Cultivating Your Emotional Landscape
We have had a ton of rain this winter and spring here in Canberra, Australia, where I live. It’s such a blessing on so many levels, especially after all the dry and the bushfire season we had during our 2019-2020 summer. After the heartfelt thanks and gratitude, however, has come the garden weed rave in response. Not a get-together…not a meeting…not even a party. This season has been an honest-to-goodness weed-a-palooza! And I am the post-event clean-up crew. Except that this is an event that keeps on happening!
While I'm figuring out how to ditch my garden waste, it seemed only fitting that we consider we can better tend to our inner, emotional landscape.
But wait. Why is this important? The past couple of years—marked by climate change disasters, political upheaval, economic uncertainty, not to mention a global pandemic’s invasion of sickness and death—have tested us all as humans, heightened our flight or fight response, limited our lives, and made being high-performance that much harder. The first way we experience this? Emotionally. That’s because (a) our brains are wired to detect threat - and we have that in spades right now, and (b) because our brains process emotions first, thoughts second. Especially under conditions of stress, uncertainty, and change. Like it or not, our emotions are being triggered. Left, right, center.
Yet, so many of us struggle with even the idea of emotion, much less with our emotions. Which is not only a shame but inexcusable, when you think about it since they are such an integral part of our human experience.
To be fair, the sticking point, for most of us, is in the area of negative emotions - those emotions whose existence is usually paired with pain, suffering, a not-wanting-ness, and a lack of control over the experience. Heck, with all that going for our negative emotional experience, what’s not to like? :)
For some of us, this emotional “reticence” is part of our make-up. There is a portion of the human population who really seem to think more, feel less. I’d happily wager, however, that for the rest of us, this propensity has been baked-in over time through our own experience, or, as I have written about in other newsletters, been taught to us through marinating in our work cultures.
Whatever the case, to deny our emotions and related parts of our existence deprives us of some essential knowledge and wisdom, if we just listen. What we used to downplay as unreliable or not worth our time—our intuition or “gut instincts,” for example —is now being seen by science as a valuable and legitimate source of inner feedback. These developments are also part of a larger journey—of accepting every part of who we are, not just the stuff we prefer or think is worthy—which brings us the kind of happiness that sustains our biggest and best journeys and [spoiler alert!] underpins our grit.
So it’s damned important. And here's the first step to becoming a better landscaper of your own emotional experience—by listening.
Welcome It All. This attitude can seem to contradict what I said in my opening paragraph, which certainly suggested that some plants were less welcome than others. The weeds, dammit! Get rid of the weeds! In reality, however, any gardener will tell you that there’s an irony inherent in any patch of cultivated ground. The stuff you don’t want to grow there will find its way in…over and over again. And the stuff you want there will, at times, make periodic breaks for freedom, or worse, harbor a persistent death wish. Gardening is not an endpoint, but a never-ending process of cheerful maintenance in the face of these off-putting and often messy realities.
This same message applies to the landscape of our minds. First, our minds are thought machines, pumping out, by some estimates, up to fifty thousand thoughts A DAY. There ain’t no getting out ahead of all that weeding! Intertwined with our thinking is our emotional experience, sometimes growing out of, sometimes seeding our thoughts. Whether we attempt to nurture or scorch-earth hack, our thoughts and emotions are natural and part of our landscape. We tend to get into the most emotional trouble when we attempt to deny, control, or “weed out” some of this landscape. When we fight our thoughts or emotions, their very nature is to fight back, to defend their right to exist.
The move here? Listen to what’s happening—and allow for its right to exist. It’s here already, after all.
I generally find that we are okay with allowing the nice, positive, cool stuff to take up residence. You know, those thoughts and feelings that seem to fill your mojo cup, the ones that make the day a pleasure, that prompt you to get to training or work with a smile on your face, or spontaneously hug your mother…or your kids. Or both. :)
Where listening and allowing really pays off (because we tend to do it so much less and therefore can learn so much!) is when you can sit with the stuff that’s maybe heavy or muddy. Rather than ignoring it, denying it, or soldiering on regardless. This kind of listening doesn’t have to take long—though when things are tough, you may have to repeat the listening application. But it does involve an actual welcoming - the idea that even the hard, heavy, or muddy thoughts and feelings have a right to exist. Ever tried to eradicate a bed of dandelions? They do not go quietly…nor will the stuff you don’t want to think about JUST because you don’t like it.
