I should have listened to my stomach…
I had a bit of a stomach ache tonight, but I still insisted on having this sweet and delicious root beer float after dinner. That rich vanilla taste melting together with the root beer is purely bliss. How could I resist? Sip after sip, spoonful after spoonful I fell into the temptation of this delicious treat until the last sticky drop was finished and the only thing that remained was an aching stomach and regret.
If only I listened to my stomach. If only I listened to my body.
I can be hell frightening sometimes.
One fine evening many years ago, my girlfriend at the time and I were getting ready to go to a fundraiser at a local pub. It was a casual event but none the less we still did our best to dress up for the occasion which for me meant a nice hot shower, fresh boxers and a bit of mouthwash to freshen up my aging breath. Typically just before social engagements among strangers or people that I’m not so comfortable with, I have a tendency to do one or a combination of the following:
- think about how bored, disinterested and nervous I’m going to feel during the event.
- find reasons in my head not to go or create legit reasons to cop out.
- shut down and not want to talk or do much throughout the day.
- get irritable and start an argument, unrelated to the event.
- pout and clearly show an icy and cold facial demeanor that’s filled with resentment.
- blame everyone for my unhappiness.
Because it was a fundraiser that was put together by the school that my girlfriend worked at, this meant I wasn’t going to know anyone other than her, which meant that I would cling onto her like a new found puppy dog, minus the cuteness factor.
As I was showering, we started talking about the evening and my running mind began wandering aimlessly like a chicken with its head cut off. An argument ensued and my ridiculous thoughts ran wild fueled by my insecurities and fears that my girlfriend would run off with someone at the pub who was a million times more dashing than I was and as charismatic as Robert Downey Jr. Out of frustration, she finally turned around and sarcastically replied, “MAYBE I WILL!”
Like a fired up tiger ready to pounce, I ripped down the shower curtain and roared, “GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE!”
Frightened, she disengaged but I jumped out of the shower and pursued her while I was dripping wet. I continued to rampage on and on how she doesn’t love me and this is not what love is (which is ironic given that I was naked, wet and yelling at her about what love is).
Like a person who just sprinted a hundred meters, I eventually ran out of breath. We miraculously patched things up in an hour or so and eventually made it out to the fundraiser unscathed for the rest of the evening. But like all major arguments, it left a lasting scar that was irreparable.
…that was a scary ass story me to recount and for you to read I’m sure. Abuse takes many forms and in this case it was about subconsciously striking fear in the other person to ‘show them who’s boss’ so that they’ll back down and concede to what you tell them to do.
So let’s take some time to strip this down more (other than how I was an insecure fool).
Why did I do these things? Years later, I discovered the word ANXIETY. Say it with me…anx-i-e-ty…it’s a word that took some time for me to accept.
Anxiety is a feeling I get when my mind starts thinking too many steps ahead and trying to pretend that I’m Carnac the Magnificent. Have you ever thought about future events and what’s going to happen when things get dicey or uncomfortable? Like what’s going to happen if you’re late picking up your kids from school or if the laundry doesn’t get done? End of the world, right? This was a pattern I experienced prior to unfamiliar social engagements: Christmas dinners at my girlfriend’s parent’s house, her grandmother’s funeral, meeting her friends for the first time and the list goes on.
My problem was that my feelings of anxiousness got me all tied up with wandering thoughts of: Who am I going to talk to? What if no one likes me? It’s just going to be a bunch of people getting drunk and it’s not going to be any fun for me so I’d rather stay home and watch the paint dry on the wall rather than spend my evening with these strangers.
The tricky part for me was that I wasn’t aware of these wandering thoughts. There were so many and all of them going on at the same time, it became such a slushy mess in my head that it’s difficult to catch what was really going on. And when the anxiousness wasn’t getting properly managed, the uglies came out in the form of anger as shared in my story.
So here’s the trick I use these days whenever I notice some of that slushy discomfort in my head coming on like a fast and furious freight train. Now, this takes practice and even I still fall off the bike from time to time. I believe it’s a learned skill for people like me, yet a necessary one for my benefit. For some it’s more innate depending on several factors including upbringing and genetics (gosh, I envy those people!)
The trick is….wait for it…wait for it…
…feel your body…
No, not touch your body…feel it! Using your mind, pay attention and feel what’s going on in there first. Don’t judge what’s going on, simply identify it first. Trust not in your thoughts and with what you hear sometimes because many times they can be misleading to the truth about yourself.
Step 1: Feel your body.
