When I was 20 years old, I went on a trip with other college kids to spend five weeks in Ecuador. On the part of the trip where we spent two weeks living with an Indian tribe in the Amazon river basin, I got into a debate with another young woman in the expedition.
She was from Brown University and she seemed to navigate the world with an air of intellectual superiority. In this case, she had moved on from the disdain of my friends on the trip who were pursuing English degrees (“what exactly will that teach you?” she’d say), and was expressing pity for the tribe we lived with because their language had primarily words that were related to the life they lived, not the spectrum of life in and out of the jungle.
So I shot back with something I’d heard about a Noam Chomsky study showing that in cultures where their language only has words for light and dark (white or black) as related to color, they still have the ability to identify specific colors. I thought I was proving that we aren’t limited by our language.
Thirty years later I look back at what I remember of this particular conversation with a little bit of a shudder. All that I think I knew at age 20 and was willing to argue about….
Because I’ve found how I’ve been limited by language – not in any way counter to Noam Chomsky who I believe was saying that the ability to think about things not named was possible, but in the practice of actually doing it.
In my family growing up, we didn’t talk about negative emotions. Words like anxiety, depression, dread, loneliness, disconnection – we didn’t talk about any of that. In fact, the only “negative” emotion that I recall that was fair game was “stressed” because it came with an assumption of Protestant productivity.
Then I had kids and somewhere in the wonderful book Brain Rules for Baby by John Medina was the guidance to help kids name emotions as they experience big feelings. Because to name them is to help tame them. And then the book counseled that parents needed to model owning and naming their own emotions. Reading that, I thought, “No way I’m doing that.”
Fortunately for me and my emotional literacy, there are books like Brené Brown’s Atlas of the Heart which maps out 87 different emotions and experiences. Because a few years into this parenting experience and I see how powerful naming emotions is for our human experience. And even though I’m late to the game in both recognizing and talking about these emotions, I’ve found so much goodness in being able to start to parse them now.
Any time I’d climb a big mountain, I used to write out a will. It was a bit silly given that my likelihood of dying on the mountains I was climbing was small but I recognize this now as a way I was trying to curb my anxiety. Now I feel it way more frequently – every time I take my two non-proficient swimmers to a swimming pool, travel any distance far from my kids, or just those days or weeks when I can’t put my finger on the source.
“Anxiety and excitement feel the same, but how we interpret and label them can determine how we experience them.
Even though excitement is described as an energized state of enthusiasm leading up to or during an enjoyable activity, it doesn’t always feel great. We can get the same “coming out of our skin” feeling that we experience when we’re feeling anxious. Similar sensations are labeled “anxiety” when we perceive them negatively and “excitement” when we perceive them positively.”Brené Brown in Atlas of the Heart
I found this information so helpful – because I think I often am both anxious and excited. I feel it in situations that deviate from the norm and/or I don’t have control of, and I flip between the positive and negative interpretations repeatedly.
I came into this world on the light-hearted side and I’ve worked hard to cultivate gratitude. But my lack of language around sadness has led me to grind out life a good deal of the time, all cloaked in a positive spin. When I am not able to spend time alone, get outdoors, experience loss and doubt, and feel the weight of the world on my shoulders, I wither. And still I just push on through. No wonder my dentist made me a night-guard for my teeth years ago because of all the grinding I do.
“I’m not going to tell you that sadness is wonderful and we need it. I’m going to say that sadness is important and we need it. Feeling sad is a normal response to loss or defeat, or even the perception of loss or defeat. To be human is to know sadness. Owning our sadness is courageous and a necessary step to finding our way back to ourselves and each other.”Brené Brown in Atlas of the Heart
When I resist sadness, I resist feeling. ANYTHING. More than that, when I communicate only the positive of my experience, it’s far less relatable.
I can’t tell you how relieved I was to learn what foreboding joy was. I thought the feeling I experience when watching my kids sleep and then flip to “what if I lose them” was a premonition. Until I learned that there’s something called foreboding joy.
“When we lose our tolerance for vulnerability, joy becomes foreboding. No emotion is more frightening than joy, because we believe if we allow ourselves to feel joy, we are inviting disaster. We start dress-rehearsing tragedy in the best moments of our lives in order to stop vulnerability from beating us to the punch. We are terrified of being blindsided by pain, so we practice tragedy and trauma. But there’s a huge cost.
When we push away joy, we squander the goodness that we need to build resilience, strength, and courage.”Brené Brown in Atlas of the Heart
Oh no – something else I need to learn to do better: embrace vulnerability.
Back in the jungles of Ecuador when I was 20 years-old, I was clearly experiencing some defensiveness when engaged in my debate. Another emotion defined in the Atlas of the Heart. Thank goodness I’ve learned that I have so much to learn about this thing called life.
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(featured photo from Pexels)