I think we all know, intuitively at least, that being hardened against our own feelings has a major impact on our life. It could be that we believe we can achieve more if our feelings don't get in the way—and I wouldn't disagree with that. But then achievement is our goal—not living well.
If engaging life in order to live with our hearts open is important to us, we also intuitively know we are taking a risk. Some of the time, living this way will involve pain and disappointment. And the courage and hope to carry on might be a challenge. But when we consider the alternative and the long run of life ahead of us, living in an emotional desert seems like a travesty.
I like the wisdom of Dr. Gordon Neufeld who says we can't reach our full potential without the gift of "feelingfulness." If we cut short our feelings, we cut down our aptitude for living well. And you don't need to be a genius to see—a life without feelings is just not we all dreamed of as a child. Not worthy of "us"--it is not a place that humans yearn for. When we pay attention to our deepest dreams and longings, they will take us to a place where we love and are loved well. And we need our feelings, our feelingfulness, for that.
But where do you start if you have fallen into habits of ignoring emotions because they were too big to face, too risky for their vulnerable aspects? Or if you got into the habit of filling your life with "doings"...but now you feel called to some growth in "being"? —starting with being with yourself.
We need our feelings to come out from behind walls we put up to help us cope, many of us. Those walls are usually a little hard—sturdy, strong, protective. We put them there to shield ourselves in times when we didn't feel safe. Our feelings (emotions) were safer—for a while. But now it is time to engage with our deeper, inner self. Time to find our "soft" feelings, which have been carefully guarded behind those walls.
Here is how I use "soft"--SOFT—as an acronym. Each stage that I describe here is more complex than this. But let's start today with a basic summary. What does each letter in SOFT represent and how can we use this to reach inside and become more aware of our inner world.
S-Sensations. (Somatic emotion if you are familiar with that term already.) Our emotions spring from our preverbal brain and they activate our whole body, not just our mind. The easiest ones to identify are often those that come from our alarm instincts—our fight, flight, freeze responses when there is danger to consider. But this is also true for our emotional responses to other instinctual things, such as frustration or our inner longing to belong. (Like I said, too much for this summary.)
With this word, "sensations," you want to start to explore your emotions by paying attention to where the messages got stored in your body. Start by being aware that there are things that make you anxious or frustrated (or both) and look for the way your body signals this to you. Is there tension or turmoil in your upper body—shoulders, throat, neck? How about in your inner organs—does your heart race or your stomach churn? Or do you feel like running away—is there some message in your legs?
These sensations come usually quite quickly and throw off your "thinking brain"—so you don't stop and say "hey, I suddenly feel anxious—why do I have this urge to run...or fight...or like I am frozen?" Literally, you may feel like throwing something—your arm muscles will be primed and ready to protect you by throwing a punch or a rock. Listen to these sensations, they are signalling to you that an emotion has been activated.
O—Outcome or Outburst. If you are already good at processing emotion, or if you have a less sensitive brain, you might skip this one—but for those of us who struggle with big emotions, there is some kind of action that we know helps us "blow off steam"—get rid of the emotional sensations. It works for a while but in the long-run we want something more meaningful, more satisfying. As I mentioned, throwing something feels like a good idea for me—when I am anxious and frustrated in combination, I throw stuff. I often also feel like throwing up if I really pay attention to what my stomach is feeling. At those times, I often yell at someone. Both of these might help release the pressure of that feeling but don't actually resolve anything.
There is another option. We can listen to our sensations and note what they are telling us or prompting in our body and we can stop and search for a name for what is going on. Yes, this is the next letter in SOFT.
F—Feelings. Feelings are a more refined version of our emotions. They are the conscious version, the named rendering of the raw "reactive" part we started with. In this version, where we name our emotions and call them a feeling, we start to have a relationship with our own self. We begin the journey toward our conscious awareness of how we respond and we also begin our journey toward processing those emotions, making choices that we are more satisfied with. This is a journey that will take years to explore because feelings are not simple. But starting with a basic name—sadness, frustration, fear, isolation, worthlessness—starting here will help. Once you are more familiar with more words for your feelings you will get better at this.
All this reflection is part of our cognitive work—our thinking brain. And you guessed it, we have come to the SOFT "T". Maybe I should be a bit quirky and let it be SOFTT, because there are two parts to the T. But I don't like the look of SOFTT. So here is T in two parts.
T—Thoughts. The easier part of this is to identify what you tend to think of yourself when you consider the feelings you have. (See how you have stopped the raw emotion and are now reflecting on the feeling? This is a good thing!) Do you think something like "I'm a loser." or "I did it again. I hate that"? Do your feelings and emotions generate a negative thought about yourself?
