When you get that “this is all just too much” feeling, you need a way to clear a space for yourself…and never more than now, as the pandemic rages on and the political climate remains divisive. In this post, which originally appeared on July 18, 2018 under the title How to overcome the tyranny of your strong emotions, you’ll find specific, practical ways to restore internal peace when too many things are coming at you at once.
Intense emotions are a hallmark of the sensitive person’s life. As the BuzzFeed health writer Shannon Rosenberg puts it in her hilarious article, 16 Graphs That Will Help You Understand Your Highly Sensitive Friends So Much Better, HSPs feel “all the feels all of the time.”
I’ve tried to tell myself that “all the feels all of the time” is only comic exaggeration. Of course we don’t feel everything at every moment. But the fact is, we might get triggered into emotional intensity at any moment. This reality can put us on edge, and justifiably so. It’s like having a huge construction crane following you around, dangling a Steinway grand piano that could drop on you at any time.
This sense of emotional pressure is heightened by the reality that most of us have only two strategies for handling our emotional intensity. (There is theoretically a third option, the “nuclear” option. But I say “theoretically” because I’m assuming that like me, you would never choose to lose control and explode, because it leaves you feeling mortified, wishing you could sink into the ground and not stop until you arrive in China.)
So, as I was saying, we realistically have two choices when the grand piano drops. Option One is to try to hold in the feelings and carry on. Sometimes this is the only practical solution in the moment. Unfortunately, as I’m sure you know, this does not work on the longer term. Like Cinderella’s nasty step sisters, who tried to shoehorn their clumsy clodhoppers into the dainty glass slipper, you end up hurting yourself. Even worse, your effort is futile, because the parts you can’t stuff in will bulge out sideways for everyone to see. When that happens to me, it isn’t pretty.
So, never mind stuffing your feelings. That leaves Option Two, which is to go off by yourself or with a friend or your therapist or your cat or your dog, and process your feelings.
But what if you don’t want to process your feelings? What if you have processed, and processed, and processed…and you are tired of all this damned intensity and want some peace for a few hours? Because let’s face it: there are some days when being an HSP gets wearisome. Having “all the feels all of the time” can be like wearing a hair shirt that pokes and chafes and irritates you constantly. Except that, unlike a monk from the Dark Ages, you cannot take your hair shirt off.
You end up feeling like the only way to get relief is to go in and process your feelings. In other words, your feelings feel like a demand. You are stuck in what I call “the tyranny of processing.”
There’s got to be another way
Clearly, we need more options here. And thanks to Eugene Gendlin, who first identified and described the steps of the Focusing process , we have another option— a really great one. It’s called “Clearing a Space.” Clearing a Space works beautifully for those times when your need for processing is beginning to feel tyrannical. Here’s my streamlined version of Clearing a Space:
1— Close your eyes and ground your awareness in your body
2—Ask yourself, “What is between me and feeling good, right now?” Then wait.
3—When an issue comes, sense the whole feel of the issue. Acknowledge it by saying internally, “Ah, yes, OK, I feel this here.”
4— Then take an internal snapshot of the whole felt sense of the issue. It can help to write down a few words to remember the issue, such as, “the whole situation with my brother coming to visit.”
5—Now, gently take this whole issue and its felt sense in your hands and sense where you would like to put it. Put it somewhere nearby, not to close and not too far…wherever feels right.
6—Go back inside, and say, “OK…so there’s that whole thing with my brother. And other than that, what is between me and feeling good right now?” When another issue comes, acknowledge it, take a snapshot of it and set it aside.
7—Keep repeating steps two through six until no more issues come up. Each time, go through your list so far: “OK…so there’s this…and this…and this…and aside from those, is there anything between me and feeling good right now?”
And when you finally get the answer, “‘No….I feel pretty good, aside from all that,” you have completed “Clearing a Space.”
But even before you finish identifying all the issues, you may notice a surprising result: you feel calmer and more peaceful, even though you have not solved any of your problems. And most important, your emotions no longer hold tyranny over you. You feel like you have choices, because you do have choices:
- You can simply enjoy the space you have created: “All this is here…and I am the space where all this can be.”
