There is a lot of misinformation going around about emotions these days. On one hand you have the rumor circulating that we cannot control how we feel. That we are at the mercy of our emotional reactions and subject to their whims at any given moment. We now know from science that that isn’t exactly true. But on the other end of the spectrum, an equally damning rumor abounds: that everything we feel must be fought, controlled, curated or all is lost. Research into emotional experiences has shown us that both of these sentiments are partly true, but partly wrong. So on one hand: we can’t change and alter our emotional states, and on another hand, we can. How could both be possible? 

Let me see if I can answer that question with a metaphor. A few years ago my family and I were on a trip to a Florida beach. It was May and the sun was out, the sand was white and warm, and the waters were turquoise, gleaming, and lovely. Until something almost tragic happened. This particular beach that we were visiting allowed powered paragliders to use these big fan machines to fly out and back and around the beach. And as one individual was flying in and out and in and out, practicing his take off and landing, his machine went down out a good ways from shore. Watching my daughter build sandcastles, I froze. How could anyone possibly get out there in time to save him, if he was unable to unstrap himself, unable to breathe. 

Fortunately, to my right 2 men took off immediately, diving into the water, seemingly effortlessly making it out to his side and literally pulling him to safety. But it didn’t make any sense. I’d grown up a swimmer most all of my life, how could they possibly have made it out there in time? The distance that they had covered in such a short period of time seemed insurmountable, even for someone who was in great swimming shape.

A few hours later we got to talking with them. It was a dad and a son, both firefighters in the Panama City Beach area. And they told us their secret: they rode the riptide out to his side. “Rode the riptide?” I said, obviously both amazed and perplexed. “Its like using the moving sidewalks at airports…” they said. “But isn’t that incredibly dangerous?” “Of course it is”, they said, “but we had no other choice.” Thankfully, being trained in water search and rescue, they knew everything about riptides and they were able to use them safely to save people’s lives.

It’s a long story. I get it. But give me a few more moments, and you’ll see where I’m taking this.

“People swim unsuspectingly into riptides all the time,” they continued. “They’ll be playing or snorkeling and all of a sudden, something pulls them under. But the key to surviving a riptide,” the younger man began, “is not fighting the riptide. Instead, the key is: giving in. Riding it out.” Over and over he told us stories of people who had come close to drowning, without help, many of who were in excellent shape, who instinctively thought they were capable of fighting the tide. And each and every time they had to be saved by a lifeguard or a local paramedic. “Riptides are too strong for people– no matter how strong you are,” they went on, “they will tire you out and hold you under while you fight them”. “What people don’t know is this: most of them are rather short lived, if you know how to react. The key is to hold your breath, let go, stop fighting, and let the riptide carry you out.” “Eventually it will shoot you out of its path and you can make it to shore from there.”

The moment they said that, something clicked. You see, I had been sitting on this blog post for a while. Trying to find a way to express a very specific sentiment about how we, as individuals, should try to handle strong emotions. And when he said that: I knew I’d found it.

You see, many of us treat our emotions the same way we treat Riptides. We fight them. We scratch and claw, we cover and conceal, we reframe and pretend we aren’t being sucked under. The problem with that strategy is that struggling against and stuffing emotions doesn’t make them disappear. Just as fighting the current in a riptide can and will leave you stuck in the riptide longer, fighting the emotions we feel can leave us stuck in our emotions longer (cite). And it can drag us down. Repressed emotions can lead to guilt, to shame, to experiences of anxiety and depression (cite). And research shows that repressed emotions can also make us sick: physically (cite). When we simmer in negative emotions our body produces cortisol, an inflammatory stress hormone that is long acting in the body (cite). And, over time, cortisol  wears us down, makes us more susceptible to acute illness, and can even trigger epigenetic changes that increase our risk of chronic illness (Cite). It can pull us down. On the other hand, when we give ourselves to permission to feel our feelings (that doesn’t mean we give ourselves permission to behave however we want in reaction to those feelings), when we give us fighting, and ride it out, we find that we exit the emotions the same way we exit a riptide: relatively quickly (Cite). These emotions can pass through us relatively quickly, and release us out to sea, where we can easily swim back to shore and plant our feet on dry land again. 

And by riding that feeling out, we let it leave, so we can exert control over our feelings again. So we can pull ourselves into a healthier and happier emotional place. 

But, giving in and “riding out” our emotions sounds about as challenging in the moment, as “riding out” a riptide, especially if you’ve spent a lifetime of fearing your feelings. So how do we do it? I’ll tell you in my next blog post, which you can find HERE.