Growing up whenever my dad called me useless and worthless I heard those harsh words. After hearing those words, my mind and body shut down to everything else and simply stayed in a fixed mode that I was worthless. If I was able to filter out what he said which was only his perspective (and not the truth), I might have been able to recognize the bodily sensations:
- heat in my face and neck (from feeling embarrassment and shame).
- tightened chest and as if everything was rising to the top in an instant (also from feeling shame)
- a scowl and tightness in my temples and brow (from feeling anger and resentment)
- increased heartrate
So fast forward to the story about my rampaging argument in the shower. If I was able to freeze that moment in the argument and filter out the things my girlfriend said, I might have recognized my bodily sensations:
- heat in my face and neck (from feeling embarrassment and shame)
- a rising tightness in the chest (also from shame)
- a scowl and tightness in my temples and brow (from anger)
- increased heartrate.
See the parallels? My body is an early warning signal that something could go wrong if I don’t pay attention to it. Anger, anxiety, depression could take over if I don’t feel what’s going on in my body.
Step 2: Connect the dots
My lack of self-worth reaches way back to my own self-belief based on how I was taught to see myself. In this case, I saw myself as worthless. As an adult I carried those subconscious beliefs that I’m worthless, so in a heated argument with my girlfriend (or whomever), I saw them as the people who once hurt me. In essence, I’m fighting back against the pain of once being called worthless even though my girlfriend wasn’t even saying those things.
Let’s look at it this way:
- as a child I was physically, verbally and emotionally abused by my dad, mom, brother and uncles and aunt. As a child I didn’t have the capacity to express my anger. The pain got bottled up.
- the pain doesn’t go away. Because I kept the pain to myself growing up, the pain kept expanding and expanding like a soda can that’s been shaken.
- because I did not properly process the pain faced from my childhood, as an adult I reacted to triggers in unhealthy way, such as anger and withdrawal. But underneath the anger is hurt, pain, sadness, loneliness and fear that I wasn’t able to identify (anger is a secondary emotion to all these things).
Pretty deep stuff, right?
Step 3: Identify and acknowledge the bodily sensations and find an “outlet”
When I start breathing and recognizing what’s going on in my body (the heated face, rising tension in chest, etc), I can slowly and gently take care of those bodily feelings first and foremost. Once I can spend a couple of minutes and start to say calmly to myself, “I can feel my face heating up, my chest is rising, my hearbeat is faster…”, I’ve begun to acknowledge my bodily feelings and I will soon notice a shift.
My primary focus has now become listening and paying attention to my body rather than the thoughts in my head. At this point, the thoughts that plagued my mind becomes secondary to what’s happening and that’s where I can keep it. The thoughts are there, but I now discover that I can rationally acknowledge and deal with them. They’re just no longer the priority. They’re just thoughts. Only ideas. They’re just there. It doesn’t mean they’re real or true. They don’t need to be judged as good or bad. They don’t need to be forced out or cancelled. It’s just what my brain is telling me based on some triggers I may have previously experienced in my subconscious. With a cooler head, talking about those thoughts becomes a lot easier and in a healthier way.
When I’m focused on my bodily sensations and not on the wandering thoughts, amazingly, the bodily sensations will eventually subside.
There’s a lot of ways I can find an “outlet” that will make it easier to manage those painful thoughts. It can be hard and I still struggle sometimes depending on how painful the thoughts are. I just have to remind myself that those painful thoughts won’t help the situation so there’s no need to allow them to stay with me. They’ll merely get pent up and cause the heat in the face, tightness in the chest and so on and so forth.
Here’s some examples of “outs” that I will share with you in future blogs:
- 4 second breathing exercise.
- distractions (ie. sex, doing something fun like video games, watching a movie, cooking, gardening)
- taking a bath.
- do a crossword.
- listen or play some music.
- phone a friend.
- comfort yourself by doing a combination of any or all the above.
To summarize when an onset of painful feelings or an argument starts to come on:
- Feel what’s going on in your body (heat, pressure in temple, heartrate). Pause there and be with your feelings for a moment. Your body is an early warning signal saying, “Alert! Pay attention! Things could get dicey if you don’t!”
- Thoughts will become secondary once you’ve successfully felt your bodily discomforts.
- Connect the dots – what are some deeper reasons why you’re reacting the way you do?
- Acknowledge the discomfort in the body by calmly saying to yourself, “i feel pain in my stomach or I can feel pressure in my head.”
- Find an outlet – breathing, meditating or talking with a friend are great examples of outlets. At this point your thoughts may become clearer for you to further rationalize and talk about without feeling terribly overwhelmed.
It takes a lot of practice, but remember that it’s worth it in the end.
…and if only I listened to my body I wouldn’t have regrets of having that float.