Someone close to me was sharing her feelings last week. While not terrible, things were difficult for her. I told her that I hoped she could feel at least a piece of peace. Her near-immediate response was, “A piece of peace pizza.” I knew right away that was the title of my next update.
These weekly updates share life with OCD as part of my Mental Work Health project to reduce stigma around mental health, especially at work.
As I met with my therapist last week, we talked about the different things going on in my life. She was surprised I was able to calmly describe the level of stress I was having. This is huge progress, and reflects more of where I want to be. There is no finish line, especially with mental illness, but there are different tracks that can be more or less healthy. It’s nice to take a moment to celebrate progress whenever it comes.
I realized that a huge part of my current success is being able to allow multiple emotions to co-exist inside of me. In the past, if there was one emotion, particularly a strong one, that was all that my body could handle. Joy? This is the best day ever. Sadness? I will never be happy again. Fear? No rational thought is possible.
As I went through the intensive outpatient program at The OCD & Anxiety Treatment Center, learning to mindfully digest emotions was a life-changing skill for me. Prior to learning that, I was not able to separate feeling an emotion from my response to that emotion.
It was similar to learning to resist compulsions.
My form of OCD, scrupulosity, is almost purely mental. This made it hard to recognize and diagnose, which led to difficulties in getting treatment. As I started doing exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, I wasn’t able to separate the urge to do a compulsion from the compulsion itself. So I started with physical compulsions. When I felt the urge to clean something, I could recognize that and chose not to do it. Over time, I was able to get a similar level of detachment from mental compulsions and decide what action to take when I felt the urge.
Learning to sit with emotions without allowing them to take over can be a difficult process. Mindfulness is essentially the practice of sitting in the present moment and whatever it holds. The sensations. The emotions. The thoughts. Just become aware of it without judgment.
As I continue to work on this practice, I have become capable of handling more and more emotions. When I was telling my therapist about all that is going on in my life, and she commented on how relaxed I seemed, I realized that the key is that I have been able to hold all sorts of emotions at once. Even conflicting ones.
It made me think of a scene from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Hermione is trying to explain all the emotions Harry’s love interest is experiencing:
“Don’t you understand how Cho’s feeling at the moment?” she asked.
“No,” said Harry and Ron together.
Hermione sighed and laid down her quill. “Well, obviously, she’s feeling…”
A slightly stunned silence greeted the end of this speech, then Ron said, “One person can’t feel all that at once, they’d explode.”
“Just because you’ve got the emotional range of a teaspoon doesn’t mean we all have,” said Hermione.
Ron voiced what 2019 me would have said to present day me. It didn’t seem possible to feel so many things all at once, especially when the emotions don’t make logical sense together.
My hope for you and for me in the coming week is to be more mindful of our emotions. Instead of trying to crowd some out, or dismiss them, just observe. What do they look like? What color are they? What’s their shape? Let go of whether they are the “right” emotions. They are what they are.
And finally, as always, be kind. The people around you have their own frying pan filled of emotions. You can’t know all of what they are carrying. Be patient and give them the benefit of the doubt. And then do the same for yourself. You deserve some kindness too.