When Your Emotions Scream "Act!" But You Don't Know What to Do
I’ve felt rocked by uncertainty over the last few weeks. I have also felt an overwhelming sense of urgency. These two feelings don’t play well together, and yet, they so often arise at the same time.
I wasn’t surprised by the results of the US election, but even so, I have been reeling from the shock waves, as social conflicts that many have tried to avoid, ignore and silence come screaming to the surface. I can’t help wondering what would be different if we as a society had the skills, emotional intelligence, and willingness to face up to racism and xenophobia, political disenfranchisement, and economic inequality, and to do the hard work of stopping and repairing harm that has been done over generations. I feel a particular urgency and responsibility – as a white person, as a child of a refugee who found safety in the United States, as someone who hopes and strives for a just world – to be involved in restoring right relations.
I feel an urgent need to fix things.
I feel uncertain as to how that would happen.
Urgency and uncertainty are only two of a wide range of conflicting and confusing emotions that often overwhelm us in the face of upheaval (whether it’s social or personal). Aversion to conflict and a desire for safety may encourage us pretend it’s not happening, or to hunker down and not come out until it’s over. Fear, anxiety, and discomfort might drive us to act with urgency, to chase the impossible dream of a quick solution. We may judge those (and ourselves) who act in ways that might not be helpful, while at the same time we also judge those who don’t act quickly or decisively enough. We may feel shame when we see the ways we are part of the problem, but also defensiveness when others tell us how we have caused harm. And then there is anger, which can give us the energy to face up to injustice, but may also lead us to lash out at whomever is closest.
This maelstrom of emotions feels terrible.
Find support, give it space, ride it out.
It can be part of the process of coming to terms.
And it is not the best time to take decisive action.
The first week after the election I spent hours reading news articles, pouring over my Facebook feed, signing petitions, and generally doing a bunch of things that felt like action at the time, but were really more like running in circles. These activities fed my emotional storm, threw me off my usual path, and took time away from things I really needed to focus on like mediation, teaching, and being present for people in my life. I gradually forced myself to get off the computer (particularly Facebook) and to connect with people in my life. I prioritized real conversations over making sure I was up to date on all the latest horrors in the news. I took what time I could spare to feel what I was feeling, let it be there, and watch how it was shifting and changing. I thought about what I think is right, what I would like the world to be like, and what it would take to get there.
That last question is still pretty foggy, but I do have some clarity on a few things.
First, I have learned in my work and my personal experience that taking action while being tossed around by a storm of emotions often makes things worse. When we feel urgency, we often think that we know exactly what needs to happen. We often act with limited information that is dominated by the tempest inside, without recognizing that we are missing the larger picture. It’s important to slow down, take care of the storm, identify what actually needs to be (and can be) addressed immediately, and act on those things. Then take some time to regroup, take care of each other, educate ourselves and others, and build relationships and collective power.
I’ve started asking myself the following questions that I sometimes ask people I’m coaching:
“Does this feel urgent?” The answer is frequently “Yes.”
“Is this something that will be solved by the urgent action I am thinking of?” The answer is usually “No.”
“Is this something that may be made worse if I act without thinking it through?” The answer is usually “It’s likely.”
This doesn’t mean avoiding, forgetting about, or minimizing the problem. It means addressing the things that really are urgent, and temporarily putting aside things we can’t fix so we can come back energized to do hard work over the long term. These conflicts we face are not easily or quickly resolved. They will require everything we can bring.
Second, we need to build our skills to have difficult conversations on a massive scale. This means speaking up with something unjust happens. It also means listening deeply, openly, and with humility to people who are more likely to experience the direct impact of these times. In conflict, we tend to do all kinds of things to avoid having to take responsibility for our part in how things went off the rails. We minimize, deny, silence, shut down, patronize, and redirect blame. The irony is that by doing this, we actually reinforce the harm and escalate the conflict. We can deepen our capacity to sit with someone else’s trauma, anger, frustration, despair, anxiety, accusation, and even hatred without reacting, solving, or defending ourselves. This is a gift we can offer to ourselves and to each other, but not when we are lost in our own storm of emotions.
Third, if you’re feeling this confusing and overwhelming storm of emotions, you are not alone. You’re also not alone in wanting clarity about the future when we live in a time in which little is clear. It’s ok not to know what to do. We will have to figure that out together as we go.
Finally, even when the confusion clears a bit, we will still get things wrong. That’s OK. There are degrees of wrong, and when you have the space to make room for difficult emotions, it’s easier to accept mistakes, learn from them, and do it differently the next time. What is most important is to keep trying in spite of and because of mistakes. Real learning and real justice happen when we make a mistake and are able to apply what we have learned to do things differently in the future. But to do this, we have to forgive our mistakes and be willing to try over and over again until we get it right.