I spent some time recently talking with a friend who was a hot mess over a situation. I recognized the symptoms of hotmessery fairly quickly, having been there myself just days before: the big feelings, the confusion about what to think and what to do, the desire to make sense of the bits of the story and respond well, the feeling-stuckness in the complexity of it all. And perhaps worst of all, the sense of disorientation about why this issue, which was admittedly not a big deal, loomed at the forefront of their mind all day. “I feel bad that I can’t get over this,” my friend said, “I know that my reactions here are much bigger than the situation warrants but I just can’t figure it out.”
As we talked, a couple of things began to crystallize for me: fragments of books I’d been reading and random notes in my prayer journal came together to form something of an 3-D picture, and I finally found the words I’d been scrambling for for a couple weeks:
Feelings are our friends.
There are times when we feel swamped and confused by a swirling mass of thoughts and feelings, and in times like that, it’s helpful to remember that these feelings can be our friends. Perhaps this is obvious to you, but it hasn’t always been obvious to me. For much of my life I’ve thought of feelings as powerful, but unreliable bandits: things to be quashed or, at the very least, treated with deep suspicion. But the idea that feelings could be friends and allies (rather than foes) in figuring out life and truth is something relatively new to me.
Feelings make frighteningly terrible masters: it is a terrifying thing to be at the mercy of one’s emotions (friends with anxiety and depression, I hear you). Feelings also make frustratingly terrible servants: which of us was ever able to stop feeling worried simply because we told ourselves to do so? But feelings—like our bodies—sometimes can give us information and tell us the truth about a situation which our rational minds cannot (or will not) attend to.
For example, we might be walking down a dark road and tell ourselves that we’re not scared and there’s nothing at all to be scared of… but our pounding heart and clammy hands tell the truth that we are, in fact, terrified.
Or, as happened with my friend and I, we might be sitting in a coffee shop and telling a story and saying “it’s fine, it’s no big deal,” but our churning emotions and the lurking sense of anger or shame tell us that there’s more at work here than we’ve admitted.
This is what Brene Brown so compellingly invites us to do in her (incredibly helpful) book Rising Strong: to notice our feelings and get curious about them. What is this feeling we’re feeling? Is it anger? Is it fear? Is it disappointment? Is it envy? And then she encourages us to get curious about those emotions themselves without rushing to judgement: what is it about this situation that is making me angry, and what does that tell me? She writes:
“The opposite of recognizing that we’re feeling something is denying our emotions. The opposite of being curious is disengaging. When we deny our stories and disengage from tough emotions, they don’t go away; instead, they own us, they define us. Our job is not to deny the story, but to defy the ending—to rise strong, recognize our story, and rumble with the truth until we get to a place where we think, Yes. This is what happened. This is my truth. And I will choose how this story ends.”
― Brené Brown,
I have a couple friends who are reliable mirrors to me as I share stories about my life: they reflect what they’re seeing back to me, and it helps me to be curious about what’s really going on beneath my emotions. They say things like “you seem angry about that” when I’m telling a story, and then will sometimes gently ask whether I’ve done any thinking about why I might be angry about that. If, instead of just telling myself to “not be angry” about a thing, I can take the time to be curious about why I got so angry, it can give so much good information about the desires and beliefs that simmer so much deeper in my soul.
I may say, for example, that I don’t care about a promotion or a salary increase… but if I’m incredibly angry that Joe Bloggs over there got a raise, that anger might be a clue that I care more about money, or being recognized, or knowing that I’ve made a contribution (or whatever) than I recognized. My wise friend Jen calls this “sifting our desires”, and she’s right: I can do a devilishly good job of deceiving myself that I don’t care about certain things and do care about others – but my feelings (of gloating, envy, schadenfreude etc) will sometimes tell the truth despite me, and a little bit of courageous digging can reveal hurts or deep longings or idols or dreams that I hadn’t faced squarely before.
I re-read Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful novel Gilead this month, and fell in love once again with the tender and wise heart of John Ames, the elderly pastor whose voice tells the story. Writing of how he came to process grief and disappointment, he says this:
“I have never found another way to be as honest with myself as I can be by consulting with these miseries of mine, these accusers and rebukers, God bless them all. So long as they do not kill me outright.”
He was a man who had befriended his feelings, even the miserable ones. Especially the miserable ones – for by consulting with them he learned to be honest with himself, just as I’m learning to be honest, too. I want to be a joyful, gracious, generous person; but then I have days when I’m grouchy and angry and irrationally mean-spirited. To dismiss those feelings and say to myself: “that was a bad day, I’ll try again with kindness tomorrow” is not a terrible route to walk; but there’s a better route still: to hold my grouchy, angry, irrationally mean-spirited feelings in my hand and look on them as allies: “well, hello there, little feelings – what has got you so upset? and how can we learn from this together?”
It’s messy, brutal, humbling work. But its truthful, and good, and the journey all the richer for the companionship of my hotmessery of feelings.