My emotions, my wounded inner child, my various parts… we all live together in a big (imaginary) house. One side of the house opens up towards the ocean–the Pacific of course, since that’s the ocean I know best. Another side opens out to a large front yard with a path that leads to a meadow, and beyond that, a forest. Fortunately, in my imagination I never have to worry about whether this all comes together as a functioning ecosystem.
The house is very large and made of wood, and the part I use the most is a large open room with floor to ceiling windows that face the ocean. There are couches for my various parts and emotions to lounge around, and a beautiful wooden table where a number of us can sit together when it’s time for a consultation.
Upstairs, there are long hallways with appropriate cozy bedrooms for every part. I don’t even know how many rooms there are, but there are always, magically, enough for whatever I need. So when I realize there is a new part, or a part I have previously neglected, there is plenty of space for her to move in. (If she’s a troublesome part, I can always give her a room at the far end of the hall.)
Until recently, I have not attended to Sadness at all. I have pretended not to know her, blatantly and rudely ignored her. I suppose that’s because I have been afraid of her. I feared that if I spent any real time around her, she might take me over. She might be so big and powerful that she could pull me down into the swamp and drown me. If I gave her any attention, she might never let go of me.
So you can imagine how disturbing it was when I was hit with an enormous wave of sadness at a recent therapy session. I had started to consider what it meant that my mother wasn’t able to protect me or meet many of my emotional needs, and whoosh! just like that, Sadness washed in and pulled me under. I wasn’t just sad, but also very afraid.
I wonder sometimes if I will continue to become emotionally flooded for the rest of my life. Am I destined to repeat this experience of emotional overwhelm, over and over, for decades to come? I hope not, but I really don’t know. However, at least I do know that my coping skills are much stronger than they used to be. A few years ago, something like this would knock me out for several weeks. Now instead, within a day or two, my perspective starts to shift.
Sadness is just an emotion, just one part of me and my experience, I tell myself. I feel afraid, and that fear is real, but honestly, my brain knows that no emotion lasts forever. I won’t really get pulled permanently under. I can tolerate this.
So I start by telling Sadness, “Okay, fine, you can hang around me a little. I’m going to take a walk through my (imagined) meadow, and you can kind of follow along, if you want. We don’t have to talk to each other. Let’s just get used to being in one another’s presence.”
She agrees. Or rather, I guess she agrees. She doesn’t say anything to me, but she does start to follow me around, in her full-length, shapeless dress, with her long hair half covering her face. As I move through my day–my real day, not just my time in the meadow–I carry with me an increased awareness of Sadness, but I don’t give her my undivided attention. We’re like two newly introduced cats, sniffing and eyeing each other, trying to decide if we’ll be friends or enemies.
She’s not really all that scary, I start to realize. She’s not as powerful as I thought. In fact, she seems kind of worn down and in need of comfort and understanding.
A couple of days later, I attend a workshop (outdoors and socially distant), in which we participants all spens some time identifying different parts of ourselves that have emerged at different times in our lives. As I map out my own personal timeline and the emergence of different parts (all kinds of parts, from “abused nine-year-old” to “voracious reader”), I can see that there are a lot of challenging and sad experiences in my earlier life.
“No wonder,” I tell Sadness. “There’s a reason you exist. It’s normal that you would grow large but also exhausted.” I start to feel a bit of compassion for her. She has had to carry the long-term effects of events from long ago.
This realization makes me want to do more than tolerate Sadness. I want to be kind to her. During my daily meditations, I allot some time to intentionally inviting her into the great room in my internal house. Come, I tell her, try out this sofa. It has the best pillows.
I’ve always enjoyed collage and multi-media art, and this summer I’ve come back to it after some years away. So a few days later, when I have the afternoon free to play around in my art journal, I make a spread for her. It’s simple really, nothing elaborate, hardly even a collage. I don’t have big artistic ambitions for it. I just want to place her next to some messages I think she might need to hear.
You might think this is crazy. And it’s true, every time I write about my internal house, I feel like I am a little bit crazy! Yet I find this imaginary work I do–imaginary play really–deeply healing. It reaches my emotions in a way that talking, talking, talking just can’t do.
And that’s how I came to invite Sadness to be one more resident in this magical house where, little by little, I learn to integrate all the fractured pieces into some kinds of wholeness.