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The undertow

When you stop trying to change your negative emotions, another kind of change happens that is even more powerful.


During the early months of the pandemic I sometimes had this experience that I call "the undertow." On undertow day things that usually bring me joy are flat, and I have a sense of almost dissociation, as if there’s a kind of screen between me and the world. I used to have it a lot, particularly when I spent time alone. But it’s pretty infrequent since quitting booze, lots of therapy and coaching, and just general happiness. But it still visits on occasion, and it seemed to think the pandemic was a great excuse for an extended stay.


Since learning the coaching tools I now use, I’ve tried on past undertow days to pinpoint exactly what emotion the undertow is. Is it sadness, is it anxiety, is it hopelessness, is it loneliness, what is it? And what about the thoughts that are creating it? What am I thinking that makes my daily life, which seemed full and rich yesterday, seem sad and hollow today?


I got some traction with this approach, but something was also going on that I hadn’t realized until the pandemic. When I noticed the undertow was back, I recognized that I felt defeated. I was judging myself (i.e., I should have found a way to eradicate this by now), and I has having the thought, "My life won’t really be good until I no longer experience the undertow." I was approaching it from a place of UGH, THIS STUPID FUCKING LIFE-RUINING UNDERTOW FEELING GET IT THE HELL GONE ALREADY.


So I went back, back, back to the simple practice of allowing the emotion. I didn’t try to separate it into different emotions so I could precisely identify it. I didn’t look for what thoughts were creating it. I just got all the way into it in my body. What was the undertow, really, on that level? It was a metallic, dragging feeling, like a negative charge in my arms and chest. It was a physical sense of almost dissonance, like banging a bunch of clashing notes on a piano.


I stopped trying to dissect the undertow, to understand it, in order to expel it. Instead, I tuned into it and turned toward it. I felt it on its own terms.


And then, for the first time, I spontaneously had the thought, what if the undertow always comes back? I realized I might never succeed it banishing it, but, at the same time, like that SAME INSTANT, I saw that I didn’t have to banish it. Because it also always went away. If I just let it be and experienced it, it would flow out of my life the way that it came. I had had countless days of undertow in my life, but I’d also almost always woken up the next day fine again. Somehow I’d never noticed that until this moment. I could live with it. I didn’t have to banish it. It was just a negative, weirdly metallic feeling in my body.


And once I realized the undertow could always come and I’d still be OK, that I could still have a good life, I instantly felt lighter. The feeling didn’t go away, but it was as if I was now cupping it in my hands, watching it and staying with it, rather than feeling its foot on my neck, pushing me down. And the next day, I woke up fine, just as I had so many times in the past.


I remember the first time I heard a Buddhist psychotherapist recommending that we accept some negative thought patterns and emotions as always likely to be with us in some form. I was fucking furious! I hadn't spent all this time and money on therapy and coaching and everything else just to keep feeling this way. What I didn't recognize then was there was a huge change, just not the one I had been assuming I had to create. Even though the undertow stayed itself and returned on occasion, I changed my feelings about it, and that changed everything.


Once I could make space for it and have compassion rather than judgment for myself, didn't matter that the undertow was the same. It was still itself, but I was different.