Today, my yoga teacher shared a story with our class about a student who left another one of his classes early because it was “smelly and sweaty.” Really? It was a hot yoga class. What did she expect? The instructor explained that the point of yoga is not just to exercise and be entertained, but to attempt to stay present with our feelings—both physically and emotionally—especially when we are challenged.
His story made me think about all the unpleasant jobs I struggled with throughout my 20s in New York City to support my quest to dance professionally. Bailing when things got “smelly and sweaty” simply wasn’t an option.
The yoga instructor asked our class: “When do you choose to run when it would benefit you to stay put or stay present?” What are we running from? When I was a teen, my way of bailing was to become invisible. I never expressed an opinion in my family or at school to avoid confrontation. I wanted to keep the peace no matter the price. My ego assured me I was “good” because I didn’t make waves. If I didn’t make waves, I wouldn’t have to feel anything.
When I was 11, my mom married my stepfather. He was the first person to call me out on this. “What do you mean you don’t know what you think?” he’d ask. Having an opinion risked disagreement and, ultimately, rejection. Back then, I thought he was a big meanie for calling me out of hiding. As a result of his coaxing, however, I quit running and began to speak up.
Learning to speak up as a child is one thing, but what about when things get “smelly and sweaty” in adult relationships? Then what? My challenge these days is knowing when it’s “worth it” to disturb the peace by expressing difficult feelings for the sake of deepening the relationship, and when it’s just my ego trying to stir things up. Sometimes, it’s my problem, and I need to face what’s bugging me and let it go. (Or as my Grandma would say: “Leave well enough alone.”) Other times, I need to sit with the discomfort of my feelings and see what else comes up. Usually, some deeper issues are lurking in the background.
Taking the time to sit with the feelings takes the edge off and helps me to make better choices. If, after exploring the spectrum, I still feel that expressing my anger or disappointment to the other person would be beneficial, I look for a loving way that respects the other person’s thoughts and feelings. When I stop framing the other person as the “enemy,” and instead assume that he or she also has my best interest in mind, then expressing difficult feelings can lead to a fuller connection between us.
But, what if the other person isn’t interested in a deeper connection or intimacy? What if they are comfortable in their black-and-white world (they’re right and I’m wrong), and don’t have the point of reference to receive my communication as it is intended? What if my words get twisted into a foreign language? Is it worth it? Not always.
Some people just don’t want to go there. They would rather keep a barrier up than traverse the gray area that could lead to a new way of being. If the other person isn’t ready to be vulnerable, it’s pretty tough for the relationship to grow.
When I change my point of reference, though, I find that other people are often willing to meet me in the middle and explore that gray area. For example, my oldest daughter and I had a breakthrough a couple of summers ago. In the past, when the going got rough, I often came on too strong, and she tended to bolt. After this particular disagreement, I decided to go for a walk around the block with the dog to think before reacting, and I figured that she would be gone by the time I got back. When I rounded the block, I was surprised to see that her car was still parked in my driveway. I told her how proud I was of her for not bolting. She answered by saying that she was ready to bring up some difficult issues so she wouldn’t resent me.
That day, we had one of the most healing conversations of our lives. It wasn’t easy, but we each expressed things that we had held in for years—and we experienced a real breakthrough. By staying with it, despite the sweat and smell, we shifted our relationship into a more loving and understanding place.
I’m not suggesting this kind of interaction is simple or painless or works every time. I still feel it when I want to run—when I don’t want to be vulnerable because it’s so much easier to white knuckle the steering wheel of Life—instead of opening myself up a new, more patient and trusting way of relating to other people. Like meditation, sports, arts, or any training—effective and loving communication takes willingness and practice. Whether we are facing our own challenges or attempting to move to a deeper level in a relationship, it’s often worth it to hang in there, even when the going gets rough.
About the author: Jennifer Delaney’s photos, poetry, nonfiction, and fiction have been published in literary journals, newspapers, magazines, and ezines. A writing coach and consultant, Delaney is cofounder of The Writer’s Arbor. She is currently studying at Regis University for an MA in Counseling.