When uncomfortable emotions throw off your stride
My therapist loves to drop witty little statements that, taken out of context, would probably make listeners think she’s horrible at her job. Recently, I got hit with this one: “You’re the healthiest basket case I’ve seen all week.”
If you’ve never gone to therapy, don’t let this scare you away. Most therapists don’t call patients a basket case. At least not to their face. But I’d kind of asked for this. I was the one who brought up the term “basket case.” She’d complimented me on managing my emotions well, and I couldn’t let her end our session thinking I was more together than I felt.
Here’s what’s interesting though: we were both right. It’s a little paradoxical, but as we unpacked it, I realized that the reason I felt like a basket case was actually because I’m getting healthier. And right now, that’s foreign and uncomfortable.
If you’ve ever had a worn-down but well-loved pair of sneakers, you might know what I’m talking about. Those puppies are formed to your feet, and your feet are formed to them. They’ve gone everywhere and been through all kinds of things with you. They’ve probably even protected you from potential injuries. They’re comfortable. But being so worn down, they’re also not great for your body. Maybe your feet are wrapped in comfort, but your back hurts or your arches are flattening. The comfortable shoes are taking a toll.
The same is true with emotions. If we spend enough time with an emotion, it will form to us and us to it. Even if it’s a less than desirable emotion, it will become not just familiar, but comfortable. It will sit with us in our hardest seasons and maybe even serve to protect us. But that doesn’t mean we should let it stay. Just because it helped us for a season, doesn’t mean it needs to stick around forever. Emotions like anger, fear, and sadness can serve us, but if we wear them past their expiration date, they’ll start to wreak havoc on our body.
Now, if you’ve had that well-worn pair of sneakers and finally replaced them with new shoes, complete with arch support and all kinds of fancy features to protect your back, how did it feel when you slipped them on? Not so great? Did they feel too big or too tight? Did you worry they’d throw off your stride and cause you to trip? They’re better for you though, right? Shouldn’t they feel amazing?
That’s what was happening to me when I met with my therapist that day. Metaphorically speaking, I was trying on my new shoes. And it felt off.
I’ve spent years befriending emotions like loneliness, fear, worry, and anger. They weren’t upbeat or comforting emotions, but they were comfortable. I knew what to expect from them. I knew how to respond to them. Honestly, we’d been through a lot together and they’d protected me. They’d served to wrap me in comfort while I ran through mud and stumbled over rocks.
But as I get healthier, I’m experiencing new emotions. And it’s good, but like the new pair of shoes, it’s not comfortable. I don’t know what to do with the feeling of being connected to people. I’m not sure where to put excitement or how to handle hope. These emotions feel too big for me. Or maybe too suffocating. I’m afraid they’re going to cause me to trip and fall.
I don’t know how to respond to these feelings, but I’m determined to learn. Just like a new pair of sneakers, I’m putting them on and taking them for a walk around the block. It might be awkward. I might limp for awhile, but I’m convinced that someday, they’ll start to feel more natural on my feet.
I share this because I have a feeling I’m not the only one who’s limping along, trying to get used to new emotions. Maybe you’re readjusting to social interaction after a year of quarantine. Maybe you’re opening yourself up to new relationships after facing a series of rejections. Maybe you’re finding yourself laughing after a season of mourning. The discomfort these things bring can be scary. It can make us feel like we’re off course. Like maybe we’re taking the wrong actions instead of the right ones.
Discomfort, however, is not always bad. Sometimes, it signals growth. Sometimes the fact that you feel like a basket case actually means you’re taking the right actions. You’re leaning in when you want to run away. You’re sticking with the arch-support sneakers when the worn-out ones are calling to you from the corner of the closet.
If you’re still wearing your old sneakers, that’s okay too. Don’t force yourself to get rid of them before you’re ready. There are some emotions that we have to walk all the way through. That we have to sit with for awhile in order to process and recover.
Just don’t forget that there’s a whole shoe store out there filled with new emotions for you to try on. Maybe walk the isles and window shop. Try to picture yourself in the new kicks. If you put yourself around it enough, maybe one day you’ll start to feel like a basket case and realize you’re actually getting healthy.