In the children’s book “We’re Going On A Bear Hunt” a family trudge their way through mud, snow and water in the search for a bear who lives in a cave. Unable to avoid the difficult hazards which lay at every turn they press on through all of them until they finally discover the bear, who then chases them all the way back the way that they came until they barricade themselves inside the safety of their own house, leaving the bear trudging disconsolately away. It was a favourite story of my children when they were young.
So many people come to see me fearful of feeling their own emotions. Whether it’s anxiety or depression, stress or anger, we understandably have difficulty in accepting the most uncomfortable of our emotions, but we preserve them perfectly by refusing to walk through them.
In the story there is a recurring narrative when the family reach each hazard. “We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, we can’t go around it. Oh well, we’ll have to go through it”. The same is true of our emotions, even the most difficult ones.
My daughter won’t mind me telling you that, like all of us, she has a tendency at times to try and deflect painful emotions. She used to avoid talking on the phone and going into shops to buy things. She found it awkward and it made her anxious. Unable to go around, over or under the feeling, she refused to go through it and stood where she was unable to move and, crucially, powerless to change it.
When she was telling us at dinner last weekend that she felt fed up about the absence of a worthy Valentine, and waxed eloquently way beyond her years about the frustration she has with boys inability to engage with emotion, it felt positive and hopeful. Even though the core of her feelings were clearly causing her frustration and sadness, it felt as if she were walking through the feeling rather than standing looking at it.
I had the same feeling a few weeks ago when she said she wanted to find a part time job and needed to take her CV into to some shops. Asking me to go with her I wondered how she would handle the pressure of walking in and asking for work. She did it without missing a beat. Rejection after rejection “We have no vacancies at the moment”, “We usually take people on in November”, “You can leave your CV but we’ve got hundreds”. The hits kept coming but nothing seemed to dull her resolve. Whatever was put in her path she went straight through it, looking for the bear, and when the bear came running towards her, she stood and stared at it, unflinching. It was amazing and beautiful to watch.
When this week she rang the opticians to make an appointment and I wasn’t surprised I knew that something had really shifted.
At the end of the story, having been chased home by the bear, the family resolve “We’re never going on a bear hunt again” but this is part of the problem and not a solution. Facing our most difficult emotions is tough, even though it’s the only way through them. But if we allow ourselves to be constantly scared by whatever bear we believe to be hiding in the darkness, we’ll never push ourselves on to test our own capabilities. Rather than running away from the shadows in the cave we might do well to stand for a moment and perhaps we’d more often notice that it’s our own shadow we’re afraid of instead of something more genuinely threatening.