How do you show up even when carrying a heavy emotional load?

I’m sitting at a coffee shop with my computer – for the first time since the birth of my son – munching on a chocolate covered biscotti dumped in a dry cappuccino (you know, healthy things) and trying to drum up the spark of something to write to you. Some lesson, some glimmer of wisdom, some nugget of truth. Something.

But the truth is that all of that is hard to access today.

Because today, I feel rather broken.

So instead of writing about something, I’m going to write about this feeling of brokenness I have. I’ll write about why I think it’s happening. And I’ll write about moving through the day while feeling it.

About a month ago, I was sitting across from my husband. We were on a “date.” I use quotations because although we were supposed to be on a date – we had a babysitter, a plan, the whole works – all we could do was argue. So much had built up between us in the seven months of being new parents that it felt like I had to get out my machete and hack through the undergrowth just to get a glimpse of this person I’d chosen to be my partner.

And then those words came from the mouth of my beloved:

This wasn’t what I signed up for.

I was both a bit shocked and simultaneously in agreement. Because, while this was my first rodeo as a parent, it wasn’t my first rodeo in a marriage when things got difficult. And they were difficult – so difficult, in fact, that we both felt like we were held hostage by our exhaustion, the never-ending work of it all, being so strapped to our limits that we each had about zero tolerance for the slightest of inconveniences.

We were both maxed.

And we were both up against some of our deepest-seated patterns, belief systems, and survival tactics. In other words, we were both pushed into separate cells, staring at the cold bars of our individual psychological shit, and blaming each other for our individual captivity.

We are learning about the patterns that keep us caged, both individually and as a couple. We are a team, after all, and when the team is losing we look at every player on the field (well, except for our infant. He’s stays firmly in the dugout). We’re learning to sort it out. But in the meantime, there is a feeling like all the agreements have been changed, that we’re both being slighted, under-appreciated, and failing the other.

I’m not sure which is worse, feeling like my partner is failing me, or that I’m failing him. Neither feels very good.

As a highly sensitive person, carrying all of this with me feels heavy. It feels hard. And if I’m being honest, I’d rather wrap myself up in a blanket and watch reruns of iZombie than face the day. I have done that before, and I may to it again, but I can’t today.

Today, like most days, I have real-world things to attend to. I need to write Sensitive Missives. I need to answer some emails. I need to pay my nanny and talk to my accountant. I have a doctor’s appointment I need to go to.

Sometimes, when we feel down, sad, or broken, we can take the day off – take some personal time, get some self-care, and get better. But other days, we can’t.

For those of us who have to work to pay bills, we can’t.

For those of us with children, we can’t.

For those of us who have solid commitments to clients or coworkers, we can’t.

I know how incongruent it can feel to be carrying around heavy feelings and still have to show up for people. It can feel wrong, it can feel like you’re faking, it can feel awkward or arduous. But sometimes we have to show up anyway.

What I’m suggesting here is not a “force it” attitude. I’m not saying that as a HSP you can’t give yourself a day off – in fact, I respect when you can do that for yourself. What I’m saying is that sometimes, we don’t have the luxury of taking that time off.

And so instead of clearing out the gunk before showing up for your day, you’re forced to carry it with you.

When I was in college, a class of mine did a two-week backpacking trek through the North Cascades in Washington State. Over the course of the weeks, we hiked somewhere between 40-50 miles, up glaciers and down river valleys, camping in various locations and sleeping under the stars.

I had an old Kelty backpack I’d gotten as a teenager. I probably found it in my dad’s gear room, which was stuffed to the brim with all kinds of outdoor gear – sleeping bags, tents, hunting sleds, camo, skis – you name it. I stuffed that bag full of all my gear and got in line with the other students.

Turned out, the pack didn’t fit me well. I carried my gear with me, but I carried it in a way that hurt my body. I carried it in a way that was awkward, and left me with skin abrasions, bruises and blisters. 

By the end of the fifth day, my classmates noticed my battle wounds and offered to help me adjust my pack. They emptied it, took it apart, measured it against me, and put it back together in a new configuration. When I put my things back inside the pack, it was still heavy, but the weight was distributed in a way that was manageable for the duration of the trip.

As a highly sensitive person, there’s a good chance that, from time to time, you’ll find yourself carrying a very heavy emotional load. You might be carrying it for a day, or a few weeks, or maybe even several months. It’s heavy. This doesn’t mean that anything is wrong with you, these are just things you are carrying because you’re working on them.

The trick is to adjust how you’re carrying it so that it’s manageable.

I like to solve problems. I like to come to a solution to a conflict quickly so that I can feel clear to move on with my day. But, as they say, “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” and sometimes problems take longer to work out. Working through big, scary ego stories can take time.

We have to carry the load with us until we get to the end of the trail (or trial, which it might feel more like).

All you can do in this situation is address how you carry the load. To allow yourself to carry your stuff in a way that keeps you balanced. That keeps it from digging into your hip bones, slicing through your shoulders and getting in the way as you go about your way.

Sure, Anna, you’re probably thinking, but how do you do this?

I would like to tell you that I know. But honestly, I’m not sure. I just know that it’s something that we do. That we have to do, sometimes, and that we share, collectively, as a facet of being highly sensitive.

If I know one thing, it’s that backpacking is an activity that’s worth every step. Trekking through beautiful and rarely-visited areas is magical, as is dining to the sound of an evening forest symphony and eating under the stars. So carrying the load is worth it. 

And, because you constantly take food from your pack to munch on while you hike, your pack becomes lighter and lighter each day. And eventually, you get to the end of the trail and remove your pack, feeling as light as a feather.

The end of the trail is when you get to sit down and process your emotions – moving them through you and coming out the other side. It’s kind of like unpacking your backpack and getting a shower. (I talk about how to do that here and here).

It’s worth it, so I’ll endure for now. I know that working through these issues has rewards – sweet, sweet rewards. Beautiful views, sunsets, sunrises, magic. So this load is worth carrying.

And so maybe that’s it, after all. Maybe it’s just that we show up for life anyway, carrying this load, and knowing that other highly sensitive people are carrying it, too, and we can wave to them as we would other hikers on the trail, and smile in the joint misery and joy of carrying our stuff through this beautiful thing we call life.

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