It isn’t the end of the world when this happens. You can always do the repair work afterward, but there is less suffering when people don’t engage with each other when they are emotionally dysregulated.
Intense emotions are not unhealthy. They are a normal part of the human experience. When we understand that we are safe even while feeling them it allows our nervous system to do what it needs to do to stabilize. There is an innate intelligence within us that knows what to do when it comes to feeling. It is the same intelligence that knows how to help our bodies return to physical wellbeing. This same intelligence knows how to help us return to mental and emotional well-being when we become emotionally dysregulated. All we need to do is stay open to our experience so the emotional energy can move through us and not add to our suffering by destabilizing ourselves by making up a lot of meaning about what we are experiencing or by identifying with the meaning we are making up.
A common way to not stay open to emotional experiences is to try and avoid them. We humans can be very creative about the coping strategies we use to avoid feeling. This can be done through obvious means like using substances, and it can be done in more seemingly innocuous ways by using work or what can be at times healthy behaviors such as exercise or meditation. It can also be done by disappearing into our intellect. There are an infinite number of ways we can find to not be present with what is. And if we are too uncomfortable our wisdom will guide us there. There is nothing wrong or bad about this. That is the best we can do at the moment.
But when we understand we are safe to feel we don’t need to use coping mechanisms. We can simply allow our experience to move through us without needing to escape from it. This is liberating and healing.
Understanding we are safe even when we have intense feelings means we have a reference point within ourselves for who we are and what is true. We know we can have feelings, but we aren’t our feelings. We know we can have the experience of a turbulent mind, but we aren’t the content of our turbulent mind. When we feel safe independent of what our thoughts and feelings are, we have a felt sense of who we are beyond our thoughts and feelings. This is a space of peace and love that is present independent of what is going on on our mental and emotional levels and independent of our circumstances.
In other words, we can feel safe even when we feel uncomfortable.
Our relationship with this safe part of ourselves, the space of peace and wellbeing, what Angus and I refer to as our natural state, gives us a compass point and an anchor. This relationship resources us and guides us.
It is the primary relationship to nurture in life. Your relationship with your divine nature.
It will help every other relationship in your life.
Part 2 of navigating intense feelings in relationships points to what else is available along the learning curve of navigating intense feelings when we are able to stay open to our emotional experiences.
I wasn’t expecting to find myself on this learning curve. I was quite happy to have less conflict in my relationship with Angus and that was good enough for me, but when one of my daughters who was a teenager at the time said to me, “When I need you most you aren’t there for me.” This got my attention. It snapped me awake.
I thought I was doing just fine not engaging with her when she was dysregulated. It meant that I wasn’t losing my cool and discharging my anger on her when she was upset, but she needed more. She was asking me to not abandon her when she was angry and destabilized.
Her request made me want to dig deeper. Yes, I could separate so I wouldn’t lose my cool. That was not a bad choice, but I was willing to find a deeper place of love and compassion within myself so that I could help her regulate even when she was angry and discharging her anger on me.
My heart wanted to do this. I wanted to learn how to help her in this way. I didn’t want her to feel abandoned by me. I also didn’t want to become a raving lunatic and lose my cool with her. I needed to find a deeper space of stability within myself.
As soon as I opened myself to the possibility of there being a new way I realized how traumatic it felt for my nervous system to be exposed to her rage. I felt like I couldn’t handle it, but I knew this wasn’t true. So I began the experiment.
Rather than trying to manage my experience by leaving her when she was angry with me or by reacting and discharging my anger on her, I opened up to my experience. I allowed myself to feel all of it.
This was not a one-and-done experience. It was an experiential learning curve. I wasn’t always able to do it all the time. Sometimes I did leave. Sometimes I did lose my cool. But I did get better at staying. I did this for my daughter, but I didn’t realize what a gift she was giving me.
By asking me to not abandon her at those times. I found my capacity to be with my experience and not abandon myself. I could hold space for the fear and the hurt moving through me that had nothing to do with her. In my holding space for myself, I was able to stay open-hearted with both her and myself more of the time.
This was healing.
It is what she wanted and it was what I needed.
I needed to feel all of those feelings. I didn’t need to create a story about what they were. Why I was having them. What they meant about me. I just needed to feel them and my daughter just being herself allowed me to grow in my capacity to be with myself and with her as a byproduct of that.
What was also interesting is that she shifted and became more emotionally regulated as I was able to do this.
This isn’t even a feature of our relationship now, but the gift keeps on giving.
Thanks to her I have a deeper experiential knowing of my capacity to stay grounded within myself and to have an open heart with other human beings when they are suffering.
I am not perfect at this. I fail all the time with Angus and find myself not being empathic or compassionate, but there are those exquisite moments when I remember and I stay loving and open-hearted even when he is in a low mood. This feels good to him, but the greatest gift is to me.
So if you feel called to open your heart more see where it guides you. See what opportunities there are for you to be more loving in your relationship independent of the other person’s behavior. Don’t do this for the other them. Do it for yourself.
Rohini Ross is co-founder of “The Rewilders.” Listen to her podcast, with her partner Angus Ross, Rewilding Love. They believe too many good relationships fall apart because couples give up thinking their relationship problems can’t be solved. In the first season of the Rewilding Love Podcast, Rohini and Angus help a couple on the brink of divorce due to conflict. Angus and Rohini also co-facilitate private couple's intensive retreat programs that rewild relationships back to their natural state of love. Rohini is also the author of the ebook Marriage, and she and Angus are co-founders of The 29-Day Rewilding Experience and The Rewilders Community. You can follow Rohini on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. To learn more about her work and subscribe to her blog visit: TheRewilders.org.