…my student loans.
…my to-do list.
…the ups and downs of my business.
…my broken cable box.
…the instruction manual for assembling this bike.
Because having an emotional relationship with material conditions, tasks and objects is a bit like dating a toaster. Because they’re tasks, responsibilities, phenomena that need thoughtful sorting of the “what can I control and what can I not control” variety. Because it’s adding a level of complexity and drama to things that are already objectively challenging.
But my [fill in the blank] is emotional!
Yes, traffic sucks. And an IRS audit can be scary. And getting laid off from work is no joke. I wouldn’t begin to propose that we should (or could–sorry folks) flip a switch and make the emotionality of these experiences go away. I actually wouldn’t even recommend it. All kinds of experiences in life are emotional. We’re emotional beings, after all. On some level, nearly everything is emotional and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
When I talk with my NYC therapy patients about creating a healthier relationship with these material conditions, tasks, responsibilities, etc., what I work to help them do is not trick themselves into thinking that the emotions are particularly useful in getting things done, to help them see that emotions don’t offer much by way of guidance, and ought not be be front and center as we work to take on the already challenging task of building a business, navigating the NYC subway system, installing a new lamp in the kitchen or making plans for what our next move will be should be if we get laid off. Of COURSE these things will be emotional, but that doesn’t mean we’re all determined to have those emotions take over.
Breaking up with emotional relationships
If getting rid of emotions isn’t an option then how to do get out of these emotional relationships?
The first step is to recognize you’re doing it and to recognize that this could be done in another way. So often we perform in the world in particular ways while it never occurs to us that their could be any other way. Many of us grew up surrounded by people with unhealthy relationships with traffic. Your parents, perhaps, but also other drivers. Even the traffic update on the morning news is filled with statements like, “There are going to be a lot of headaches on I-46,” or “Get ready for a stressful evening commute.”
The assumption most of us carry is that moving through heavy traffic simply is stressful: My car is green, my name is George, today is Tuesday, and traffic is stressful.
Wait a minute! Before you run away, let me make my point: I get it. Traffic sucks. Agreed. BUT it isn’t the traffic that’s stressful. Traffic can’t create stress. Stress is something human beings create. What’s so important about that is it means we have a choice!
Just walk away
It can be hard to end a long, unhealthy relationship, but sometimes it just needs to be done.
1. As I’ve said, you’ve got to recognize that the emotionality is something we bring, that doesn’t live deep inside these material, objective parts of our lives.
2. That means we have a choice. We can’t likely change traffic, or affect the hiring and firing decisions of our employer, but we can make choices in how we’re going to face those circumstances and how we’re going to handle the inevitable emotionality of them.
3. Acceptance, acceptance, acceptance: It’s just critical that we work to accept that what is happening is happening (“There’s traffic on this road I just turned onto.”), accept that we have the control over things that we have, and only that much. (“I can’t influence whether or not this package arrives today, before my meeting.”) Acceptance is painful, but there’s opportunity on the other side. Once we accept what is and what we can’t control, we can focus more clearly on what we can control and, most importantly, how we want to face what’s happening.
4. Ask “How do I want to face this unfortunate situation.” Do you really want to get tense, curse to yourself and pound the dashboard? Believe it or not, you have a choice.
You have a choice.
5. Practice. A lot. Think of it this way: You’ve had an entire lifetime, surrounded by “role models” (unhealthy as they may at times have been), to practice constructing emotional relationships with all sorts of things. If you’re struggling to turn that around, don’t assume that’s just because you’re incapable. Like any new habit, it’s going to take some persistence.
Emotions aren’t optional. Having them shape the decisions we make about how to navigate the challenging tasks of our lives is.
I’d love to hear how this goes.