Sitting with Difficult Emotions

Sometimes I delude myself into believing that I’m past the challenges that impacted me in my youth.  Then I’ll notice that I’m being triggered by something unexpected and realize that I still have work to do on acknowledging my unresolved issues. 

These past few weeks have been an example of this. 

I have started telling people about the fact that I’ve decided to retire early, specifically at the end of this school year.  What’s interesting is that sharing this decision is making it feel more real, and the fact that it feels more real is bringing up several unexpected emotions. 

The most dominant emotion I’ve observed is guilt.

I actually don’t feel guilty about leaving my colleagues because I know they are amazing and will be fine with whomever is the new addition to their team.

My guilt is taking a different, and much more surprising, form -- a feeling of unworthiness.  I have noticed the presence of this feeling specifically around the idea of the freedom (and let’s be honest,  happiness) that is associated with this transition from a traditional job to working for myself.  

Now, before you tell me how silly I’m being and that there is no need to feel this way, I must express that I know and I completely agree

In fact, I’ve actually done pretty well with owning my happiness as an adult.  I found an incredible partner whom I met at 18 years old and have been married to for almost 25 years.  I had to do some internal work to “allow” the depth of love and profound joy that he gives me every day.

So, if I’ve gotten relatively adept at allowing happiness into my life, why does this next step of early retirement bring up such difficult emotions? 

I think it is because I come from a lineage focused on hard work, conventional ideas of merit-based success, and the idea that the only way to be safe and okay is to have a secure, steady job. The problematic and pernicious question that comes from these foundational beliefs is this:

Who am I to retire while I’m still in my 40’s?” 

And, truth be told, I’m pissed that this is an issue for me.

I have aggressively saved for retirement and took advantage of opportunities to maximize my pension back in my 20’s because I’m a saver and a planner and realized early how challenging teaching is, even at the start of my career. 

It was all just an abstract idea at the time, and I could not have imagined that I would later find a calling even more compelling than being a public-school educator.  

But here I am, positively besotted with the desire to support my educator colleagues through mindfulness-based self-care while finding myself miraculously positioned with the freedom to do so.

And yet I find that I still need to work on letting go of justifying this decision.  Intellectually, I know I don’t need to feel guilty for the fact that I have the ability to make this choice. But here I am, working through this difficult emotion, and now the only way out is through.

Writing about it and talking about it with friends is one way I’m working through it.  When I describe my experience, it gives it a shape and substance that makes it feel more manageable.

I’m also actively “sitting” with it, both on the cushion and off. 

One of the foundational strategies for mindfully working with difficult emotions is to allow them to be present.  As counter-intuitive as it may seem, the idea is to let go of resisting or denying the emotion and to just let it be without feeding it or empowering it by repeatedly telling its story. 

The metaphor I often use to describe this is to picture yourself sitting on a park bench, and letting the challenging emotion sit on the bench next to you. 

You’re not engaging it in conversation, you’re not giving it your sandwich, you’re just courteously allowing it to occupy the same bench.

So, here I am sitting here with the challenging emotion of guilt sitting next to me.  Some days it feels like there’s not enough room on this bench for the two of us.  Other days I get to sit there alone.

If you are working through challenging emotions, allow them to be present as a way to dis-empower them. And if you can, try to remember to enjoy the view from where you sit.