Beyond The Middle Octave: Embracing All Of Life’s Notes
It’s hard to wrap words around reuniting with my parents in Australia after two years of travel restrictions. Mum has developed dementia since we last hugged. As she dried my tears she said, “Margaret Mary, is it really you? I feel like I am looking at myself, only younger.”
Big emotions have pulled hard on my heartstrings in recent days. I’ve done my best to embrace them, mindful that trying to handpick which emotions we feel not only cuts us off from our full humanity but confines us to living in the middle octave of life.
Of course, we humans aren’t wired to embrace the low notes; those uncomfortable emotions which trigger vulnerability and wrench on heartstrings. We’re wired for the exact opposite – to protect ourselves from pain. Busyness is the go-to avoidance strategy for many.
While I don’t have a 6-step recipe for navigating life’s hard moments, I’ve done enough laps around the sun to know that avoiding them is not the answer. The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering.
So if you’re currently facing a difficult situation, I hope these thoughts will help you navigate through it with more grace, courage, and self-compassion.
Get off your own back
No one has it all together, all the time. Ironically enough, the people I’ve met whom I consider the most ‘together’ are also most at peace with their own humanity, complete with the wild and wondrous sweep of emotions that form the human condition.
In her bestselling book Positivity, Dr Barbara Fredrickson wrote “Negative emotions are necessary for us to flourish.” Fredrickson’s research found that instead of trying to eliminate negativity we are better served by cultivating more positive emotions. This begins with being kind to ourselves in our hardest moments.
As self-compassion researcher Dr Kristen Neff shared on my podcast (ep. 12) “give yourself permission to be fully human.”
Feel your feelings, all the way through
Jim (name changed) was a client of mine who ran a large industrial business. Whenever I’d ask him how he was feeling, he’d always reply the same: “Not bad.” Never great. Never lousy. Always ‘not bad.’ One day I asked what he might do if he gave himself permission to connect to his deepest feelings. “I’d probably cry,” he replied, then added reflectively, “but I’m not sure I’d ever stop.”
Avoiding difficult emotions renders us a hostage to them.
Bill lived in the middle octave. Yet as he came to discover, the emotions we don’t own will own us. In the same way, the avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering rendering us hostage to the very emotions we’re trying to avoid. It’s why allowing yourself to feel all your feelings, all the way through, is a profound act of self-liberation.
In fact, neuroanatomist Jill Bolte-Taylor found that fully ‘feeling our feelings’ loosens their grip and expands our bandwidth for life. So when uncomfortable emotions rise up, identify where they’re showing up in your body (for me, it’s often in my belly or chest). Breath into them. Feel them fully and then give them the space they’re due. To quote Robert Frost: “The only way out is through.”
Discern who you are from the emotions you feel
Just as an ocean is not the waves, so too, who you are is not your emotions. When you can identify the emotions you’re feeling as just that – emotions that you are feeling at a specific moment in time – it enables you to move through them rather than be consumed by them. For instance. I have been feeling sad today. However, I’m not a sad person. See the difference? By identifying and labeling your emotions it helps to keep you from over-identifying with them.
An emotion is something you feel. It is not who you are.
Own your emotions lest they own you
As such our problems do not arise because we feel fear or anger or any array of negative emotions. Rather they arise because we allow our fear or anger etc to have us.
Give your emotions the space they need to connect to your full humanity. Only then, like dark clouds in a stormy sky, can they pass on over, allowing the sun to once again shine through.
No emotion is buried dead. As I share in this video I recorded in 2020, when people deny or dismiss difficult emotions, those emotions bury deeper where, left without a channel for expression, they fester and eventually resurface in toxic ways.
Share your truth with those who’ve earnt the right to hear it
Today’s ‘think happy’ culture of toxic positivity can drive people to beat up on themselves at the very times they most need to practice self-compassion.
The maxim that “A burden shared is a burden halved” holds truth. Resilience is strengthened through connection. Authentic, uncurated, connection. Donning a smiley-face mask may lend an illusion of invulnerability, yet it puts you at risk of shallow friendships with counterfeit intimacy.
How are you, really?
“I’m many things,” I told my friend who rang yesterday. “I’m feeling sad but grateful, conflicted but positive. Make sense of that,” I told her.
I am also hopeful that sharing my experience of working through some big emotions will help you be braver in embracing your own. Of course, not everyone deserves the unfiltered truth of our lives, but curating a fake emotional world can cut us off from the very people who could help us weather life’s storms better and emerge better off.
How are you, really?
You can honor negative emotions without abandoning optimism and hope and gratitude and joy.
Diversity, in all its forms, is our greatest strength. This is no less true for the inner emotional landscape of our lives.
Moments like those I’ve been sharing with my mother – in all their richness and rawness, beauty and bounty, grief and goodness – are filled with both high and low notes. Opening our hearts to let them be played fully is both a profound act of courage and liberation.
Your ability to rise to higher ground amid the challenges of your life will grow in proportion to your willingness to embrace the full spectrum of human emotion – the high notes as well as the low. So too will your ability to lead, lift and inspire others to show up more fully human themselves.
Let’s be more fully human. Let’s live beyond the middle octave.
PS: If you haven’t yet watched my TED talk on how to be braver in your life, I hope you will!