Who’s Masking Your Feelings?

I woke up this morning with a depressed feeling. Not depressed in the clinical sense of the word, but a steady pressure on my chest with tension around my throat and tears behind my eyes. Maybe the word is suppressed or pressurized. I’ve come to know this feeling as grief. It’s my deep sadness about losing something. This morning I felt sad about losing the way in which I used to engage with people pre-Covid pandemic.

Immediately, my personas swooped in to rescue me from my grief. I hadn’t even made it out of bed yet.

A persona is a repetitive strategy we (often) learned when we were young to get our needs met and mask uncomfortable feelings. Usually these strategies aren’t very effective in our adulthood and they certainly aren’t satisfying, but we keep employing them because they’re familiar and we’re scared or don’t know how else to get our needs met.

First, let me introduce Indecisive Doer. The part of me who tries desperately to find something productive to do, but is both indecisive about what to do and unsatisfied by anything she chooses. Her inner monologue goes something like this: What should I do today? The day is young, I can’t waste it on this feeling. I had big plans for today! What do I want to do? I don’t know. I should know. Ok, I’ll take a shower and then figure it out. Maybe I should meditate first. But I want to drink my tea. I have to do all that before my son gets up or I’ll never get any time to myself. I just need to figure out the right order in which to do all the things and then I can start!

All that annoying indecision led me to half-heartedly turn toward my sad feeling. Clearly, I wasn’t getting anywhere with Indecisiver Doer so I guess I’ll have to do something with this feeling. “Oh, no, no, I don’t think so!” says Perfectly Processed as she dives in for the save. Perfectly Processed loves to use all of the consciousness tools I know to get rid of my uncomfortable feelings. She’s sneaky because practicing the ways that I learned to love myself, create ease in my day and be with feelings makes perfect sense. However, her motivation is what keeps me from actually being with what I’m experiencing. Like Indecisive Doer, she’s rooted in the belief that what I’m experiencing right now is not what I should be experiencing. The idea that maybe I’ll just be sad for the whole day sounds perfectly preposterous. Her inner monologue goes like this: You just need to get these feelings out, honey. That’s all there is to it! I’ll help you find just the RIGHT process and we’ll get through this together, I promise! Trust me, I know SO MANY ways to move through this stuff. Something’s gotta work, right?

I unconsciously created these personas, or strategies, to save me from my grief (and other feelings as well). They were born out of the fear that I’m having the wrong experience. Even with all the practice I’ve had accepting and allowing my feelings, I just now had the thought, what if I could allow this feeling for as long as it wanted to be here? Without trying to fix it? REALLY? Feel depressed for what… hours? The whole day? A week?

That thought freezes me in fear. My fear revolves around not knowing how long I’ll be grieving. And yet, I can feel my curiosity growing. Hmmm… I wonder how I can be with my grief now? And now? And now? Then there’s an opening. I intuitively get an image of carrying something around with me today to symbolically acknowledge my deep sadness. I can take it along with me, periodically check in on it and give it love and attention. Hmmm… perhaps I can be with my feeling and also go about my day. How could this be as simple as saying “Today is Saturday and I feel sad.”?

I’m now sitting here with a stuffed seal on my chest. Yes, I’m petting it and allowing my imagination to imbue it with my sadness. Being with my grief like it’s a dear friend… or a baby seal.

In Yoga Nidra meditation there is a practice (settle down now, Perfectly Processed) of alternating between being the witness of a sensation/feeling (separate awareness) and knowing we are the sensation/feeling (oneness). Consider this: How could something you’re sensing be separate from you when the act of sensing is part of you? Richard Miller explains in detail:

We mistakenly assume a sensory impression is a phenomenon separate from ourselves. The fact is sensory impressions are not separate from the mind that perceives them. At the moment of perception, there is only perceiving and the idea of being a separate perceiver arises only as a mental formation after the fact. In the actual moment of perceiving there is only perceiving. When we refuse a sensory impression, such as the sound of the ticking clock, we are in a manner of speaking, refusing ourselves because ultimately we are made of the same substance of the impression that is being perceived. Trying to block a perception is a movement born in conflict. We are trying to get rid of something that is ultimately our own self.

