The Emotional Escalator
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“It is both a blessing and a curse to feel everything so very deeply.” – David Jones
Photo by Christian Fregnan on Unsplash
Note: I want to thank my husband for bringing to my attention the fact that the story I begin with is a perfect metaphor for negative emotion. Thanks duckpin!
There’s a deli on the second floor of a high rise building in downtown Boise that I like to grab lunch at on the regular. To get to the deli you can either take an elevator up, or ride the escalator, which is what most people do.
I made my lunch purchase: a summer salad and some chicken to top it. Carrying my to go containers I stepped onto the descending escalator, and looked over to see a good friend passing me on the escalator going up. What happened next could be part of a Mel Brooks or Woody Allen comedy.
I need to stop this
I said her name, and she excitedly said hi. Then it all went wrong. In that moment my brain decided it was a very good idea to try to start climbing up the descending escalator so I could give my friend a hug.
First off, I can not remember another time I’ve ever tried to climb up an escalator, so my brain wasn’t prepared for the disorientation that was about to hit it. As I tried to take a couple steps up, my shins hit the oncoming escalator stairs. I dropped one of the containers of my lunch. (Thankfully the lid stayed on it.) I reached for the railing of the escalator, not considering the fact that it too was moving downward, thus slowly dragging my hand in the wrong direction. This is when I took a tumble to one knee. I seem to remember saying out loud “Oh my god, I need to stop this.”
My poor friend looked on in horror, encouraging me to stop trying, saying “Stop! It’s ok!”
As the escalator carried me down I was able to gather my lunch and myself, and called to my friend I’d text her.
I had a case of the giggles walking back to my office. I couldn’t stop imagining myself finally belly flopping onto the escalator, slowly getting carried down away from my friend, hands outstretched, my lunch splayed out around me.
As funny as this incident was, it’s also a brilliant metaphor for what often happens when a human being starts to feel a negative emotion.
Against the flow
For so many of us, when negative emotion hits our body, we immediately go into habitual triage mode to try and feel better.
Quick, eat a bowl of icecream!
Quick, have a drink!
Quick, check Facebook!
Quick, take a pill!
I could go on, and you likely know what your particular brand of negative emotion poison is.
Like in the moment on the escalator, you’re seeking a turnaround, fast. And just like in that escalator moment, it can seem like suddenly you’re out of control. I realized that what I was trying to do was a bad idea far before my body was ready to recognize that fact as well.
When you feel an emotion you perceive as negative, your pituitary gland has released chemicals into your bloodstream to communicate to your cells that something threatening has happened, and actions need to be taken to fix it. This brilliant system can very easily be hijacked by your animal brain, and a habit loop can be established wherein you avoid the negative emotion with a quick turnaround.
The problem is that those quick turnarounds aren’t usually in your best interest, and you metaphorically end up with bruised shins and the contents of your life splattered all over the place.
Sometimes, the only way to make your way back up is to gracefully allow the entire process down. No, it’s not what feels best in the moment, but in the long term not only have you allowed the processes of your body to fully play out, but you’ve also shown yourself that you are strong enough to handle the negative emotions of your body. (Which by the way, you’ve always been strong enough to handle them because they are a natural part of you. If you don’t believe you can handle them, somebody taught you an incorrect belief about yourself.)
Something else to consider: negative emotions are caused by chemicals, just like positive emotions. Positive emotions feel so good we have no problem allowing those chemicals to process through their entirety. (In fact, we don’t want them to end!)
But we’re so quick to try and change any negative emotion, those chemicals never really get the chance to be fully utilized, or spent in our body. Rather than allowing the emotion to come full circle, we stop it in it’s tracks, so remnants just kind of hang around. If you dam a river, the water doesn’t just disappear. It just finds a different place to be.
This is also a good reminder that our physical body has to work some alchemy in order to create the chemicals of emotion, and there aren’t endless reserves of these chemicals to tap into. Thus, all emotions have a beginning, and all emotions have an end once the chemical is spent. You likely just pay attention to the middle of the process, when you actually feel the chemicals creating emotion.
The bottom line is your body creates emotion as a signal about something you have perceived, and fighting the natural tides of your chemical makeup is pretty much like trying to go up an escalator backwards.
I’d highly recommend you not do either.
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