A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a one-on-one session with a new client of mine. This client came to therapy on her own volition to seek help with her depression, anxiety, isolation, and substance use issues. During this session, she became tearful as she spoke, and I could feel the pain emanating from her body. As the session was wrapping up, I gently offered a grounding exercise to help her regain some balance before she walked out the door and back into the world.
She looked down, nodded, and quietly said, “You know…I think I want to just sit with this feeling for now.”
I was taken aback, but pleasantly surprised. I told her I was impressed with her willingness to do that. And so we ended the session with her willingness to “lean in” to the discomfort that arose within her during our time together.
As a mental health professional, I value this desire to lean in and experience emotions. I admire people who don’t shy away from pain, and I hope to facilitate a safe, trusting environment for those who aren’t quite ready to do so yet. The hope is that, by leaning in and accepting the discomfort, we can eventually learn that our emotions aren’t fatal to us. We can learn to safely experience them and we can learn how to lean back out when things become overwhelming. We can learn to recognize our triggers and we can learn to trust ourselves.
As a human being with my own emotions and struggles, I have been trying to practice this “leaning in” thing. And hey… it’s hard. Really hard.
I shared last month that my boyfriend has made the final decision to move back home to Indiana. He doesn’t have an exact date in mind, but he’s eyeing sometime in March, probably late March. Since he told me about his plan, I’ve gone through yet another wild ride of emotions.
I’ve felt at peace with the reality. I’ve felt relieved. I’ve been angry. I’ve been irritated. I’ve gotten frustrated with my boyfriend—annoyed that he’s decided to push the departure date out by 5 months. Why wait? Why drag things outs? I’ve felt depressed. I’ve felt nostalgic. I’ve been feeling hurt. Lots of hurt. And I’ve felt excited about what’s coming next for me.
My best friend, who is slogging through her own wild jungle of shit these days, has been checking in more frequently. How am I doing? What are my plans? What do I want to do with the relationship? Am I going to stick with him until the end? How can I stand it? How do I stay so calm?
The answer to most of her questions is pretty simple: I don’t know.
I’ve been trying to “lean in” to the discomfort of these unfamiliar waters. I am trying to give myself space to figure out where to go next with this. I have never done anything like this before—neither of us have—and it all feels a little uncertain.
Do I want to stay in a committed, romantic relationship until he leaves? Do I want to force things into a more platonic sphere to save myself the extra despair and confusion? Do I have the emotional fortitude to withstand that kind of emotional turmoil, with everything else that’s going on in my life right now (school, work, graduation in spring, moving out of my apartment, finding a new job).
The answer remains: I don’t know.
Part of it comes down to really, truly not knowing what to do. There are many paths available to me now and while I know my boyfriend would prefer to remain committed and romantic until he leaves, I know I have a right to put an end to it if it gets too hard. Trying to figure out which path is best is impossible at this point. I can really only go on my own emotional thermometer and the continued discussions we have about the situation.
The other part of it, though, is that discomfort with leaning in. Behind the irritation and frustration and anger I’ve felt toward my boyfriend recently, I’ve recognized that most of it is deeply rooted in pain. He and I are both losing a lot in this transition. We are holding on while trying to let go—while also trying to not think too much about how we’re letting go, while also trying not to become more enmeshed with each other. It’s messy. And I feel stuck in some weird, paralyzed grief cycle that can’t really begin but also can’t be stopped.
What’s even more frustrating is that most of this feels like a vicious cycle of my own making. I do make things more complicated for myself, often without trying. And when it comes to matters of the heart, it’s that much worse.
I find that when I do lean in to those uncomfortable feelings, I feel some compulsion to do something about them. I want to fix them, or fully understand them, or undo them. I have a hard time just sitting with them and accepting them, without wanting to do something about them. Because if I’m so uncomfortable, why wouldn’t I want to change it? Why wouldn’t I want that to go away?
I don’t think I’ll find a lot of straight-forward answers in this. There will be no neon signs pointing me toward the right path. No amount of perseveration will fix it. Leaning in and really sitting with what frightens me will be the big, important work I have yet to do.
A question for my readers, because I really am curious about how to go about doing this:
Do you have experience simply “sitting with” pain, anger, hurt, confusion, or frustration? Do you have ways to help yourself sit with those things without judgment or a need to fix them? What works for you?