– Richard Miller, Founding President of Integrative Restoration, a form of Yoga Nidra

You can try it right now with a sound. Focus on the sound as coming from outside you. Now focus on your sense of hearing. Your sense of hearing is part of you. You are the sensing of the sound. Drop into that part of you that feels the sound. Alternate between witnessing the sound as separate from you and experiencing the sound as part of you.

Sometimes imagining a feeling like a friend or something else you love, something outside yourself, can be a gateway to befriending that feeling. If your friend or pet was grieving, you could support them by being with them while they are grieving. Imagine sitting on a porch swing with your feeling, your arm around it like it’s a close friend. Beam a sense of comforting attention and love toward your feeling-friend. Now switch to noticing your body sensations associated with that feeling. In my case, it was a heavy feeling on my chest, tension around my throat, and teariness behind my eyes. I say “was” because I just did this exercise and the heavy feeling spread out and dissipated. The tension on my throat is there, and now I can also sense a cool effervescent sensation in the back of my throat. My eyes see more clearly and take in my surroundings actively instead of passively behind a curtain of tears.

Alternate between being with your feeling like you would a close friend and dropping into the sensations in your body. See if at any point you carry your loving attention over from the former experience to the latter. Follow any impulses that arise in you, like moving, making sounds or grabbing your own stuffie.

It occurs to me that I began opening up to this feeling yesterday during a session with my playmate and co-creator, Kristina Turner. We were playing with complaining about all the things we couldn’t do during this Covid pandemic. Yes, I said playing with complaining. We discovered our complainer personas and interviewed them to discover what they most wanted. I believe allowing myself to play in this way opened the gateway for me to feel my deep inner sadness. I realize that I had been avoiding complaining and feeling for many weeks.

I first learned how to befriend uncomfortable feelings in my Conscious Leadership and Transformation program with Kathlyn Hendricks. Both graduates of this two-year immersive program, Kristina and I currently co-facilitate an ensemble of dynamic explorers who love to play through transformation. Our Conscious Living Transformation Circle is open to new participants right now. There’s more information on Kristina’s website.

Our only requirement for joining Circle is that you are familiar with the teachings and principles of Kathlyn and Gay Hendricks. You can find more resources about their work at the Foundation For Conscious Living. This free online series of five 1-hour classes is a fantastic introduction.

If you want to read more about playing with personas, check out this blog I wrote, Play As A Way To Dissolve Self-Criticism. The most effective way for me to bring awareness to the personas trying to run my life is for me to play them out loud like I did here. Once I give them the stage for a while they reveal the feelings that I’m ready to befriend and be with.

Creating Space

We need space to improvise. Improvising becomes exponentially more difficult if the space is filled with thinking, planning or talking. Mostly these occur because we are scared of space. Many of us fear silence, the unknown and simply being. It’s challenging for us to believe that our presence is enough for the audience or that we can be in relationship with our scene partner without saying anything.

Like dancing, music or writing, without space, without the pauses, there is no dance, no song, no story. Improv in particular thrives in space because if we fill up the space with thinking and planning, nothing new or original can occur. I would a say that as improvisers, it is our job to cultivate space and then harvest what grows there. What’s so magical about improv is that the more we improvise, the more space we create.

If you’re like me, you probably have a lot going on in your life. I’m very fortunate to have a home, partner, a kid and pets. I homeschool my son, I take improv and acting classes, I perform, I teach classes, I play volleyball and I volunteer at our local park. I’m very grateful that I get to do all these things I enjoy. And I can make myself VERY BUSY. This fall, my schedule was packed. I was running around all over the place to do as many of these things as I could fit into my calendar. One thing to the next. This schedule was of my own making, so it seemed ridiculous to complain and stress about it. Nonetheless, there I was, unsatisfied with my full schedule of amazing things I loved to do.

