by Paul Johnson, LMFT, LPC, NCC
(Originally printed in 280 Living, Birmingham, AL, October 2011)
So there we were, standing on the pier, fishing poles in hand, a small fish on the line, dangling in the air, tail flapping and gills spreading. My sons looked at me with sheer delight at their accomplishment. The smiles were broad and the chests were puffed. They looked at their fish again, and then my oldest said, “What do we do with it?” I replied, “Take it off the hook.” They both, in unison, turned to the fish to consider how this was done. And it occurred to them that the fish was going to have to be touched. The smiles faded a bit; the shoulders slumped a tad. They turned to me, again in unison, and my eldest said, “Ok, Dad; you do it.”
Personally, I’m not a big fan of holding a fresh fish (though eating a fresh fish I have no problem with). But while the head and tail are still attached, and while flapping is occurring, I’m not a fan of grabbing it. It’s not that it’s gross; I can deal with slime. It’s that they are slippery in their slime. Really slippery. For those who have done this, you know of what I speak. It’s tricky. I grab the fishing line with my right hand, and then with my left, starting at the head, run my hand down to about the mid point of the fish, in an attempt to get a grip on the chunkier part of the fish. Of course, if the fish starts to squirm, out it goes from the hand because of that blasted slippery factor. That’s ok if the fish is still on the hook, because I can start over. But if it has been unhooked, then instinct kicks in, and as it slips out of my hand, I start batting it, with a juggling action. Boys squeal, and try to move out of the way, and eventually someone falls off the pier, and then in an attempt to catch them, I fall off the pier. Of course, if the fish is one you want to keep, it falls in the water and swims away; but if it is one you wanted to release, it falls on the pier, and then flaps and gasps and generally makes itself pitiful so that the son left on the pier runs to it, squealing, and yelling to daddy to hurry to get out of the water and help the fish get into the water before it “diiiiiiiessssssss” (said exactly like that).
Managing emotions is a lot like handling a fish on the line. First, there is the sense of, “what do we do with it”. Second, they can be quite slippery when we attempt to handle them. They slip out of our understanding, and then get batted around as we try to regain some kind of control, which eventually means someone is going to wind up in a condition they did not want to be, with more emotion being stirred up than was originally present. Many people decide that emotions are either not worth it, and thus develop an unhealthy distrust of any emotion; or decide that emotions are what are most authentic, and thus emote all over the place about all things. The truth is, feelings serve a purpose, and they can be handled. The trick is not squeezing too hard so that they pop out of our hands, or not letting them just flap all over the place like a pitiful fish struggling to breathe. When we try to over-control our emotions, this occurs. Keeping them on the line helps. Going slow with them helps. Being patient and working with them, gently working our way down from the initial beginning of the emotion to the meatier part of it helps us to know what the feeling is about. Once we know what the feeling is about, what is generating it, then we can address the real problem. The feeling is not the problem—what is generating it is. Our emotions serve us well when we consider them to be an intricate signal system, trying to get our attention about something that is occurring or potentially occurring within our environment. But when we treat the emotion as the problem, we encounter that blasted slippery factor, and they slip out of our hands, get batted around, and we end up in more trouble than we seemed to be in from the first moment the feeling began to occur.
Take a deep breath. Remember that these things are slippery. But it can be done. It can be figured out. The hook can be removed. We can do this. Breathe. Just go slow. No one is going to diiiiiiiiie.
To talk further about the emotions you experience, please consider LifePractical Counseling for your counseling or consultant needs. You may reach us at 205-807-6645, or contact us via our website at www.lifepractical.org. Paul Johnson is a professionally licensed marriage and family therapist and professionally licensed counselor in the state of Alabama.