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Name What’s Hard

by | May 7, 2024 | Featured, Life Advice

As a clinician and as a human, I’ve learned that my own flurry of conflicting thoughts is a sign that I need to gently slow down the pace of my mind. It’s a signal to take a deep breath to ease the firing of my nervous system and settle into the groundedness of my body.

It’s a cue that the situation in front of me is complex and that I need to pay close attention so that I don’t rush into an assumption that does not adequately address the reality of what’s happening. In other words, it’s an invitation to spend some time hanging out at the Crossroads. In this case it meant I needed to invite Chloe to join me there before she rushed into a high-stakes pseudo solution.

And so I said to Chloe a phrase that has become my mantra these past twenty years: “Could we pause here for a moment? We need to start naming some things.”

Like many of us when we experience conflicting thoughts or mixed emotions, Chloe was trying to jump right into a solution without first understanding the complexity of the problem she was facing. She hadn’t yet uncovered what was underneath the resentment she was feeling. She couldn’t get to a better place if she didn’t first stop and name what was happening.

Start with Yourself

When we’re tangled up inside, it’s hard to maintain perspective. Complicated or painful situations detonate conflicting thoughts and feelings that can feel chaotic and overwhelming. Often one strong emotion is colliding with another equally strong one. You might feel anger, but then you feel guilty about feeling anger. Or you might feel hurt, but then you feel anxious about taking action. Your reactions might be related to a current experience, or they might be influenced by past events. Shame may enter in and you criticize yourself, further complicating an already complicated mix.

Your nervous system gets activated, and you tend to react based on prior conditioning or automatic responses rather than thoughtful, conscious awareness. It’s incredibly challenging to respond wisely to what’s happening outside of you until you acknowledge and patiently work through the turmoil inside of you. The very first step is to stop and notice what you’re experiencing: Name what’s hard. Start with yourself.

Naming is a profound act of noticing, acknowledging, and validating the truth of what you’re thinking and feeling at any given moment.You stop anxiously ruminating, impulsively reacting, or grasping for a solution and start paying attention to what’s happening inside your own mind. What am I feeling right now? What’s happening inside? Naming the truth of your inner experience is a powerful step towards clarity. It empowers you to make a wiser choice.

The simple act of stopping to notice what you’re thinking and feeling—without criticism, judgment, or shame—brings calm to the chaos inside. You shift out of overdrive and into a neutral gear, creating a pause where you can get curious about what’s happening. Imagine you’re at a gathering and you begin to feel overwhelmed, left out, or tempted to lash out at someone. What if, instead of berating or gaslighting yourself—instead of telling yourself you shouldn’t feel that way—you took a deep breath and asked yourself, What am I experiencing right now?

Am I hurt? Sad? Scared?

Is someone being cruel?

God, help me understand what’s happening in this moment.

Instead of reacting or overreacting to the situation in front of you, you begin to gently name the truth-pieces inside of you.

Sometimes, it’s hard to figure out a name for what you’re experiencing right away, especially when you’re facing a complicated situation that evokes complicated thoughts and feelings. That’s okay. Pausing to notice This feels complicated or This feels hard is often the very first step in naming. The most important act at this juncture is to give yourself permission to notice what you’re experiencing without shame.²

The process of naming isn’t always definitive, especially at first. It reminds me of trying to come up with a name for remote hiking trails that are off the grid in my home state of Wyoming. As my family and I discuss how to name where we’re going in case of an emergency, the conversation goes a little like this: “If you head out about five miles east toward Sibley Lake, you’ll see a turnout on your left. It’s just before the long hill that descends toward Steamboat Rock. Drive a little ways down that bumpy dirt road. Don’t take the short road to the right—it’s the longer one that forks to the left! At the bottom of it, you’ll find the trailhead.” It takes a few iterations to find a name sometimes!

Likewise, it takes a few tries to give inner experiences an accurate name. It means slowing yourself down, describing what’s happening as honestly as you can, and identifying what you’re thinking and feeling in reference to other landmarks in your life. For instance, when I asked Chloe to name what was happening inside her mind as she thought about her marriage, she paused and reflected. She then answered, “It feels so foolish—but I feel left out, completely rejected. It’s like I’m in fifth grade again and no one will play with me. I hated feeling that way!” Her husband’s behaviors—whether intentional or not—had exposed a trail leading to a painful memory inside her mind. Naming those feelings became the starting point for our journey together.

Naming is like dropping a pin on a map that labels the starting point of where you are. It requires patience and self-awareness. It means asking others to wait while you take your time to get it right: “I’m trying to name what’s going on with me. I’m not sure how to say it yet.” But with care and attention, you’ll identify a name that not only you but other people will understand: “Aha! This is where I am.”

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