When rivers are left in their natural state, it is normal for them to flood the area around them periodically when heavy rainfall or rapid snow melt exceeds the river's usual capacity. This flooding brings new soil and nutrients to the land that it floods to leave it enriched after the flood waters recede.
This flooding is messy and inconvenient (and sometimes even dangerous), however, and so we seek to control this natural process. We attempt to constrain the water's flow using dams and levees that give us control over river.
This works well until the dams we have built become damaged and fail, loosing all of the contained water at once. Now we have gone from a periodic messy inconvenience to a catastrophe as the resulting wall of water wreaks tremendous damage downstream.
Fortunately, dam failures are rare, and there are safeguards in place to keep them inspected and in good repair.
But we apply this same approach to our emotions, and our inner emotional dams are not nearly so impervious.
Damming our emotions
Just like with rivers, there are times when life's circumstances bring a flood emotion that can be messy and inconvenient. Grief, anger, fear, and pain can sweep away our regular equilibrium at a moment's notice making daily life difficult to navigate.
It's tempting when we see those floodwaters of difficult emotion rising to block them off, dam them up behind inner walls to keep the chaos at bay. It helps keep daily life more manageable.
And yet, this way of coping brings with it two dangers. One is that we lose the richness that a full emotional life brings. Yes, we manage to hide from the intensity of those difficult emotions (for the moment), but we also inadvertently dam up positive emotions with them.
Second, we run the risk of storing up those emotions for so long and in such quantity that the inner dam eventually fails. One too many crises is all it takes to send that whole wave of stored up, unfelt emotion crashing through our lives all at once in a massive wave.
That can go from messy and inconvenient to catastrophic in a hurry.
Even smaller storms of challenging emotions can be enough to cause the dam to overflow in bursts of intense emotion that far exceed the current circumstance because it is powered by so much stored up behind it.
As helpful as building that inner dam feels at the time we are doing it, the short term relief comes at a much steeper price than we bargained for.
Dealing with dammed up emotions
Most of us have at least some dammed up emotions that we have refused to feel and deal with, and it takes time and care to process those in a way that is not destructive.
Therapy can be a good way to begin slowly draining those emotions in a safe, constructive way by working with a professional who can provide guidance in that process. This is especially important if there's a lot stored up behind our inner dams.
For smaller reservoirs of unfaced emotions, however, it may be possible to work through our backlog at a careful pace on our own by releasing manageable amounts from the dam periodically in a way that more closely simulates normal flooding patterns.
These smaller releases can be dealt with in the manner I describe below until we've drained the dam enough to dismantle it.
Facing the floods without a dam
Dealing with our emotional floods as they come along is always messy and inconvenient, but meeting them face-to-face will save us a good deal of heartache in the long run.
Most of us, however, have never been taught how to do this. Our cultural norm leans much more toward stuffing them behind a dam and pretending they don't exist.
If you're willing to begin the process of learning to deal with the normal emotional floods of life more effectively, here are some things that I've found to be useful.
Make space. Even though we may temporarily need to set some of the emotional intensity we are experiencing aside in order to function enough to complete necessary tasks, this kind of intensity requires that we make space in our busy lives to feel it head on. This means creating time to do nothing but deal with the emotional flood and the mess it may leave behind. It may even be helpful to schedule time just for this into your days.
Solitude. Spending time alone can help give you the space you need to feel whatever it is that is coming up without needing to edit it for others. It provides an opening for those emotions to be felt and acknowledged so they can pass on by.
Movement. Walking, hiking, biking, dancing, kayaking, yoga and other movement-based activities can be great ways to help your body move through the emotions that are stored in your tissues and to free yourself to express them in healthier ways.
Writing. Journaling can be a great way to explore the emotions you are feeling to name them and process them. It's a way to sort through the messiness and find the richness on the other side.
Talking it out. Sharing your emotions with supportive loved ones or trained therapists can be another way to process and release the emotions you are feeling. It is important to choose people who are able to listen in a supportive way without attempting to control or invalidate your experience.
Prayer. Expressing your emotions in prayer, in whatever way that works best for you, can be another way to move through the intensity by allowing them to be seen and heard by Someone larger than yourself.
Ritual. Finding ways to express your emotions through ritual can be another way to process and release them. This might involve ritual dancing of the emotions, burning of regrets written on paper, confession and absolution, or other rituals you know or devise to meet your specific need.
Gratitude. Although there is seldom anything to be grateful for in the flooding emotions themselves, watching for the rich nutrients that may be left behind as the floodwaters recede can help to make the flooding itself less painful. Taking time to identify what those emerging benefits, lessons, or skills might be can alleviate some of the unpleasantness of the moment.
Facing our flooding emotions will never be fun. It will always be messy and inconvenient. But it is still easier to deal with the smaller floods of life as they happen than to store them up and face them all at once when the inner dam fails.
Questions to ponder
To what degree do you stuff your emotions behind an inner dam to control them when life's seasonal floods come your way?
What practices do you find helpful to face your difficult emotions? Are there any that you are willing to try to deal with what may be behind your own inner emotional dam?
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