Take time to consider where your thoughts have been taking you, because most of us do this, usually without realizing it. It isn't that hard to consider what you would like someone to say to you or what you would say to a friend in this situation. Come up with a few (or even just one) simple statements that you would like to "hear"—even from yourself. Make it your business to change what you say to yourself when you have a chance to consider your emotional, inner landscape. Say things like "You matter." or "I am worthy." Experiment and find the most helpful ways to talk to yourself.
The second part of the "T" is more complex. It has to do with allowing yourself to fully experience two differing thoughts at the same time. You can allow yourself the freedom to be mad as a nutty hatter at something when you know how this works. And at the same time, you tell yourself "On the other hand"....and you bring those two thoughts together in something called "tempering"—the original meaning of "temper"—to put two metals together to make them stronger. Temper your thoughts about your feelings.
"On the one hand I am really angry at my boss for putting me in my place in that meeting and telling me to stop pushing for human rights. That makes me just mad! On the other hand, he has the power to fire me so I need to find ways to speak respectfully—modelling the kind of respect I want from him—so that I can move forward with the agenda I feel is clearly needed to improve the morale at work. I can do this—it just might take a little longer."
Do you hear how I'm speaking to myself in this, giving a generous space for the anger but not leaving myself to the single perspective. The "other hand"—the second perspective is what gives me the reflective power for self-control. It also gives me the values I live by—respect and justice. It may even give me compassion and empathy—if I consider other thoughts on my boss and what he may be exhibiting in his behaviour. I may even come to see that I challenged him too openly, too hard, went after something with so much force that he reacted....it is a whole different way of thinking about what's going on. The one hand is all about space for me—my feelings, my reactions. The other hand is all about space for another perspective.
This last piece on "tempering" comes from the work of Dr. Gordon Neufeld who calls this the integrative process and says it is one of three things that creates emotional maturity as we develop. There is so much more that could be said here. I've already taken too long to say all this.
So let me close with this. This last T (tempering), for me, was a game changer. When I allowed myself the "first hand" and acknowledged that I would benefit from a generous space for those reactions and big emotions and feelings, I took leaps forward in my inner world. At first my "second hand" was simply that I was an adult, but it didn't take long to find and develop other things to put into the second hand. And there is nothing substandard about being in that second hand—that is where our values live. Because of that, the two work together for a much more fulfilling life.
I hope you find some game-changers in this for you, too.
Watch for more about SOFT in coming blogs. This is just the beginning!
Love grows in some pretty ugly places. In the mud and clay and even the sand in some deserts, you will find seeds sprouting and growing. Even in places where there is almost no other beauty, seeds will grow. Give them warmth and water and a little attention and they may even flourish.
We sometimes forget that the same is true in our lives. We think love always grows in beauty—in the fine soil of a fertilized garden, in the tidy rows that are arranged, tended, and pruned there.
But no, life is messy and humans are predictably broken. Only a few are not messy at least every once in a while, and they are probably just not aware of how muddled up they can be...
But that isn't even the point of today's thoughts. Today my focus is stronger, more concentrated than the idea that love grows in messy, mucky places.
Sometimes the BEST growth takes place in those places. Sometimes love grows BECAUSE things are not great. Sometimes we have to stop and reassess and decide that love is worth it. And that is when it grows best—when we intentionally give it the warmth and nourishment from deliberate effort.
People get into trouble. Kids, teenagers, adults...we all mess up. When someone loves us in our mess, we know it.
If in the mess, in the disappointment, in the misunderstandings, we choose to say—even though this is not what I thought it would be or hoped for, I choose to love you. And if in this moment I can clearly convey that you matter to me—just you, not your achievement or the happiness you give me or the life we have dreamed of creating together. Not all that. But you. Just you, you matter.
If in a moment of a muddy, messy, rainstorm in a garden that is begging to be weeded—if I can say, "Yes, you matter to me." Then yes, this is where love is growing in our lives.
Love grows in the opening spaces of Spring! Yes, of course it does—after a winter of being unseen, at rest, in quiet and waiting...anything and everything that will grow comes alive.
But did you know that some leaves that look dead in winter, that loose all their moisture and lie flat to the ground, are actually dormant but not dead.
Just like a caterpillar that has gone into a cocoon and slowly changes, these leaves adapt and lie under the snow—looking dead. You can strip them off the plant and there will be all new growth. But you can also watch and see them come back to green and be alive under the generous gift of the warming sun.
Humans are not so different. You may have come across someone who seems unable to engage in the trust it takes to be truly a friend. But don't give up—love grows here, too. Here where trust has been broken and hurt has covered a tender shoot, there is hope.
Go back to the beginning of how things were supposed to work and offer food, safety and "glad eyes"—eyes that say "you matter to me." Find things you both laugh at, and engage with shared humour. Find something you both love to drink (coffee) or eat—chocolate? And make those a habit of sharing time and slowly savouring the good flavours. Share favourite movies, a place you love to walk—pointing out how your senses give you delight with the song of the birds, or the shape of the trees. You get it, right? I'm just priming here, not giving you instructions...
