Years of practice have served me well. In many ways, and on multiple occasions, applied Eastern philosophy paired with breath work, disciplined movement and meditation have saved my life; and I don’t say that lightly. I’ve learned to observe my mind with less judgement and engage with my thoughts with compassion to create a kinder and gentler inner world. I know how to access stillness, spaciousness and expansion. I am not this body. I am not these thoughts. I am not the fun house ride of emotions always coming and going. Or am I? What is the noise in there all about? Have I learned to regulate myself or am I over-regulated?

I was working with a client recently facing challenges in his relationship with his long term partner. He is a committed practitioner of mindfulness, yoga, meditation, flow arts and other embodiment practices, and he’s gotten to a place in his own personal growth where he better understands himself, his mind and body, his needs and wants. Concurrent with this inner growth is a growing disconnect with his partner, who sees the world through a different lens. As he attempts to bridge the gap and find a common language through which to share his thoughts and feelings, there’s a growing anxiety. He’s found himself managing his words and censoring his behavior not necessarily to bridge the gap, but to avoid her reactivity or try to manage her response. Sound familiar? I don’t know about you, but I know all about that place. 

Whether you want to describe it as tip-toeing around, walking on eggshells, or actively choosing to deal with one’s own discomfort so as to not have to deal with someone else’s, I am quite familiar with that particular program. It was a survival mechanism when I was a child— and as an adult for that matter— but I’ve continued to cling to that pattern even though it no longer serves me. Intellectually, I know it’s not a sustainable way to engage with the people you care about or live in integrity with yourself. The point at which you know who you are, and can identify your non-negotiable wants and needs, keeping them entirely to yourself isn’t the path to a healthy relationship, nor the key to open and honest communication. But I’m getting a little sidetracked. Let’s go back to emotions.

If any of this sounds familiar to you, you might have felt your throat tighten up as you read this. Or perhaps a pit in your stomach, or ache in your chest. Perhaps your blood pressure went up ever so slightly. If you’ve ever had the experience of knowing what is true for yourself and dodging it to please someone else or avoid their likely (undesirable) reaction, you know it is uncomfortable. And if you, like this client and I, have a practice of some kind, you probably just go in the other room, pull out your embodiment toolkit and Apply The Skills You Know. You find the pause, breathe deeply, move your body, focus on the positive, cultivate gratitude, on and on, and proceed like nothing happened. Wonderful. Right? Well…

There are absolutely times and spaces when and where we need to apply these practices. There are many moments in a day where our ability to regulate our own nervous systems and inner landscapes is appropriate, necessary, helpful, mature, evolved… you get the point. But the more Jungian emotional integration work that I do (and it is HARD work) the more I am beginning to believe that we are over-regulated. Not everyone, and not all of the time. But the point of living in this human suit is not to never be uncomfortable. Discomfort is a great teacher, an advanced warning system, and frankly, just part of the deal. If you’re avoiding it, you’re suppressing, and you’re moving away from and not toward your true Self.

My personal response to those physical cues of discomfort, the source of which is pretty much always fear, is, GET RID OF IT. GET RID OF IT IMMEDIATELY. But the truth is that you can’t get rid of it. In fact, trying to get rid of it is not only a waste of time, but is a form of suppression that requires an incredible amount of energy. Furthermore, it drops you into samskara (past conditioning) that ensures you’ll find yourself right back in this situation again. As Robert Frost put it, “The only way out is through.” Yeah, that. Going through means feeling the thing, attending to the present sensations with curiosity and compassion, and allowing the brilliance of your physical and energetic bodies to digest and process. 

Whether in the course of interacting with another human or simply moving through the course of your day, choosing to not bypass your physical and emotional responses when they arise is an incredible opportunity. When you don’t push those sensations over to the side, you create space for inquiry. “Why, hello, activated nervous system and vomitous sensation in my gut. Thanks for being here. What message do you have for me? I’m wondering what you might need from me. I’m just going to sit here for a spell and get to know you. Because perhaps you have a really important message for me, and I’d like to know what that is.” This is the opposite of regulating it away. It’s inviting it in and engaging with it as the vital, living part of you that it is.

I cannot overstate how difficult this practice is. I cannot tell you the number of times, even knowing better, that I have felt something come alive in me and tamped it down, ran away, or distracted myself to not feel the thing. But the feelings are there to be felt. They are not going away. And, like in the case of this client, the feelings are a messenger that something is off. Whether it’s a truth that needs to be spoken regardless of the reaction, an indication of misalignment with Self or soul, or something else entirely, the feeling isn’t there for no reason. Regulating it away only further embeds that tendency, mis-utilizing vital resources, only to be faced with it again later. Think kettle boiling over. Because in one way or another, that’s the eventual result.

How are you using the tools you know to be the steadier, kinder version of yourself? And how are you perhaps using those same tools to over-regulate, to avoid discomfort? What might open up for you if you paused to sit with the less than comfortable feelings and sensations instead of immediately calling up the calm, steady center in moments when there just might be an essential message waiting for you to notice?