As I watched the clip of Robin Williams on Johnny Carson, I marveled at his colorful and speedy delivery of stories, impressions and entertainment. He knew the outrageous antics and rapid-fire creativity were his bread and butter, the crowd pleasers, but he also knew to pull back and slow down to thoughtfulness and gentleness. He spoke in his real, sensitive voice every once in a while. He let the crazy-fun mask slip and reveal his intense connection with human-ness. He had to have that connection. How else could he emulate humans so masterfully?
I think many of us know that sensitive piercing of humanity. We walk around daily with a lightning rod connecting our brains with our hearts. We have no choice but to feel profound sadness, madness, glee and empathy. It is our nature to be immersed in emotion. We feel so deeply it aches in our chest sometimes. There’s a price to pay for this gift of being so in tune with what we and others feel.
Intense attunement can exalt or destroy you. For Robin Williams it did both.
The show must go on
I can’t say I’ve experienced long-term severe depression (as Robin did) but I have been consumed by emotions to the point of sleeplessness, anxiety and despair. Recently, I experienced confrontation in a relationship over money. It involved legal action so there was a level of formality to it as well. I feel conflict like a leather strap across bare flesh so this kept me up at night. Conflict by itself is highly threatening to my nervous system but add to it the financial element and I’m definitely at a disadvantage. The currency I trade in involves relationships and feelings not dollars and cents. Despite intense feelings, hours of mental/argument preparation and lack of restorative sleep, I carried on like the proper suburban mom I am, attending back to school events, shopping for school supplies, chatting with other parents and above all keeping it together for my kids’ sake. It was an exhausting performance at times.
As dearly introspective people, we spend a lot of time in our heads. It can be dark and troubling in there. We are keenly aware of our soft and fragile parts. We’ve sat with them in the middle of the night as they shivered with worry. We’ve carefully guarded them with masks of pretending. But sometimes these tender parts seep out and cause us embarrassment or worse, shame. Those moments when we can’t defend our beliefs well or we feel overwhelmed by our family’s needs or we cry when we’re supposed to be confident. Sometimes the darkness swirls within us and consumes us with doubt and isolation. We feel like we are alone on a jetty of less than because we can’t do everything that others can and it’s so hard to ask for help because we should be able to do this, be strong, be happy and make others happy.
In order to keep our heads above water we have to diffuse intense feelings. How to do that?
During the days prior to the big meeting regarding the financial issue, I realized there were certain times when I almost forgot the looming conflict.
What helped me relax and refocus my energy so that I could escape the downward spiral?
1. Supportive friends: I am so fortunate to have kindred spirits as friends. They listened to my worries and frustration and backed me up with love and lightness. They helped me not take things so seriously by saying things like, You know Bren, you could just laugh at this. I needed that reminder, that option to take a step back and go lightly. It helped me disentangle myself from the web of defeating emotions.
2. Preparation: I think many of us sensitive types are highly conscientious perfectionists. We have extreme ideals and strive to live by them. In this case I did extensive leg work by poring over documents, taking notes and asking questions of friends who had been in similar situations. Introverts often have a hard time speaking extemporaneously so I mentally prepared my arguments, ad nauseam. Action dissolves fear — one of my favorite mantras.
3. Exercise/dancing: As has happened countless times over the years, I found myself feeling strong and sexy as I worked out and sweat in my weekly cardio kickboxing/hip-hop class. It’s a sensual class with never-ending variety. Something about being immersed in hot music and letting go of inhibitions. It’s a pleasurable release that makes me feel connected to myself and the others in the studio. The physical pleasure and effort distributes the toxic emotions and their corresponding chemicals. Deeply sensual experiences ground me. They cause an outflowing of emotions but also tether me to the present where everything is fine and beautiful.
4.Expressing: Writing projects are my work.They engage my mind in the most satisfying, meditative way. It’s me spilling on the page. Emotions flowing outward instead of uncomfortably filling my insides. I imagine painters, sculptors, dancers, builders and creators of all kinds feel this wonderful release of energy.
5. Helping:And then there’s the most stunning gift of writing… connecting with and helping others. As my mind churned about the financial friction, I received daily emails and messages from space2live readers thanking me for making them feel understood and not so alone.
All I do is tell my story.
It’s an amazing thing.
It diffuses the darkness for myself and others.
Bring the darkness to light
The tension continues for me regarding the relationship conflict. I suppose there will always be some form of lingering relationship emotion in my life. The trick is to not let it engulf me. The trick is to bring the internal external. Make my specific experience universal. Diffuse the overwhelm with love, labor, creating and helping.
Robin Williams did this. He gave magnificently to his audience, charities and those he loved. He expressed. He connected deeply. In the end a Parkinson’s Disease diagnosis may have exacerbated his depression thus letting the darkness win.
How do you diffuse intense feelings? Have you ever lingered in darkness? What pulled you out?
Robin in happier times connecting with the beautiful spirit of Koko the gorilla.
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