When I say “listen,” I mean it. Sit down. Take a few breaths, and tune in. Generally, at first, there may be some diffuse sensations…and maybe some chatter in your head about how awful or stupid this is. Don’t dispute the chatter’s right to exist, but resist the urge to buy into it, either. As the Beatles would say, “Let It Be.” Notice where in the body you feel it. What the sensation is like. Texture? Colour? What’s hard to be with and wants your attention? What difficult or painful beliefs, if any, are coming up? If things are painful, can you acknowledge that this is hard in a self-supportive way? And finally, what if anything has shifted or changed as a result of this experience?
Mind Your Own Damned Garden! Squeezing every last drop out of this metaphor, there’s nothing a gardener hates more than a neighbor who doesn’t take care of theirs. Their weeds become my weeds. Their fence sags into my yard under the weight of their unpruned bushes.
In that spirit of owning up to my own landscaping woes, I’ll fess up. I know I’m not only a lead-with-my-emotions-first kind of girl AND a child of the 60s (you know, back in the days when emotions were cool, and something to just let hang out…), but I, too, have had some epic battles of late with my own emotional landscape. Here’s my story.
I have been focused on my own anticipatory grief around my aging father as he (euphemistically speaking) heads down the off-ramp of life at the ripe old age of 90. Turns out that dying is an inexact science at best, but the reality is sinking in that my dad is--increasingly--sleeping more and eating less these days. And this is what bodies, do, isn’t it? They start shutting down and then they stop.
Anticipating the obvious, that Dad would not live forever, I had long ago decided, since I am too far away to be with him regularly (he lives in the USA), that I would shore up our relationship by reaching out more often. Now, we talk daily. I also have an actual plane ticket, one of the few available for international travel, which is the good news, along with the necessary exemption, vaccinations, and a planned covid test. The existential uncertainty is whether my late November trip will get me there in time. So every phone call now is fraught with my assessment of how Dad sounds, and my ambivalence around how much to encourage him to stay alive while also being aware that I’m asking him to do something more or less out of his control.
Did I mention anticipatory grief? My grief comes in waves. Sometimes I take my own advice and let it be. Other times, particularly if grief hasn’t made a visit in a while and I’m busy doing, I’ll just get irritated and impatient. This past weekend, I realized that I was using gardening as a form of grief-induced self-punishment—weeding until my back gave out—and mindlessly hitting the white wine, as if I was already at the wake and drinking to him. Except all by myself.
What ended up saving me was taking some real time, listening to a meditation about grief that had arrived in my inbox that day—can you say karma? And basically bawling my eyes out. Bawling out the guilt, the anguish, and the fear that I’m not going to make it home in time.
Two things I learned. First: grief does this. It comes in waves. And stopping them is as fruitless as fighting gravity. Moreover, expressing it has a purpose. I have since learned that many of us have forgotten how to grieve. That in some cultures, professional "wailers" are imported to funerals to help people relearn that normal emotional expression and release that comes with grief. Second: the mindless, sometimes hurtful actions we take instead of emoting? See them not as a source of weakness or something to punish ourselves for (grieving a loss—even one that hasn’t happened yet—is hard enough). See them, instead, as the signs they are, signs that grief needs to be welcomed in. With gentleness, not anger. And as natural as anything else in life.
Just like what we do—when we are our best gardener selves—when the rains bring the weeds. Less railing about or denying the inevitable, if annoying, products of a rainy spring And back to the weeding we go.
Thanks for reading, and I welcome your reactions, thoughts, and stories. And emotions too, of course!
P.S. I am re-running my online program called High Performance From the Inside Out. I don't hard-sell my stuff often, if at all, but responses from folks who have been through it have inspired me to put it back out there. I think it's an antidote for the malaise that seems to be gripping so many of us these days, holding us back from our best performer selves, and rendering us that much less effective. The online program starts in March 2023!
P.P. S. In case you missed my main message :), I believe that high performance shouldn't hurt people. I provide individual and group coaching on how to achieve the performance goals you want without hurting yourself or your people in the process. In ways that are healthier, happier, and more sustainable. If you want more information or have questions, you can reach me at email@example.com