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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

Feelings: It's Just a Wave

I was sobbing . . . again. There had been so many days of Mt. Vesuvius like eruptions of emotional pain. It was possible my tears had become a type of trigger for my husband. Where was I headed? Was I going to fall back into a deep abyss that would send me to bed again?

“Do you need therapy?” I could hear the concern in his voice.

Then, I felt it pass over me like a wave. It felt like I was just outside the place where the waves broke and crashed onto the sand. The emotions rose up inside of me, then flowed over my body, and vanished into the air.

“Don’t worry,” I said, “It’s just a wave.”

I remember going to the beach as a teen and quickly swimming out to the spot beyond the crashing waves. It was so relaxing to sense the waves rise and fall underneath me. Sometimes I had to dive under the breaking waves to get there, but it was worth it. Therapy felt like that. I had been diving, dodging, and struggling through crashing waves for over two years, but I had finally made it to the spot where my emotions no longer crashed over me in terrifying explosions of pain. The days became more frequent when it was possible for the waves to flow over me. I began to celebrate when I could dry my eyes, and look at my beleaguered husband and say, “It’s just a wave. I’m fine.”

Have you ever tried to go to the beach and stop a wave? Ridiculous you say. Exactly. But we often ask children to try. Instead of allowing the wave to flow over them and dissipate, we tell them to stop crying. We make them stop the wave and this leaves them in the worst possible place where the emotions build and crash on them. When this occurs in explosive ways we then send them to their room to be alone. I did this to my children. All parents have done this. We may need to rethink it.

When I was about nine, my brother took me to the beach for the first time. I didn’t know about waves. I was wading with my back to the ocean when he began gesturing wildly at me to warn me of an approaching wave. Next thing I knew, I was upside down with the sand scraping my knees and face. I was gulping saltwater and thought I was dying. I didn’t. But I did gain a very healthy respect for waves. I also taught myself to ride the waves without drowning in them. I was never afraid of waves because I lived that day and my brother was there when I landed.

In this same way, children have to learn to ride the waves of emotions. The only way to do this is to live through the emotions and realize that even the most frightening waves will subside. It is much better to dive under a crashing wave than allow it to crash on you. There is nothing inherent in sadness, anger, or fear that will annihilate a child, but it feels like it will if the child is not allowed to release the emotions, ride the wave to the other side, and find someone there to care for them. If told not to cry and left alone, it leaves them in the in the spot where the waves crash on them. I knew that place all too well. Because of my trauma, I truly believed that if I allowed myself to feel my emotions, I would die.

From the very beginning of therapy, it was clear that I, as a child, had never been allowed to express or process emotions. My dad was there for me when he could be, but the most important thing was to not cry and bother my mother who had undoubtedly experienced her own trauma and was completely cut off from her emotions. Instead of riding gentle waves, I lived in the place of terrifying crashing waves. I never learned to ride the waves of emotion. I was constantly tossed in the crashing waves of blocked emotions as they churned me end over end.

I lived my life doing everything I could to contain and separate myself from my feelings. My religious upbringing reinforced my distrust for feelings and confirmed the need to push them deeper inside me. "Don't trust your feelings!" Oh I didn't! My abuse had intertwined terror with fear and anger. All the sensations in my body were indistinguishable and terrifying. I ran from them and fought the undertow every day--and in suppressing the feelings that frightened me, I also lost joy. What a tragic loss.

I was very strong. I held back the tsunamis of trauma for 60 years. Sometimes I leaked and occasionally my defenses collapsed, as a terrifying wave crashed on me. This reinforced the need to build my resolve and be even stronger. It wasn't possible to hold back the waves forever—and mighty was the wave that took me down. How much better it would have been if my mother had healed her own emotions, so she could hold me and teach me that the pain would pass like waves as the tears released the trauma from my body.

Instead, she walked away from my tears, and I hid my pain. I held my tears and hated myself when they leaked—until I walked into therapy and cried out a lifetime of pain. My therapist reminded me not to hold my emotions in—that it only made it worse. I learned to get out past where the trauma made my emotions crash on me. I learned to find the place where the waves could simply rise and fall —freely, without constraint.

Then one day, while sitting on the ebb and flow of the emotions of life, I found joy. I realized joy was also a wave. I didn’t need to panic as it faded because it would arrive again. It would be there in a sunset, during a walk with my grandchildren, as I strolled along the water’s edge, and in the laughter of my friends and family. There was really more potential for joy than I ever realized when I rejected the part of me that held my feelings.

Emotions are the ebb and flow of the waves of life. They inform us. They surprise us and sometimes frighten us. It is possible to ride the waves. We need to thank our tears for helping us to stay afloat. We need our tears to help release the pain from our bodies. In the storm, the flood of tears can terrify us and the waves feel as if they will drown us, but they will pass. We must learn, there is peace and joy on the other side of the waves and then we must help our children learn this lesson when they are young. This is the truth we must teach our children, but it first requires each of us to learn to embrace and ride emotional waves.

"I'm fine, it's just a wave."

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