If you look at a small baby in their natural habitat, they breathe, they eat, they sleep, they pee and poop, they cry and smile and laugh and get spooked. They get frustrated, they show delight and contentment. Pretty much like any mammal, as I am reminded daily by our foster kittens.
How have we managed to pathologise all these things that bodies know how to do? As a culture there are so many obsessions about food and diets, about gut health and enemas and high colonics. People read self help books and start thinking they are not breathing correctly, and don’t get me started on sleep!
But emotions! Surely emotions are just part of the rich tapestry of human experience. Milton Erickson said, when you learn the letters of the alphabet, you need to learn all of the letters, not just the ones you like, and not just the ones you are good at, because it’s all of the letters that make up an adults literacy. And when you learn the emotions, you have to learn all of them, not just the ones you like, not just the ones you are good at, because it’s all of the emotions that make up an adults emotional world.
So many people get worried about the intensity of their anger, their sadness or their fear. Yet no one ever comes to a therapist worrried about the intensity of their happiness, delight or contentment… though it may bug others!
Erickson also said that when you feel something, you should feel it thoroughly, all the way to the tips of your fingers and all the way to the tips of your toes and let it go. Yet so often we get caught trying to stop an emotion. Trying not to have it. We get caught in a kind of emotional stutter.
When I was a kid I remember a day trip we took to a beach where the waves seemed enormous and yet there were people having a ball body surfing. Now this was Bellerive beach in Hobart, Tasmania, so the waves can’t have been very big, but to my young eyes they were enormous. Eventually I couldn’t contain my wanting to experience the body surfing I was watching, so I ventured out with a bit of an idea about what to do from my time sitting and observing.
The first wave dumped me and I thought I was going to drown. It was like someone had thrown me in a washing machine and there was no way out. So I fought and struggled and was washed up, breathless on the shore. Sitting in the shallows, I still couldn’t get over the enjoyment on the faces of the body surfers, so I ventured out again. Small hints of successes and further dumplings, and slowly I realized that I always got washed up in the shallows. The next time a wave dumped me I decided to relax into it, and sure enough I was washed up in the shallows, but this time I was less out of breath.
I think emotions are like the waves at Bellerieve beach. If you’re not used to them, they will look like the waves in Hawaii, or Chile, but if you look, there will actually be a lot of people enjoying them. Just look at the queues at the movies for films like The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, or The endless B grade horror movies. Look at the films that won Acadmy awards or People’s Choice at Cannes. People don’t like bland. They like to be touched and moved and stirred and scared.
Barefoot Therapists know this about people.