A memory of riding my horse through the rainforest has been bugging me for a week or so. When we first moved to Costa Rica, I would do day -long rides and roam the mountains going to some pretty remote places alone. On one ride, I glimpsed an eerie green swamp: still, thick with some sort of day-glo green algae floating on the surface, utterly silent apart from the sound of my horse’s breath. I was creeped out and kicked into a canter and got the hell out of there. Too murky, too still, too lonely. I shuddered at the thought of falling in, I was sure it would swallow me and suck both of us down like quicksand and no one would have any idea where we’d gone.
When those mindfulness people say, pay attention to the feeling, I always think, gah, I’m the loser who has to pay attention to the metaphor. Feeling-words can be so abstract, and when I’m in the thick of a strong current of emotion, I never have any idea if I’m stressed or angry or sad or whatever. I just know I feel like shit. I’m often at a loss when kind friends say ‘how are you feeling?’ Often I can’t answer them in a straightforward sort of way. I imagine myself doing the conversational equivalent of a crab-scuttle sideways into metaphor or anecdote- I often worry I’m coming across as long winded and evasive but the usual categories for feeling are such empty ciphers in comparison. Emotional literacy, at least for me, is parcelled up in the dream-work of fantasy and daydream and poetry. I often don’t know how to name the feeling until I’ve paid attention to the imagery knocking around in my mind. And recently as I wash the dishes or cycle home from work, the phrase is, I feel swamped. Although in real, objective time, I’ve gained some hours- my evenings are free now that therapy has ended and I have a lunch break at work- something I didn’t have when looking after R all day- I feel panic about not being able to fit everything in. I feel swamped, a little claustrophobic, a little lonely, like I might be sucked into the goo. And I think this more a reflection of my internal reality than external circumstances. I am full of ending with my therapist. It’s a well-worn trope, but loss is not emptiness. I experience it as a filling-up, a welling up, a bringing-to-mind and missing. I’m full of him and my own story and I feel very little internal space, very little room to manoeuvre. I feel swamped.
But maybe I’m not the only one who reaches for a power ballad or a book of poetry or memory when I am grappling with a feeling. Play therapists such as Lawrence J. Cohen often talk about how when kids have had a difficult day they don’t ask to talk about it, they ask you to get down on the floor and play with them. Maybe most of us need to scuttle sideways into fantasy and dream in order to produce self-knowledge when we are upset. Maybe its a disservice to ourselves and others when we demand an answer to ‘how are you feeling?’ Maybe a more evocative question would be, what lyrics have been knocking around in your head and what have you been daydreaming?And the beauty of paying attention to metaphor when cultivating emotional literacy is how rich the practice is. If I just stopped at ‘oh I’m a bit stressed’ or ‘well I feel overwhelmed,’ it wouldn’t describe the quality of that psychic state. It wouldn’t convey the texture of the feeling, all the stuff that makes feeling the feels so interesting.
So if I ever ask you, hey how’re you feeling? Ignore me and tell me about the dream you had last week or the line of poetry stuck in your head. I bet we’ll have a much more interesting conversation.
Copyright Diana Smith 2018
Lawrence J. Cohen’s book ‘Playful Parenting’ is a fabulous book and I’ve learned allot about play therapy from his writing