“I’ve been sleeping a thousand years it seems; I’ve got to open my eyes to everything. Without a thought, without a voice, without a soul; Don’t let me die here. There must be something more. Bring me to life.”
Evanescence lyrics “Bring Me to Life”
Easter is a time of year when Christians begin to think about atonement—the idea of a kind of reconciliation between themselves and God. In my work as a marriage and family counselor, I tend to think of the concept in terms of husbands and wives, mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, brothers and sisters, etc. What is it that reconciles two people together who have either grown apart or who are so angry at each other that compromise or making peace seems impossible? Does it have to do with some kind of “cleansing” of “sins” as Christians celebrate at Easter? How are dead or dying relationships brought back to life?
If you have a look at most religions, you’ll find this idea of atonement or reconciliation via cleansing is at their heart. It’s the idea that community or union or connection comes through a cleaning out, a detoxifying, a letting go…a death of sorts. A death that leads to new life.
In her book Women Who Run With the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes described it as the “life/death/life nature of love.” She wrote that in order for people to live and love in a “way that is most wise, most preserving, and most feeling, one has to go up against the very thing one fears most. There is no way around it…”
She tells the story of Skeleton Woman which she describes as “a hunting story about love.” In this story “love does not mean a flirtation or a pursuit for simple ego-pleasure,” but rather “a union which prevails through bounty and austerity, through the most complicated and most simple days and nights.”
It starts with a girl, living in the frozen north, who “had done something of which her father disapproved,” and although no one could remember what she had done, her father “had dragged her to the cliffs and thrown her over and into the sea.” It was there, in the bottom of the ocean, being turned and tossed about, that her flesh was worn and picked away, and she was turned into Skeleton Woman.
Eventually caught by a fisherman who’d lost his way, she became helplessly entangled with him and with her own bones. Just when he thought he was free of her he realized she was as entwined with him as ever. But something happened to him in the dark night, once on land and back in his bungalow. Something softened toward the whole mess of her, and he began to tenderly untangle her twisted bones. His work done, he rested. As he dreamed, a tear dripped from his eye. Untangled and watching, she moved toward him and drank, and she found the single tear “was like a river and she drank and drank and drank until her many-years-long thirst was slaked.”
By the end of the night together Skeleton Woman had sung her flesh into being. Pinkola Estes writes that the woman “sang for hair and good eyes and nice fat hands. She sang the divide between her legs, and breasts long enough to wrap for warmth, and all the things a woman needs.” And the fisherman and the woman were tangled together again, “in another way now, a good and lasting way.”
I find this story deeply satisfying. It speaks to the importance of untangling the emotional mess that human life and relationships can become. It speaks to the importance of tears and of their potential to nourish. And it speaks to what can happen in a person’s life when they can attend to and soothe their own emotions and existential dilemmas.
You may have thought of this story as a prescription for marriage. As something that can or should happen between spouses…that one should tenderly untangle the other and then feed her with tears of love. The story could certainly be interpreted as a primer for spouses to heal one another, but I think it’s much more interesting (and effective) when thought of as an emotional process one does with oneself, with spouse alongside.
But how do you soothe your own emotions, ones that may be as deep and painful as to have hollowed you out over the years like for Skeleton Woman? How does one “drink a river of tears” as to have one’s thirst be slaked? It’s an ongoing process, one that I believe we continue unto our dying breath.
Attending to our painful emotions is just one aspect of the process, but it is a critical one. Our emotions can lead us toward our core values or away from them. They can lead us deeper into ourselves to be lost forever in a sea of moodiness, anxiety or depression, and they can lead us deeper into communion with others. Self-soothing is key to living a happy life. Here are a few principles or tips to help you along the way.
5 Tips to Dealing with Strong Emotion
- You can’t let go of or be “cleansed” of something you don’t know you’re dealing with. In order to become aware you’ll have to create the space…the time…the quiet. Even if you’ve done this work before and if you’re stuck, chances are there’s some emotion that needs tending. It’s different for everyone, but one method to get the emotions flowing is watching sad movies that in some way tell your story. Other ways to get things flowing are meditation, reading, and journaling. Try to get past anger as the only emotion you deal with. Usually with anger, there are other more vulnerable emotions lurking in the background like sorrow, grief, despair, and fear.
- Once you are able to feel some feelings, the next step has to do with naming them. This can be harder than it sounds, especially for emotions that have been lurking around for years or even decades. The hard part for people seems to be in the naming of an actual feeling like scared, helpless, sad, etc. Most of the time people want to say something like: “I feel like he doesn’t love me…” Try to stick to actual feeling words. I remember in my training as a therapist 20 years ago our professors would hand us sheets of paper covered in emoting faces as a way to train us in identifying our own feelings.
The final three tips have to do with soothing the emotions that come up. It’s so important to not stop at having one’s feelings but to also grow skilled at soothing them. Keep in mind this is not self-love. This is self-soothing.
- One important way to soothe emotion is simply self-care. Maybe it looks like rest or nourishment, but it can also look like time with a long time friend or an important family member or maybe it looks like a weekend away alone. It can also look like quieting your mind when you find you are over-thinking or over-analyzing your problems. Self-care can mean finding a way to stop banging your head against a wall.
- Artistic expression is another powerful way to express and soothe emotion. Get your guitar out and learn the chords to a song that has particular meaning to you. Then play it loud along with the band. Or get your canvas and paints, and sit outside in this beautiful Spring weather. Write some fiction. Write an autobiographic short story. Chanel the emotions into something important to you.
- The next and most important tool in your self-soothing tool kit is finding out what is important about your emotions. How are they a reflection of you and your core values? I had a client who suffered a terrible loss about 4 years ago; his wife left him after 35 years of marriage. After 3 years he was still not “over it.” He was very upset with himself for this. Among other things he worked on forgiving himself for his mistakes, but even this didn’t soothe him fully. When he started accepting his grief and sorrow (rather than being upset with himself for having it for so long) he began to see that his grief and sorrow had something to do with a core value of his: family. When he realized this he began putting much more effort into his familial relationships…with his 97 year old mother…with his 3 children…with a couple of cousins he’d lost contact with…with his little sister. And slowly, with acceptance and persistence, he found meaning in his life again.
If you’re in a dead or dying relationship there is a way back to life. It often begins with tuning into your emotions, but more importantly with learning to soothe them meaningfully. Is it time to untangle Skeleton Woman?