Often, when we’re troubled by something, we’re given the well-meaning advice to “get over it.” “I’ve moved on,” we might say to ourselves or others, hoping we can ignore the uncomfortable feelings we’re having and get on with our lives. But the truth is that when something troubles us, there’s often a good reason. When we “get over it” without exploring what’s “under” it, we disrespect ourselves. We act as though our feelings, beliefs, and values don’t matter.
As a San Diegan for 35 years, I’ve grown accustomed to dense fog along the coast that obscures what I know to be a scenic vista. Beyond this fog, I know there is a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean. Once the fog dissipates, I can see the complexity of nature – the beautiful though eroding coastline, marine life, the ebb and flow of the waves – that inspires me every time. Similarly, when we try to “get over” our emotions, we deprive ourselves of an understanding of the complexity of the world and our experience of it.
After the events in Charlottesville, I was unable to sleep, full of anxiety and fear that the hatred being expressed in Virginia could not be contained or transmuted. Rather than try to “get over it,” I decided to see what was under it. The first thing I found was anger that the world wasn’t a simple place where everyone could be happy, as I wanted them to be. Growing up in a family where negative emotions weren’t allowed, I had become very uncomfortable with them. I wanted the world to be a happy place, where I could remain in my emotional comfort zone.
As the hours passed and I explored an even greater complexity – the feeling of being powerless – my anxiety dissipated, just like the fog. While no resolution was reached in those early hours of the morning, I could see the issues more clearly. And in that greater vision grew a confidence that, while the violent expression of hatred wasn’t acceptable, resolution would only occur if both sides could understand their own feelings and desires, and be heard. The following month, I had an opportunity to put my newfound understanding into action. A fellow gym-goer began a diatribe filled with hurtful, overtly racist comments. Previously, I would have moved into the other room to avoid an uncomfortable confrontation. Understanding that this was about my feeling powerless and an unwillingness to empathize with others, I instead began a conversation. While I can’t claim that we changed each others’ beliefs, it felt both more powerful and hopeful to me to speak up than to cower and hope these opinions would simply disappear from our public sphere if I ignored them.
So the next time strong emotions are triggered by an event, comment, or action, take a few moments and consider what’s under them. What’s the emotion you’re feeling? What beliefs are fueling the emotion? What more complex truth can you see in the situation? By holding that complexity, see if you don’t feel greater security in a deeper understanding of the situation and the value you hold that feels imperiled. Once the fog dissipates and we see things more clearly, it’s usually easier to bridge gaps and find solutions. But first, we have to be willing to look under our emotions, rather than just getting over them.