Have you ever found yourself suddenly awake at three o’clock, exhausted but unable to sleep, rolling over and over in your head what could happen tomorrow? Or maybe you see a call come in from your mother, and you immediately start thinking of all the things she could possibly be calling about before you even pick up the phone. Your thoughts get fuzzy, you feel anxious and unsettled, and would do almost anything to get rid of that feeling.
Anxiety sucks. I’m not going to try and pretend it doesn’t. But, while intense and often overwhelming, anxiety can be a really useful signal that something isn’t feeling right and your nervous system is trying to get you out of a scary situation.
Wait. Not cool! Not cool!!
Unfortunately for your desire to get eight hours of restful sleep, a perceived threat (aka- a worry) is taken by your body as a real threat, and your mind ends up spinning around in circles trying to get one step ahead of the threat. Your brain is trying to help. It says, wouldn’t it be great if you could just “fix” the feeling? Like, if you could just think through every possible scenario, then you won’t ever be surprised, and therefore won’t have to feel… scared, disappointed, angry, or anything else unpleasant. A lot of us try to predict what could happen (and be prepared for every possible scenario) in order to protect ourselves from overwhelming feelings.
Let me put it this way: You’re a survivor, and that’s why you’re here today. So if you’ve been raised to expect an unpredictable environment, you learn to do anything you can do to survive it. Nobody likes being caught off guard or disappointed, and it can be incredibly painful to feel at the whim of the outside world and susceptible to things we can’t control, including other people’s moods and opinions. When you’ve lived through traumatic, unsupportive, or unpredictable life experiences, it makes a lot of sense that you’d want to try and predict so you could protect yourself from (what feels like) certain doom.
Although I wish I could tell you differently, the truth is that so much of what happens to us in our lives is beyond our control. For starters, where we were born, what illnesses and traumas we or our parents and grandparents had, whether we were circumcised or immunized, how tall we are or what color our skin and hair is. There is a lot we can’t control even in places we’re supposed to have mastery, like our relationships and work. I think about a friend of mine who used to work in a restaurant, whom I asked once how he handled unexpected negative interactions with customers.
“Slippery shoulder,” he said, as he gestured with his hand floating down his shoulder. “I just let it go, let it roll off me like water off a duck’s back.” Now, this is a person who prioritized his quality of life and deep, fulfilling relationships. He wasn’t getting those kinds of relationships at work, but the money was good, so every day he balanced what was meeting his needs and what wasn’t. His story got me thinking about how we decide when to hold on and when to let go.
For many people who’ve experienced trauma, the idea of “letting go” seems dangerous. After all, holding on is what’s kept you alive and helped you survive unpleasant and harmful situations. Your ability to hold on to what’s familiar (even when it’s painful), and try and predict outcomes, has probably been able to protect you from chaotic environments and inconsistent relationships. However, like many things we do to protect ourselves, these go-to protections can actually limit our capacity to grow and develop and keep us feeling stuck in the same old patterns.
But that doesn’t stop us from wishing we could control everything. We want to make sense out of the chaos that trauma, loss, and disappointment evokes. If you had parents or early caregivers who were inconsistent, preoccupied, or unable to help you soothe and understand your emotions, you might struggle today with wanting to control your feelings, your environment, and your relationships.
It can feel really hard to know what is within our power to change, and what we don’t have control over. It’s not always the same, either, because sometimes what we can control and what we can’t changes as we become stronger and more skilled at knowing what we need. While it is challenging, the process of learning what to hold on to and what to let go of is not insurmountable, and can actually help you learn a lot about yourself and what you want from your life. It does require a growing tolerance of the harder feelings because those hold as much information about what you need as do the softer ones. We are all different and diverse in experience, thought, need, and belief, and it can be a beautiful (and painful) journey to know yourself. Through community and brave self-exploration, you can learn what boundaries are important to you, and what you are willing and able to take in, and what you need to let go.
For my restaurant server friend, the opinions of any given diner about the temperature of the chicken were less important to him than whether he was making enough money to support his desire to travel. Therefore, slippery shoulder worked for him. He could set a boundary with work and know that his value and worth were not determined by those interactions. But there did come a time for my friend when he realized that the poor treatment he received at work was not worth any kind of money at all. So when he realized he needed something healthier, he left the restaurant world for a different line of work. Like all of us, he is continually learning what is worth holding on to, and what he can give the “slippery shoulder.”
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