Mike Birbiglia is a stand-up comedian I have enjoyed for several years. One of the stories he tells is about a trip he and his sister took to Alaska to help him overcome his fear of bears. While there, they went fishing. Their guide informed them of the importance of creating awareness when in the wilderness to let the bears know they are there. Mike joked about feeling it not only created awareness, but it drew attention, making him a walking buffet as he walked around clapping his hands and yelling, “Hi, I am Mike Birbiglia!” He said that as they fished, he heard his sister say “MIKE” in a high-pitched voice. He turned to see a bear walking towards his sister. He said he was uncertain what to do and turned to the field guide, who jumped into action, running in front of Mike’s sister, waving his hands and yelling, creating another level of awareness. The bear turned and walked away.
Mike Birbiglia is much funnier as he is talking about it than I am writing it down, but the idea I want to stress is creating awareness. Oftentimes, we have thoughts and emotions we attempt to avoid, that we identify as negative. When we avoid our thoughts and emotions, a common fallout is increased anxiety. As we attempt to avoid feeling our emotions, our subconscious takes over, like a muscle memory, aware of the discomfort of the emotion and often aware of the emotion’s connection with previous events. Our subconscious mind attempts to stop the emotion from happening, substituting anxiety in its place. Often, we might struggle to separate depression and anxiety, or think we merely struggle with anxiety or panic attacks, when the underlining issue is depression related. Another avoidant response is looking for ways to cover up the emotion, the pain, whether it be through substance use, toxic relationships and/ or physical pain to self or others.
When we begin creating awareness of our emotions, of our pain, we begin the process of self-validation. Often, we invalidate ourselves by making comments like, “I need to get over this” or “I shouldn’t feel this way”. Creating awareness of emotions is the process by which we begin to validate our emotions; being able to say to self, “it makes sense that I feel this way” or “it’s okay that I feel this way”. This is the first level of creating awareness, similar to “Hi, I am Mike Birbiglia.” Just beginning to create awareness of emotions and thoughts, and validating them, helps them to decrease in intensity. Oftentimes when we experience our thoughts and emotions, we want to either block them or bear-hug them and attempt to analyze them. If we picture your thoughts and emotions flowing like a river, even when we are calm, our mind is still in motion, still flowing. Imagine having an uncomfortable thought or emotion and deciding that you don’t want to have it. You’re going to attempt to block or dam it.
As I speak with clients, I like to compare this to a portion of the Snake River in Blackfoot, Idaho near the Twin bridges. Around August, the water is usually low enough you can walk out into parts of the river near the bridges. So, imagine walking out into the river of your thoughts and emotions which are uncomfortable and for a moment, you were able to dam them. What would happen? Would it stop the flow? Would you stop the emotion? Would you stop thinking about that concern? No, over time we would be overcome by the flow of thoughts; the intensity of emotions would increase and become overwhelming. By creating awareness of the emotion or the thought, it allows us to feel what we are feeling. Again, our thoughts and emotions are continually flowing, and creating awareness allows us to validate them and keep moving forward, decrease intensity. Oftentimes we may have thoughts or emotions that are a struggle to let go of, or that we may be bear-hugging. This is the second part of creating awareness.
In Mike Birbiglia’s story, when the bear began to approach his sister, not knowing what to do, he looked to the guide for help. There are times when we may need to do the same thing. When we struggle with emotions that may not make sense or when we pair them with negative self-talk, it can be difficult to process how one “should” be feeling. When we are struggling with ineffective urges of avoidance, such as urges to use substances, self-harm, toxic relationships and even ending our own life, being able to find a Guide – parent, teacher, counselor, partner, sibling, friend – with whom you can effectively express what you’re currently feeling and/ or thinking, is important. And that they can validate your emotions is also important. Be mindful to choose someone who you can go to for validation vs collude – to stoke the embers of the emotions, is important. Be mindful as the Guide to validate; it can be difficult to receive this news, sometimes as shocking as seeing a bear. As you validate those whom you care about, validating their emotions, not the emotional urges, you assist them in reducing emotional intensity and provide them in knowing there is someone else there. At times when they feel all alone, you have created awareness.
Creating awareness is not a onetime event. Similar to the story, there will be times where you may have to clap your hands and yell out your emotions to create awareness, not only for yourself but for those around you. When you think no one is aware, don’t stop, I beg of you don’t stop, it will be those moments that the Guides will jump into action, creating another level of awareness and validating emotions.
Jacob L Comstock is an LCSW at Health West, living in Idaho a majority of his and has worked in mental health for over 10 years. He got his bachelor’s from Idaho State and master’s degree Walla Walla University in Social Work.