experience

Stopping the Runaway Train – Part II: The Importance of Naming Our Experience

by Jason Pogue, PLPC

This is the third blog in a series. So far, we’ve explored the very real experience of relational chaos and trying circumstances and looked at our ability to choose how we want to be in response to them, and we’ve discussed how the first step to stopping the runaway train is slowing down through relaxation exercises like the breathing one we tried together. Today we will explore the importance of naming our experience.

[Remember, this all takes time, patience, and practice. So, though our blog series chugs along, stopping the runaway train usually takes some serious time and discipline and perhaps help from a friend, mentor, or therapist. If you want to take the next step in this regard, feel free to email or call and setup an appointment.]

“You can’t just change plans last minute! I have studies, and work, and a life to plan of my own!” I shouted over the phone. My brother’s wife wisely jumped in, “This is getting unsafe – we need to have this conversation when we aren’t driving through this crazy weather.” She was right, and I was out of control. And, I wish I could say I realized it in that moment and stopped the runaway train of my anger – but I didn’t. I did hang up, but I was still furious.

My brother and his wife were taking a cross-country road trip for their honeymoon. Based on a number of legitimate reasons including weather, they had to change the days in which they were arriving to visit me in St. Louis where I was working my way through my graduate studies. When my brother delivered the message, I was in the midst of a hectic life – running from work, to class, to work, to making dinner, to studying through the night, and so on. I was moving so fast, that I didn’t skip a beat when my anger overtook me – I just let it fly without a moment’s delay.

Now, after the fact, I can look back and realize that anger wasn’t primarily about what was going on. I was feeling overwhelmed with life, and feeling like my schedule and anxieties were invisible to my brother and his wife.

This experience hit on threads in my story of times when I felt like my experience took the back seat to others, and I was so tired of that feeling of being trampled or not worth people noticing my needs.

All of this was actually pretty removed from anything my brother or his wife did, but I was moving so fast that in the moment I had no capacity to understand this because I had no ability to name my own experience.

We live in a culture that values ‘busy-ness’ – where being on the go is often a status symbol of our success.

There’s nothing wrong with a healthy ambition in your career or life, and yet sometimes we are moving so fast we entirely lose touch with ourselves – with what is actually going on inside our minds and hearts. We enter autopilot.

Autopilot isn’t always bad either, but when it comes to relationships it becomes a barrier to knowing others and being known. It’s like trying to be in relationship with a robot. So, after we’ve incorporated various relaxation exercises into our life to help manage our big emotions like deep breathing or mindfulness, another crucial step is putting words to what is going on in our internal world without judgment.

The last part can trip many up because we want to justify ourselves. Maybe a small piece of us wonders if it’s okay what we’re feeling? Perhaps we shame ourselves that we should never feel such things, or we blame others for what we are experiencing internally. Much of this comes out of what we’ve learned about emotions from both our families of origin and our experiences along the way. These areas are another step of exploration, but for now we must simply name our experience.

Just as a doctor cannot move forward with treatment without fully understanding all of the symptoms, so we cannot move through our internal emotional experience without fully understanding it from a distance – without judgment. What is there, is there. To jump to judgment before fully understanding it would be to like the doctor treating you without asking any questions about symptoms – yikes! To avoid naming it, is to brush it under the rug and give what control we have over how we want to be back to the runaway train. This is why naming our experience, and the accompanying emotions, is so vital to not being ruled by them.