- Or you can sense what would like your awareness: “All this is here…and I’m sensing if one of these things really wants my attention now.” (You may feel much better about processing some of what has come up, now that you experience yourself as having a choice in the matter.)
Why is Clearing a Space so effective?
I call this “the deli effect.” When you arrive at the deli, you take a number. Then you relax. You are free to peruse the pastrami until your number gets called. But imagine your deli has no ticket dispenser. Now you have to keep an eye on everyone else, wondering if you will get your turn and whether you will have to arm wrestle that old lady with the purple handbag. You can’t relax: on the contrary, you must be vigilant.
That’s how all your inner parts feel. Your emotional reactions are like a pack of kids needing your attention. If they aren’t sure you know they are there, they will keep plucking and poking and yelling at you, trying to get your attention. All that clamor makes it very hard for you to think straight.
But when you Clear a Space, you establish a respectful atmosphere. You go beyond just feelings to sense the whole felt sense of each issue. And by doing so, you demonstrate to your inner parts that there is a competent adult in the room, and that each of them will get a turn. They know you know they are there, and they relax their vigilant, urgent stance. This in turn frees you up to take care of business.
When should you Clear a Space?
You can take 10 or 15 minutes to sit down and Clear a Space any time you have stuff going on but don’t want to process it all. But you can also Clear a Space silently, on the fly, if you get overwhelmed. You can do it if you have a project you need to finish and you are having trouble concentrating because your emotions are “pinging” you. And it’s very useful to Clear a Space going into a therapy session, if you feel that panicky “I-have-so-much-to-tell-you-and-there-won’t-be-enough-time” feeling.
When you succeed in Clearing a Space, you directly experience three truths. First, you are not your emotions. Second, you are something much bigger. And third, peace does not come from processing and solving all your problems: it comes from reconnecting to that “something bigger.” From that place in yourself, you hold your problems in an effective way and experience peace—all at the same time.
Image © Kaitlyn Wyenberg: thank you Kaitlyn (firstname.lastname@example.org)
This was soooo awesome! Thank you!
I’m happy to hear this Bianca! I’m curious to hear more about how this is helpful to you.
Brilliant! I love your metaphors. They often make me laugh or smile and make it so much easier to grasp and FEEL the point you are making. I also appreciated the link to the 16 graphs. I think it would be fun to make my own 🤪. Thank you once again 🙏
Mary, thank you…the little old lady with the purple purse cracked me up too–I don’t know where these things come from! But I couldn’t agree more about metaphors: I think I make them up because I need them myself, to understand things. And yes, that Buzzfeed graph is the funniest thing ever, and a brilliant way to get across a whole feel for the HSP trait!
Hi Emily, Having worked with you for thise difficult 7 months , it is comforting to hear your voice mow, 2 years later, as I read this latest blog.
Having had the experience of working with you on a weekly basis (more or less) added benefit to you witnessing and helping me stay with the process of Focusing.
I highly recommend working with Emily. Her kindness, sincerity and professionalism carried me through a very dark and nessasary passage.
I credit Emily for helping me breakthrough and live from my True Self.
Emily is a sweetheart,
Karen, I can’t believe it has been two years…thank you for your kind words–you made my day:)
I just love the 3 truths at the end of the article:
I am not my emotions,
I am bigger than my emotions, and
The relief, the peace (the possibility, the empowered action, and so much more) that I’m looking for as a result of processing, start, come and end with connecting with Big Me.
Taj, yes, I wish I could remember those three things all the time:)…but writing about it helps!
Is delayed response to emotional overwhelm part of the HSP trait or is this an individual trait? I find I often don’t process an overwhelming emotional experience until the next morning or day. Sometimes my mind won’t process it until I am alone in a relaxing environment…for example out on a walk by myself. I have so much going on in my brain right now that I don’t have the energy to even try your above suggestions. I think I will just keep reminding myself of the three truths.
It’s hard to process when you are overwhelmed. So yes, often the processing will happen later, when the overwhelm has had a chance to subside. Going for a walk alone is a perfect example of processing time, when there are no new stimuli coming in (or not from other people, anyway: the stimuli of nature tend to be soothing.)
Yes, if all you do is remember you are not your emotions, you’ve made a big leap.