I didn’t have much experience with the ocean until a few years ago.
Never having learned how to play with/in ocean waves as a child, I found myself terrified of those tall walls of water moving toward me. After getting hammered by them a couple of times, I sat on the shore to calm my trembling and to watch and learn from others braver than I. Eventually, I learned three ways to deal with the waves: duck under them, dive into them, or ride them toward shore.
Like ocean waves, our emotions move in a rhythm that can sometimes be frighteningly powerful. For recovering addicts, emotions can feel especially dangerous. Substances offered an escape from feeling; pain, guilt, anxiety, fear—all could be numbed by getting high or drunk. In recovery, you may find that the emotions you ran from or tried to push away come surging back in, threatening to overwhelm you. Even emotions like happiness or excitement can throw us off balance if we try to make them last longer than their lifespan.
Learning to navigate emotions is like learning to work with the rhythm of ocean waves. What follows are two rules and three options for dealing with emotion, all based on an analogy of swimming in the ocean.
Rule #1: Don’t panic. If you’re sucked into a churning sea of emotion, your first instinct might be to thrash your arms and legs and scream for rescue. Do you know what lifeguards do to those in danger who can’t calm down? Knock them out. Otherwise, the thrashing might cause both the rescuer and the victim to drown. So, as much as possible, stay calm.
Rule #2: Don’t tell yourself that this shouldn’t be happening to you. “I shouldn’t be feeling this way,” you might think. “Nothing justifies this level of emotion. I’m just overreacting, making a mess of things the way I always do.” Don’t bully yourself. It doesn’t matter whether you should or shouldn’t be feeling something. You’re feeling it.
Okay, here’s where the analogy gets really literal. (Too literal? Maybe, but bear with me.) Possible responses for dealing with emotion:
Duck. Let the emotional wave roll over you harmlessly. “Isn’t this just avoiding emotion?” you might ask. Not really. You’re not trying to stop the emotion or run away from it. You’re simply watching it approach and then slipping under it. You can still feel it roll over you, play out its violence on the surface—but you’re in a deeper, calmer place, unharmed. In practice, ducking might look like taking a short nap or going on a walk when you sense a wall of emotion surging toward you.
Dive in. This option requires some courage. To see something large and destructive looming over you and then make the choice to dive into it is, well, badass. Notice that you’re not being aggressive with the emotion or trying to control it. You’re simply looking at it, feeling the fear it might incite, and trusting that you’ll be okay if you dive in and see what it’s all about. Diving in might look like writing in your journal about the emotion that’s rising in you. It might look like getting quiet and breathing meditatively. It might look like initiating a conversation with someone who is “causing” these rising feelings.
Ride the wave. If you’re feeling especially energetic and daring, you can jump forward with the wave as it crests and feel it carry you to shore. This option, like ducking, is a kind of surrender. Again, you’re not fighting the wave. You’re accepting it and using it to propel you into to shallower, safer waters. Riding the emotional wave might look like crying, punching your bed, yelling into a pillow, kicking a soccer ball into a wall, or doing whatever you do when you’re in the middle of an emotional reaction and want to release it without hurting yourself or someone else.
Warning: The key here is to know when the emotional wave has spent itself and to let it go. Often, we get to a point where we relish our anger, excitement, or sadness and want to make it last. But waves dissipate rather quickly. If you find that you’re getting some kind of satisfaction out of feeling your emotion, ask yourself, “Why do I want to feel this way?” Listen for the answer.
One more warning: don’t get caught seeking bigger and more violent emotions – sometimes we might think we’re not truly living if we’re not feeling something deeply. This is why Patrick Swayze’s character died in the movie Point Break. Don’t be a suicidal surfer.
In the end, we all need a break from the ocean. As exciting as it can be, we can’t live in it.
The point of this entire ocean/emotion analogy is this: allowing our emotions the movement they need will set us on the path to emotional health. Our fear of our emotions will lessen, and we’ll be able to use them to get to know ourselves better and to become more intimate in our relationships with others.
And if you happen to get caught by a wave that beats you up before you have time to act? You’ll survive. You’ll have sand in your pants and a pounding headache, but don’t panic. Don’t feel ashamed. Take a break, then try again.