Avoidance and Unhealthy Coping Strategies
For the vast majority of my life, I feared my own so-called "negative" emotions and tried to push them aside. I thought they would weaken me and lead me astray from the path towards so-called "success". Whenever I felt fear, anxiety for the future, regret, anger, frustration, or sadness, I would consider it a shortcoming and pick a distraction - any distraction - to dull the emotion and push it aside.
A lot of the time, the strategy seemed to work. In an effort to push aside these emotions, often I would have done a great workout, whipped up a great home-cooked meal, or achieved something that I was procrastinating on. But this didn't always work. The remainder of the time, I would avoid the emotion by undergoing mental and physical compulsions - repetitive rituals to stop feeling the pain of the emotions - which would consume me for hours or weeks at a time.
The Acceptance that Something Was Wrong
Last year, these rituals and compulsions culminated in a diagnosis of moderate-severe OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). I finally accepted the OCD in my life, and got help from a psychologist. Our sessions and the homework resulting from them were difficult, yet rewarding. Over time - I learned to use CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and ERP (Exposure-Reponse Therapy) - without the aid of medication - to recognise and heal the patterns in my brain that caused debilitating OCD.
The Inspiration Towards Mental Strength
Over the past year, as I've been on medical leave from my corporate job to address my focal dystonia symptoms, I had the opportunity to listen to loads and loads of podcasts. With movement and fitness being my most ardent interests, I began to delve into sports psychology, the psychology of mentally strong athletes, and the mindsets of the coaches of those athletes.
Much more so than the CEOs of Wall Street / City of London corporations, or doctors, or lawyers, or distinguished academics - I suddenly realised that my personal biggest role models were athletes, coaches, business owners in the fitness industry, and any others pushing the boundaries of their physical capabilities as an inspiration to the public. Their experiences of adversity, triumph, and dedication to their day-to-day commitment to their goal - ignited me like no other experiences did.
The Words of Ignition
Katrin Davidsdottir, elite Crossfit athlete and 2-time Fittest Woman on Earth - is by far my biggest inspiration. Her mental strength, even more than her physical prowess - is out of this world. At the 2016 Reebok Crossfit Games, an intensive multi-day competition where unknown feats of fitness are tested at high volumes - she was interviewed just after finishing a gruelling event called "The Separator". Asked if there's any events coming up that she doesn't want to see, she responded - "I'm excited for everything really...I want to see everything. That's why I train. I want to be challenged."
Katrin gives immense credit to her coach, Ben Bergeron, for helping her build the mental strength to succeed. "When it's hard, that's when it starts. "The more adversity we face, the stronger we become. It's all part of the process", Ben says.
Both Davidsdottir and Bergeron value facing challenges head-on with full acceptance, understanding that what we think is difficult or impossible to do with right now - is THE fuel for our personal growth. It may seem unconventional to connect this mindset with the idea that we should feel our difficult emotions. But that's just what I took from it - emotions may seem challenging, just like specific tasks or situations we come across in our lives. Rather than distracting ourselves from emotions, it is much more rewarding to have the courage to sit and feel the emotions - letting them run through us and trusting that we will garner insight and growth from them.
Also in the Crossfit world, I recently came across a podcast by Mike Cazayoux, owner of Brute Strength, featuring Mike Bledsoe - CEO of Barbell Shrugged and Barbell Business. In this extremely self-aware and honest episode, Bledsoe specifically addresses the relationship between emotions and thoughts. "When I have a sense of fear, I can feel it in my body. It shows up in my chest and it's heavy. All we have to do is drop out of our mind and put our attention and focus in our body, accept the fear that exists there, and breathe and relax into it... Learning how to let it go and just be with it."
Listening to how a successful leader used acceptance and feeling of "negative" emotions to let go of runaway excessive thinking - brought to life a concurrent message from Eckhart Tolle's "The Power of Now" - "feel the emotions in your inner body".
Emotion Leads to Strength and Productivity, not Weakness and Waste
In my latest commitment to feeling difficult emotions in my body and not shying away from them, I've been shocked at not only how quickly they dissipate, but how much insight they provide in directing precisely how to maximise the present moment. In the past, when I would try to be ultra-productive to drive away the emotion, I would end up doing a number of haphazard things that seemed useful at the time - but really did not drive me towards my higher purpose. There was no real focus in that work.
Just this week, however, I recently faced an extremely difficult emotion related to the fear of inadequacy - after a challenging conversation with someone very close to me. This emotion stayed with me for almost 5 days, ebbing and flowing in and out of consciousness. Each time it came into consciousness - I would just accept it and sit with it, breathing, tearing up, feeling the anger, frustration, disappointment, sadness, and fear. To my pleasant surprise - the decisions I made and the things I did upon each instance of ebb and flow - were the small yet important things I was procrastinating on for weeks and months - that DID move me closer to my higher purpose. Less "productive"? Perhaps - in the traditional use of the word. But certainly much more "effective" with my time, AND much more at peace.
Have you got "negative" emotions impacting your life? If so -have the courage to face it head on, and be with it, and the patience to see what happens.