If there were absolutely no roots ever planted, this might be a long, hard, not-very-satisfying uphill journey. But if ever this soul had someone who cared, you are nurturing those brain pathways of trust.
And love will live again. Love is the strongest force in the universe. We need to cultivate it, provide good conditions, be patient, watch for the season.
Wherever you are, above all else: believe. Love grows here.
Love grows in the places between the earth beneath our feet and the sky above our heads—where we dream and hope and wish for things. We think of this "in between"—the places in our imagination—as not quite real. Or, at least, not as real as the food we eat and the shoes we walk in.
But dreaming is real. And we need our wishes and our dreams to keep us gardening souls, growing love. We need to nurture hope for our children and their children and the future they will have. We do that in our inner world, when we "see" with our vision, our capacity for opportunity and our yearning for ideals.
The best future we can give our nearest-dearest ones is the one where they look back and have not a whiff of a question that they were loved for who they are. We give them that today.
So dream of a good tomorrow and next year and distant future for those who belong in your circle of connection. See them with eyes that acknowledge them as your most valued treasure—even when that is hard.
Because you have eyes to see the future if you look inward and then turn that vision out toward the horizon. And what hovers there ahead, maybe even years from now, is built on what you choose today.
Choose to grow love. It lasts forever.
Happy Valentine's Day and Month to all of you, even if it is long gone! We don't need a special holiday in order to do something to nurture love. In fact, love is more likely to be growing in the mundane of every day life—it's just that it is so slow that you won't notice its growth much of the time.
Love grows in the every day of the mundane day after day. Nothing like a pandemic to remind us that we live in a string of days...sometimes feeling like the fog is setting in.
But here in these days of everything-normal-and-nothing-exciting...here is where we choose to value our circle of connection, our family of belonging.
And we can make even the most ordinary day feel special for someone else (who is probably caught in the fog, too) with a few simple expressions of delight.
A cup of something they love—coffee with whipped cream? Delivered with a smile and "I hope you wanted one of these." Or a box of macarons because "I know you love these." Or a new sweater—"I wanted you to feel cozy."
Or for some, it means even more if you say, "It's too cold to walk, so could we go for a drive today? I want to spend some time together."
Growing love is not difficult. But even the simplest of things can be a bit hard.
Rise to the challenge, and grow some love in your circle of life today. It's a great day for love to grow—we will beat this Covid test. And it will be a good memory if we look back and see that it was a time when we cultivated love.
Make today a Holy Day—make sure someone you love feels your presence, knows you see them, "gets" the message. They matter. Love matters.
It's the month of love—a good time to celebrate love...for a very simple reason. It deserves to be celebrated!
It's a good time to cultivate love, because it doesn't just grow on its own—we need to take some initiative and tend it the way we do our garden treasures. If you want to grow roses, you plant them where they get sunshine in good doses, water in small but continuous doses, and protection from the winter cold.
Relationships are much the same—only, don't you think that they deserve more attention, more time, more resources than your lovely flowers? Of course, flowers deserve a place in the sun! I love flowers (you know it). But relationships are the growing buds, the luscious blooms, the delicate petals of meaning that we tend to in our daily lives—if we want something of sustained and satisfying beauty to fill our souls.
You grow love much the same way you grow roses—protect it from harsh doses of judgmental coldness...provide plenty of warmth and delight...and make sure there is acknowledgement of value...a slow steady stream is helpful! Relationships that get the same kind of understanding and the diligent eye of provision from a "people gardener" are just as likely to become beautiful with blossoming buds as the roses we care for in our front yard.
Love grows nearly anywhere if it gets a good start and a continuous supply of nurturing kindness.
There are places on this earth that don't sustain a growing garden. Too much extreme cold, not enough light, bad soil...the list is a sorrowful one for gardeners. But some soils, some places, don't sustain growth.
Not true of love. You can always grow love where you plant it. The love that you nourish with your protective instincts, those seeds that you cover with warmth and delight—they will grow.
If there is a stubborn refusal in someone in your circle of human connection that discredits your offering of love, you may question whether it is worth the effort. And there is a time to walk away.
But when we are talking about the vulnerable ones who need our secure and safe acknowlegment of value...don't doubt the work of your kindness and nurture. Don't question that it will grow into something beautiful.
You may not be able to see the love that is growing, but your kindness, your steadfast commitment to be present and to see the ones who are most forgotten—that too is love.
And while those seeds are germinating and sprouting there is a truth in the power of love. Nothing has more power than love. If you give it away with honest integrity, it will have an impact.
Don't give up. Even in the hardest places, love grows. And makes a difference.
Love grows in the quiet, cold season of winter. The sun goes down early and gets up late and nights are long and dark. It is not a season of growth—or is it?