I began to get curious about my scheduling. I joked that I need to fire my Scheduler and I did, but she quickly snuck back into her job. I wanted to free up space in my schedule, but I kept unconsciously filling it up. I wondered what my unconscious motivation was? First, I want to be good at these things that I do. In particular, I want to master improv and I know that it takes lots practice to master anything. Second, I don’t want to have to choose. Somewhere along the way I decided that to be the best at something, I would have to give up everything else and focus solely on that one thing. When I was 12 I gave up dance to play softball and missed dance terribly. After 10 years of playing both softball and volleyball I finally gave up softball my junior year in college, but not to focus on volleyball, but to pursue a study abroad in marine biology. I always felt behind and second best to those who devoted their time year-round to playing just one sport. Even now, as peers from my improv classes audition for shows and take every opportunity they can to perform, I feel like I’m falling behind. But I HATE having to choose between things that I love and I love doing a variety of things.

I’ve created a mental story that keeps me from getting what I want. Choose to focus on one thing and become a master, but give up the variety and other things I love OR choose the variety and all that I love and fall behind my peers and maybe never become a master at anything. The epitome of between a rock and a hard place. The legendary “either-or” situation. Black or white. I’ve consistently chosen the latter and accepted that bitter taste of slight dissatisfaction. I’ve played this story out many times over the last few decades, so now I’m asking, what else is possible?

I’ve been looking at my time as blocks in my calendar. I see it as rigid and unrelenting. Time is a tool to be used, squeezed, manipulated, controlled and beaten into a schedule that gets me as much of what I want as possible. My schedule is a puzzle and time is an obstacle in my way of solving it. I can’t create a new story with time in this same old mindset.

Getting curious, I asked, hmmm… I wonder how I can improvise with time and my schedule in ways that are deeply satisfying? It seems impossible to create time, but I KNOW I can create space. As I create more space, my perception of time changes and become irrelevant. I do this by being in the moment and improvising. I have no idea what the answer to this questions is… that’s the point of wondering. An excellent wonder question creates a space where something unknown to me can emerge.

Shortly after I began wondering about this lots of spontaneously enjoyable things began to happen. A new friend and I found lots of time to hang out after months of trying to plan a get together. After months of trying to find a date to perform together, an improv peer and I spontaneously got to go on stage together. Things that I hadn’t even known I wanted started presenting themselves along with all the means and support to do them. You probably know what it’s like to have things spontaneously work out. Deeply satisfying.

My old story still lingers though. Stories tend to repeat – especially either-or, black or white stories – when I’m scared. Am I scared of space? I didn’t think so, but if I look at the result – my calendar – I see that I’m fleeing opportunities to create space. I tell myself that nothing happens in space, that I don’t get closer to what I want, to mastering improv. Interesting. I started this blog saying that we need space to improvise. This is a reminder that I can know something intellectually, but until I disrupt my old story and make space inside me for something new, I won’t actually embody it.

My new possibility is that part of my journey to mastering improv includes practicing creating space – anywhere in my life. I wonder how space catalyzes the mastery of anything we’re practicing?

What is your relationship with space and time? What stories do you tell yourself about them? I invite you to wonder and question any story that has a flavor of either-or, black or white, or “rock and a hard place”. Find what makes you feel spacious and practice that.

If you want to experience how improv can cultivate space in your life, check out my upcoming events on my homepage. We gather monthly to practice presence and connect through play in our free drop in class. Beginning in February we’ll use spacious wonder questions as inspiration for our Improvising With Life Lab monthly series. In the Lab, we ask big life questions and then play with them through improv exercises and mind-body centering practices. Register for all four Improvising With Life Labs by February 9th, 2020 and receive a discount, or drop into each individually.