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  • Writer's picturesarahfishburnrober

Drowning, not waving

Sometimes we must seek a temporary respite from fierce and difficult emotions. This morning as I walked by the sea in Hove, the water was mirror-like and beautifully calm. For some moments, I could forget that here in the UK we have entered a second lockdown, or that Trump continues to spread division and fear across the States, even during an election.

To dwell on these things, and others, for too long makes life feel quite stupefying. Indeed, this photograph by Lara Zankoul, from her 2013 series The Unseen, speaks to me of the threat of being overwhelmed. Like the image’s extraordinary figures, who take tea as the water rises, we all, as individuals and entire nations, may feel that we are sinking, that we are about to be suffocated by a rising tide of distress and anxiety. As Stevie Smith wrote so poignantly, “I was much too far out all my life, and not waving, but drowning.”

Yet in the words of Walt Whitman, “these are the days that must happen [to us].” One thing Covid-19 has shown us is that we are all affected, one way or another, by this virus. So what are we to do with all the unbidden and powerful feelings that surge up within us?

Many of us deny or suppress our emotions. Or else we become flooded by them, which renders us physiologically and psychologically frozen and unable to think rationally. Still more of us project our feelings onto other people, so that they are ‘out there’ and nothing to do with us at all. All these maladaptive mechanisms mean that we are not sufficiently grounded to experience, describe and process our feelings, and so they remain trapped within us, or are only partially discharged, or else are expressed so violently that we hurt other people and feel worse than ever.

A therapist will help you manage your feelings in ways that allow them to manifest themselves, but not at the expense of overwhelming you completely. Sometimes this process is called co-regulation, and it is a vital component of any therapy, whatever modality. In this turbulent time, we must find the people that can support us in the emotional maelstrom, so that in the words of Isaiah, we can “pass through the waters and not be drowned.”

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