolerate the experiences that are a part of you, can be a painful one. So when you first feel the anxiety or ickiness, you are in the right neighborhood. But this is the beginning. Instead of running away, think about what would happen if you just sat there for a while. Sure, the distasteful emotions would increase. In the process, you might feel frightened, angry, sexually aroused, or ashamed. And what do you think would happen if you sat even longer with the feelings?
Keep in mind that this process can be difficult, and sometimes should be done with a therapist or guide. It should be someone who understands the process and can help provide both structure and safety. It also should be someone who can understand and tolerate emotions rather than simply try to fix them.
I try to meditate almost daily. The other day, when I sat down for my 45-minute session with myself, I just didn’t want to. I had so much to do and felt that I would relax better if I got busy with what was on my list rather than sit. Nevertheless, I sat.
At first, I felt terribly frustrated and irritable. Then, as my mind got busy with what seemed like 1,000 thoughts, I wanted to open my eyes and write down notes as I was afraid I would forget some of these important thoughts. My frustration increased. I hoped that the 45 minutes were almost done. Despite my commitment not to, I looked at my watch. Only 10 minutes had elapsed! My frustration turned to futility, which turned to helplessness, which turned to hopelessness. As I sat through these powerful and distressing feelings, the hopelessness turned to a profound sense of aloneness. My eyes welled up with tears and my breathing became more rapid as I sat – alone. After several minutes experiencing this profound pain, I was aware of the distress diminishing. Soon, instead of sitting in agony, I was just sitting.
The experience was not pleasant, nor was it relaxing or insightful. It was simply spending some time with a part of my mind that rarely gets attention.
Understand that this journey is an act of compassion for yourself. And if you can feel compassion for parts of yourself that have been disavowed, then you can truly feel compassion for others.