What to do when your sense of self is shaken

Recently, something occurred in my life that made me question things as I’d never had to. It’s made me look at who I am, what I will tolerate, and how I communicate my needs and expectations.

It has also turned back on the ruminating machine in my mind, with awful psycho-somatic effects. The stomach is a second brain and reacts to our emotions (ever heard of stress-related irritable bowel syndrome?) and mine has been a wreck.

But I’m not here to write about what happened and the physical effects of emotional stress. I want to talk about how to move through it without minimizing OR wallowing.

Something I talk about with people close to me is how I use writing as a processing tool. It’s such a powerful tool that it’s been suggested to me that I teach this in a workshop setting. I wrote consistently up to, through, and in the aftermath of a divorce and I say with no shred of theatrics that it saved my sanity AND it kept me from getting ill because I wrote the emotions OUT of me instead of letting them sit in my body and fester.

Emotions are big, hairy Yetis. Or they can be if we let them. The reason writing works as a processing tool is that you can take an emotion and put it back in its place. Sometimes it’s as simple as labeling it: I am feeling ____. Other times, it’s helpful to really break things down, peeling back the layers until you get to root hurt. Still other times, it’s helpful to have a framework to work within such as that of poetry.

I use a couple different forms, from a Morning Pages brain dump (this comes from The Artist’s Way and is something that highly successful people like Tim Ferriss do), to direct approach type of writing (taking a thought and expanding it), to poetry. Yes, I write poetry. I’m even a published poet. I use poetry for the really hard stuff though because it forces me to channel whatever it is I’m feeling into something beautiful even if what I’m feeling is ugly.

Words are things. Writing is my way of using words, bending them, crafting them into something I can use. Instead of saying I’m angry, I can use words, syllables, and stanzas to convey the nuances of that anger and in turn, releasing said anger from my body.

There’s one more trick I have up my sleeve though: Stoicism.

Stoicism gets a bad rap as being the absence of emotion when it is anything but. In perhaps overly simple terms, Stoicism is the ability to recognize an emotion and choosing something different.

“You don’t have to turn this into something. It doesn’t have to upset you”. ~ Marcus Aurelius

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.” ~ Victor Frankl

For me, writing and Stoicism go hand in hand. Writing works because I take a Stoic approach. I use it as my tool for choosing something different. I’m not saying it makes everything bad go away. Not at all. What it does do, though, is create space for healing, where my heart stays OPEN instead of closed, hurt, and wallowing in false beliefs.