According to the mystics (St. John of the Cross to be specific), this season of darkness (and cold and sometimes hopelessness) is when roots grow deeper. We dig down into what is of value and hang on to it.
And that includes love. Love grows deeper and stronger when you hang on through the tough days. When you value that significant person you have linked your life to...even though it doesn't feel like fun-in-the-sun-good-times.
If you are loving someone through a dark spot of depression, illness, grief or pain (physical or emotional) you are not just hanging on. You are growing love.
And here's the best news...you are growing love for them: covering them with the beauty of white crystals that catch the light. But you are also growing love for yourself. You are equally filling your own soul with a bigger space for what matters most.
Love. Love matters.
Growing love is sometimes hard work. But always worth it.
Love grows everywhere and anywhere it is planted and tended. What does that mean? It means we have endless numbers of ways to plant love—to value our belief that connection to each other is worth more than any other single things we do in this lifetime. And it means we have to provide the conditions for those seeds to grow. We choose what we value...and then we have to value seeds we have planted and make sure they get nourished...with time, attention, protection, consideration and care.
If you care about someone (value them) and they don't feel cared for, they need MORE of the conditions that will grow the seeds of love. You may think you have done enough...but that isn't the standard of care that works. Care means the other person feels your care. You may think you are protecting them, but they need to feel safe. When they feel safe and cared for, you have provided the conditions for love to grow.
Love grows in the peaks and valleys—the ups and downs—both. When you get that life is rocky and hard and has surprises that are sometimes good and sometimes challenging...and when you determine that through those valleys you will be reliable in this one thing—connection— then love grows.
Make that commitment to this day: love grows here. Whether it is a great day or a day of obstacles, choose the pathway of connection—see the people you love with eyes that acknowledge and delight in them. Be a protector, be a safe place. And provide conditions that offer comfort and safety in answer to their fears and frustrations.
And love will grow.
Have you ever noticed what makes it easy for you to do your best—to live at your most optimal, joyous, even most productive self?
Or, conversely, have you ever been in a job where one of your struggles is that you know you are not “performing”…or even existing…as the best of who you are, or could be? Why is that? What are the influences…?
Here is a theory—test it out on yourself or someone close by. A loved one who may benefit from being encouraged.
The theory is that we mature into our best self when those around us take delight in us. (I want to give credit to whoever noticed this—I got the info from Dr. Gordon Neufeld, but there were also researchers who studied this, if I remember correctly. Can’t find sources, but Kudos to whoever thought to study this).
So let’s just go with our own gut instincts on this. Do you do better when people take delight in you?
(Me? Yes. And when I dig deep, I want to know not just that there is One who delights in me, but I want to feel and see and “know”—experience—that delight.)
But let’s get back to that “test the theory” moment I had just a few words back. Here is a challenge for you today. Choose someone you love, but who may appear to be struggling…not quite living in their optimal self.
Do not TALK about delight (don’t even use the word)…but find three or four ways to express your delight. How you greet them in the morning…how much time you take to sit down beside them and listen…a hug if they like hugs, a tickle if that makes them laugh…a new game to play together…or sing them a song that you love, and dance. If you manage to make them laugh, so much the better. OR, go a step further. Do something that they like to do but you just barely tolerate—make a lego creation, play an online game, watch a movie that isn’t your cup of tea. Choose to be present to this person, engaged in their day, with your delight in being with them—seeing them for who they are, knowing that they are a gift. Because they are. Each human is essentially a gift.
Take a whole day if you can! Dedicate it to delight. Give the gift of delight generously. Supersize it…give even more delight if something goes wrong. Hold onto your tongue if they are 3 years old and just poured a $50 bottle of face cream down the drain—yup, it happened (to me!) (The face cream was a gift. You get the picture!)
You do get to say that is sad (and maybe even cry a little so you can get back to the test). But if they can come out of the test with the knowledge that pouring cream down the drain is not okay, but nothing has been damaged in the love department where delight is “produced” (born is a better word, probably…)
If delight can stay intact even through the tough stuff: You win. Your human “test” wins. Love wins.
Basically everyone wins. And I think, if you are watching, you will see the best coming out in the human you chose to invite into your experiment of this theory.
Humans flourish when they have roots that have been established in delight.
I think that is the original design of “us”—as humans—and I love that it still works even after centuries of being mis-handled (or neglected, or squeezed out).
Oh, and when your experiment day is over, don’t forget to start it again tomorrow…(and don’t miss how good it made you feel, too).
I write on how humans develop and grow through challenges we face. I've divided this into three categories--Growing Love is about relationships and how we create conditions for growth despite the inevitable challenges. Cloudburst is about grief, specifically—which is a tricky topic. We need to keep growing but pushing is the opposite of helpful. And in Dancing on Hot Sand I talk about personal inner growth in hard places—spiritual growth, without sounding religious, I hope.