In last week’s newsletter Nowhere to Run, I shared a bit about my journey of managing emotions through movement. Physical movement, running in particular, became my tool of choice to manage big emotions and reduce stress. Today, I will share the next leg of that journey which is learning how to manage when movement isn’t an option or no longer enough.
At some point in my 30s, I made an important discovery about myself. I had a superpower. And that superpower was the ability to push through adversity in the moment and keep going in the face of life events that might normally be devastating.
And that’s actually not a bad quality on the face of it. But the dark underbelly is that those of us who have this “superpower” don’t just push through in the moment. We continue to push through after the moment is passed. In short, we never deal with the issue until we are forced to deal with it.
My favorite way to describe this was something to the effect of, “During tough time, I can keep it together for a really long time, but at some point, the balance tips and it all comes rushing out, usually at inappropriate times.” I would say this and laugh to take the edge off the imminent vulnerability hangover. But the reality of this description was more tragic than funny.
The truth is, I probably spent 25 years of my life in survival mode. Just waiting to the other shoe to drop. Hoping I could keep it together long enough to avoid a total mental and emotional breakdown. And in that regard, I think my record was pretty good. When you are in survival mode, surviving is the only goal that matter.
So, now I knew how to survive, but little else. For me, survival came at a cost and that cost was constantly living my life in a way that avoided the risk of feeling bad. What that looked like was control. My life focused around controlling everything and everyone around me. Change my circumstances to protect myself. If I couldn’t control my emotions, then I would try and solve for anything that might possibly cause me any distress.
Basically, I felt safe if I wasn’t experiencing bad emotions. I was living my life within a very narrow window of emotional tolerance. It was the best I could do at the time and I’m proud of that version of me who figured out how to keep going. That strategy got me through times that I can’t even imagine in retrospect.
I Just Felt Like Running
It was as I was coming out of this time of survival mode that running came into my life. Life wasn’t easy by any means, but I had just enough margin to think about myself for the first time in a long time. And I think I was finally beginning to realize that I couldn’t change everything and everyone to make me feel better. Feeling better was my responsibility and the way to feel better was to take action.
I took lots of actions in my quest to feel better, but amid weight loss, self-help books, therapy, bible studies and volunteer work, running seemed to give me the biggest bang for my buck. It wore me out in a way that felt so good and relaxing. The dopamine hit that accompanies physical exertion is very real and rewarding.
Focusing my mental and physical energy on running gave me a break from the troubles du jour. The physical steps I took forward allowed me to take mental steps back. I had enough space and time to relax, stop overthinking and come back to my problems later from a clearer perspective.
In addition to increasing my capacity to manage negative emotions, running increased my capacity for the positive as well. I became more open and confident less self-conscious and insecure. I tuned in to my body and mind to cultivate a mental and physical toughness I never thought possible.
This strategy was SO much better than survival mode. It allowed me to burn off the carbon a little bit at a time to avoid the eventual buildup, burst and breakdown. But this system was reliant on action. And a time was coming when I would no longer be able to take the action need to manage within this system.
One Hip Chick
In May of 2023 I had a hip replacement at the age of 55, which seems really young, but apparently my hip joint has an old soul. In the leadup to my surgery I remained as active as I could without causing myself more pain. I walked as much as I could bear and went to as many spin classes as I could where I could get my heart rate up and burn off the crazy with minimal impact.
I was so excited about this surgery. I knew recovery would be tough, but in my mind, once healed, I’d be able to get back to tough workouts again. As it turned out, recovery was way tougher than I imagined. My new hip was great, but the rest of me, not so much. I was hospitalized with a high fever a couple of days after surgery. Then spent the next couple of weeks couch or bedbound with the exception of physical therapy. Every time I stood up for more than a couple of minutes at a time, my heart rate and temperature would soar. My first (and only) bout of Covid came just as I thought I was turning the corner on my recovery.
Nope, this was not the recovery I had in mind.
Shock and Awe
Once the initial shock and awe of surgery passed, I found myself on an emotional rollercoaster. I never knew what each day would bring. I could be going along just fine, only to find myself crying unexpectedly during Marco Polo messages with friends and more coaching and mentoring calls than I’d like to admit. My emotions were right at the edge and in danger of spilling over at any moment.
I knew what was happening, but I couldn’t do anything to stop it. I had enough knowledge now to know that slipping into survival mode wasn’t the answer. But I was also not physically strong enough to act my way out of all these overwhelming feelings.
The one tactic I had yet to take in my journey of managing emotions was to NOT manage them. The next step was to learn to allow my emotions, not stop them or manage them. It was to notice them, not turn away from them. It was to truly tune in and feel them, not run them off. It was a terrifying prospect because I was afraid of what that might look like.
I was already feeling so foolish in how little control I had over my emotions already. If I let go and just let them happen, would I just walk through life looking like an out of control, blubbering mess?
I was soon to discover that allowing my emotions would feel quite foreign at first, but it wasn’t as scary as I imagined. It would take practice, patience and time. I might lose control and “emotion all over someone”, but that it would be OK. I was about to uncover a version of myself that I’d never known. A version that was a little messier, a little more unpredictable, a little more vulnerable and a lot more me.
The best part is this version wasn’t dependent on movement to stay emotionally healthy. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, “As long as I have brains in my head, I can steer myself any direction I choose”.
Betsy is a certified life coach and blogger who helps midlife women find satisfaction where they are now and inspiration to go after their big goals.
To learn more about working with Betsy, click here.