You Can Choose How You Respond

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I’ve come to realize: my feelings are not necessarily true.

I’ve noticed how often I have a negative thought or feeling, and after some time, it passes. I forget why I even felt that way in the first place — what triggered that sense of unease, or uncertainty, or unwell.

I’m pock-marked with low self-esteem. I literally have pock-marks in my forehead from when I tried to pick out my chickenpox as a kid. This low self-esteem manifests specifically when I spend an extended period of time away from my home in the company of people (say, out with friends on a camping retreat). Time and again, I’ll develop a creeping dread that everyone secretly dislikes me. That initial pumped-up party atmosphere of seeing one another fades, and people naturally stop paying attention to me. Then, I begin to panic. I think I’ve done something to annoy others, or perhaps I’m inherently not a good fit with this group make-up, or I’m {insert frenzied justification}. I respond to this need by making passes for attention, usually by playing the fool — getting drunk and acting like an idiot. I want to be reassured by my friends’ laughter that they like me and see me as a valuable person in the room. And despite the ever-worse-as-I-age hangover the next day, I will have at least allayed my loneliness by hamming it up.

But the last group trip I took over New Years Eve, while staying at a cabin on the outskirts of Chicago with old college friends, I was able to observe this rising dread. I recognized it, like an old hole in a sweater I’ve worn out, and I didn’t fuss over fixing it. Instead, whenever I felt needy, I tried any one of three things:

  1. I made myself useful by washing dishes, or seeing if I could help cut vegetables, or make a grocery run, or power up a Bluetooth speaker and DJ the right music for the moment.
  2. I asked friends questions about their lives. Even if I could barely touch my curiosity beneath my screaming need for attention, I forced myself to focus on others. My favorite question to ask: “How’s your heart?”
  3. I would find a quiet spot in the house and recharge like the introvert (who masquerades as a loud extrovert) I truly am. I would listen to an audiobook while lying like a corpse in bed. I’d attempt a nap, despite nearly never falling asleep. I’d meditate or write my feelings down in a journal or via a Medium draft. I would separate myself until I felt whole again, and then I’d return to the group. And if I was unable to restore myself in the silence, I would ride my anxieties out, letting them stew in me until I couldn’t take it anymore and wanted to rejoin company, if only to get away from my pervasive, dark thoughts. I made myself eager to see friendly faces after taking a break to be alone.

By doing any of the above, I found my negative emotions would organically pass. I could reconnect to the feeling of gratitude I felt being near to the people I hold dearest to me, without my nagging needs getting in the way.

My friends like to get high. I don’t get high often anymore in company, because weed accelerates my train of thought and interferes with my ability to carry on a conversation. It makes my social anxieties worse because I lose my rhythm. These lucid, razor-sharp, soul-baring revelations barrage my frontal cortex to the point where I can’t keep up. I become a silent golem in the corner, emotions racking me up and down my spine, with no way to speak to others of how I feel.

So I normally just get high alone —where I can process these epiphanies that my altered brain chemistry allow to come bubbling forth. And other times, I’ve come to realize: I’m just high as fuck! These “revelatory thoughts” may be buried wisdom…or they may just be pot-adddled delusions of truth that won’t mean anything to me the next morning.

Just because I have a feeling, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily true.

Sometimes, though, my feelings are real and need to shared and cried out…something I’m also not good at doing. I bury my emotions so deeply they usually just manifest in dreams, like the one I had last night. I was in a gay bathhouse where Pema Chodron (a renowned Buddhist nun) was a guest speaker in the main sex dungeon area. I was very torn between wanting to have sex and not missing out on Pema. I chose Pema and asked to be one of the people who she’d individually work with in front of the audience. The lady organizing the event slipped my name in because she could tell I needed it. Pema interviewed me about my pain and it went deeper and deeper until I woke up actually crying. Voila: emotional release via gay sex dungeon dreams.

I am bit-by-bit working on expressing my emotions when I need to do so, when they aren’t just a manifestation of lifelong anxieties. I don’t have a hard answer on how to recognize the difference between a thought I need to express and another recurring social-emotional need…other than the pattern itself. When I can see myself falling into a familiar emotional trap, because I’ve been through this experience before in my 32 years, I know: maybe it isn’t the truth of what’s happening right now. Maybe none of it is real and I should go help make dinner until it passes.

Regardless, I believe the point is: you can choose how you deal with your emotions. You aren’t at their mercy: it’s up to you how you ride them out. They aren’t set-in-stone, they aren’t commandments, and they don’t define your experience unless you let them override you.

You can choose how you respond.