During parent orientation for college recently, a faculty member was suggesting that we discuss with our students how we feel about them leaving. He wisely knew that most of us are pretty disconnected from the feelings we have about it. Inevitably, he said, a parent will pull him aside in the hallway and say something like, ‘Do you see that spot on the wall in my student’s dorm room? How are they supposed to concentrate on their studies with that enormous spot on the wall? You need to get this fixed immediately!” This kind gentleman who had taken on the challenge of overseeing the housing for kids of all temperaments and varying levels of maturity, however, saw right through it. It’s not about the spot on the wall.
When we feel a great deal of emotion about something, but we are not connected to it, (i.e., we can neither identify nor articulate the feelings or their source), we assign it to the nearest possible vessel. In this case, we place the feelings on the spot on the wall and put all of our focus onto that, the alleged source of the problem. Logically, paint and spackle won’t even begin to soothe that mass of feelings, but since we don’t even know what we’re dealing with, it seems our only option. With nothing else to blame our feelings on, we stay focused on the spot on the wall.
These days when everyone is so intense and oftentimes even threatening, it would be all too easy to take the bait and argue about dorm room repairs. This wise educator, however, knew just how to handle the spot on the wall situation. He would offer the parent a hug and tell them that their son or daughter was going to miss them, too.
What vessel do you use to place unidentified emotion? Whenever you sense intense feelings of any sort, take a deeper look. Most likely your feelings don’t have anything to do with what you’re placing them on: the spilled milk, the car parked crooked in the driveway, not being copied on an e-mail, etc. Once you are able to recognize the deeper feelings, you will learn to respond differently and finally get some relief. Or, you can keep patching the walls . . .