A couple of days ago, I had an Alexander* day. I was feeling out of sorts. Sad. Really angry. Like someone had rubbed salt into an open wound in my heart. Had the opportunity presented itself, I might have verbally unleashed this torrent of anger and frustration on the nearest target – usually my husband, poor guy.
Instead, I grabbed my art journal. I had nothing in mind. But it seemed like maybe if I could just grab some paper and rip it and slap it on with glue and smear paint - it might just help. (Admittedly, it also crossed my mind to grab a steak knife and stab the pages in my journal. I decided to reserve that option if the painting didn’t help.)
Ever see a young child react to not getting her own way? It’s happy-to-rage in a split second. But once the anger is burnt out, it’s done.
But what about when I don’t get my own way? By now I’ve been socialized to quickly tamp down my explosive reaction, but the emotion is still there, looking for an outlet.
The problem comes when I either try to stuff the feelings down or try to put an unrealistic, Pollyanna-spin on my feelings. When I stuff my anger but replay the situation over and over in my head, it’s just like having a pebble in my shoe – I may not be emotionally angry anymore, but I keep triggering a sense of irritation and discontent. On the other hand, if I choose to put on a happy face, my anger will keep knocking at the door, and I will spend (waste) a whole lot of energy trying to keep up a good front.
Our emotions serve as an alert system.
If the smoke detector in your house goes off – do you just sit there and stew about that obnoxious beeping noise and all the other times in the past when it’s happened?
Do you say, “Oh, that noise is sure testing me, but I’m going to focus on the blessings of my house and working batteries and a good sense of hearing?”
More likely, your response is, “Oh, sh*t!” and you jump to deal with the problem behind the smoke detector – which in my house usually means there’s something burning under the pan. After the alarm, you can figure out how to handle to bigger problem.
Stimulus: the smoke detector. Response: alarm, pull the pan off the burner. Choice: fix the fan in the stove hood or spend time cleaning the drip pans under the burner.
So back to the Alexander day. Something happened. I got really stinking mad about it. I released that raw energy and emotion onto my journal pages. Releasing that anger allowed me to move into a space of transformation. Once the anger was diffused, there was space for me to choose my response to the situation.
Stimulus: my child being treated unfairly. Response: Anger! Irritation. Choice #1: Since my child is over 18, this is no longer my battle. I can support my child and offer advice if asked. But it is my child’s opportunity for a life lesson. Choice #2: Spend time writing in my journal about why this event was such a huge emotional trigger for me. Probably worth knowing what is at the root of my response – we are talking steak-knives-angry, after all.
And in the end, this process is still exactly that – a process. Sometimes I don’t have the luxury of time or place to immediately spill the emotions in my journal. Other times it feels rather cathartic to get on a roll and just be pissed at the world for a while. But even then, I try to remain aware of the question:
“What choices do I have in this situation?”
I find the more times I am able to spend writing or painting in response to my emotions, the better I get handling my Alexander days.
What about you? How do you handle your Alexander days? Are you able to slow down enough to consider your choices? Feel free to share in the comments below. Maybe what works for you will support someone else who is dealing with an Alexander day.
*Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst (1972).