This week in some of the art therapy groups that I run we explored the experience of confrontation. Group members worked with pencils, paints and pastels to visualize the frustration, anger, fear and resentment that is so often associated with conflict. One theme that repeatedly arose was the desire to be heard and understood. It’s both surprising and disheartening to hear how many women have been given the message that their emotions are wrong in some way; that they are over-reacting or for whatever reason, that they “shouldn’t” feel the way they do. This story of invalidation came up again and again. If there is one thing that I would like to impart to those who struggle, it’s that the emotion you experience is as real as the table in front of you or the chair you are sitting on. Would you say that the table “shouldn’t” exist? Or pretend that the chair doesn’t? Even thinking about that, I start to become ungrounded. Why would it be any different with emotion? I like to conceptualize emotion in the same way that I do electricity. It’s not something we see (which is why art therapy is so awesome for giving visual to our emotional experiences) and yet we know it’s always there. The “proof” of electricity is when we hit the switch and the light comes on. The proof of emotion is how we experience it in our bodies. What we do from there is a whole other story (consider the law of physics: energy cannot be destroyed, only transformed). But I just want to encourage you for a moment, to validate your own experience. While our feelings may come from a myriad of influences, it doesn’t matter; what you feel right now is truth, and really, no one can take that away from you – not even if you try to let them.
If there is one thing that I would like to impart most to the people who love and care for those who struggle with mental health issues (and it’s entirely possible that the line here may be blurred as to who is on which side), is that it is incredibly healing for a person to be able to tell his or her truth and feel understood.
Another theme that came up repeatedly in these groups was that a major requirement for conflict resolution is the need to be in conflict with someone who cares enough to work through the conflict with you. I think that one of the major challenges we face as human beings is how difficult it can be to honor and respect differences. Some of us may feel things more intensely, we’re just wired differently – chemically and biologically. It doesn’t make my experience any more or less right or wrong than yours. We’re each adapted for different things. I may have a greater capacity for empathy than you and you may have a greater ability to work through difficult tasks without being thrown off track. Society may suggest that we should value one trait over another, but it doesn’t mean that we have to. And regardless, they’re all values we can each continue to work on within ourselves. Speaking of empathy, it reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend once. She had suggested that she couldn’t understand something that her brother was experiencing, because she had never gone through the situation herself. Her sympathy was there for sure, in the sense that she felt sorry for him, but she was certain that she couldn’t understand him because she had never gone through what he had. I tried to explain that empathy isn’t about having to experience another person’s situation, it’s about the ability to identify with their felt experience. And that can take a little work – it might mean following the thread way, way back before you can both get to a place of understanding. Or it can simply be about accepting that their experience is different and equally as valid and important as yours. Only about 4-5% of the population truly have no capacity for empathy, but for the rest of us, there is an obvious continuum in how we use the empathy we’ve got. Which leads to another point…if you find yourself in conflict with someone who is not willing to do the work of resolution, then the confrontation quickly becomes a matter of safety and boundaries. And if you truly do want to make a difference, start modeling those healthy coping skills, because after all, we’re all in this together.
If you have any desire to become more attuned to your emotions – in order to help yourself and/or others – check out this new app: Insight Timer where you can find 6,661 free guided meditations, music tracks, talks and courses. Offered by big names in the field like Thich Nhat Hanh, Ram Dass, Tara Brach, and even Moby (!) It’s an amalgamation of many different origins and practices – there are even links for discussion and local meet-up groups. Check it out!