I’m More Than Just Fine
Lynn McLaughlin and Karen Iverson Riggers
Consultants, co-owners, and members of Ebb & Flow Connections Cooperative in Northeast Wisconsin
Optimal mental health occurs when we are able to experience and cope with the entire range of human emotions. Lynn McLaughlin and Karen Iverson Riggers talk about why all of the messages we receive across the culture that indicate we should all exist in the “happy zone” all the time are counterproductive to our sense of well-being and mental health. Lynn and Karen are consultants, co-owners, and members of Ebb & Flow Connections Cooperative in Northeast Wisconsin. They can be reached at https://www.
[00:00:00] [Jaunty Guitar Music]
[00:00:11] Mike: Welcome everybody to Avoiding the Addiction Affliction, brought to you by the Kenosha County Substance Abuse Coalition. I'm Mike McGowan. You know, this time of year, and we're recording this around the holidays, it's supposed to be a time of joy. In fact, if we listen to all the messages we receive across the culture all the time, happy is a place we're all supposed to be all the time. My guests today are gonna talk about why it's important for our mental health to express the entire range of human emotions. Lynn McLaughlin is an entrepreneur, author, trainer, consultant, and co-owner and member of Ebb & Flow Connections Cooperative in Northeastern Wisconsin. And Karen Iverson Riggers is a writer, survivor, advocate, entrepreneur, community volunteer, and also [00:01:00] a co-owner and member of Ebb and Flow Connections Cooperative.
Welcome, ladies, how are ya?
[00:01:05] Karen: We're good. So glad to have this time together.
[00:01:09] Mike: Yeah. Well, I suppose how are you, is a great way to start the conversation about emotions to begin with, right?
[00:01:16] Karen: Well, and there's there's one answer to that. When someone asks you, how are you?
[00:01:20] Mike: And it is?
[00:01:21] Karen: Fine.
[00:01:22] Mike: Yeah. Well, we'll get into that, that's what we're going to talk about actually. But before we do that, Lynn, you know, when I introduce people, I think it's important - what is Ebb & Flow Connections and why did you all start it? It's a co-op, so?
[00:01:35] Lynn: So Ebb & Flow was born or launched in November of last year, and it really came about through a passion for emotional wellness and it started before Covid even began.
And as more and more people reached out for support or recognized that things weren't okay, [00:02:00] we expanded very, very quickly. So our goal in the Fox Valley area, and you know, the world is to continue creating emotional supports for people. So Ebb & Flow is made up of seven of us Emotional CPR practitioners and trainers. And we also each have like specialty things that we do. That's us.
[00:02:27] Mike: Well, and Karen, if I've got this right, you didn't originally call it Ebb & Flow Connections. Did you?
[00:02:34] Karen: Well, we had a working title for a little while.
[00:02:37] Mike: Which was?
[00:02:38] Karen: Which was the "Merry Band of Weirdos."
[00:02:41] Mike: You know, I kind like that better actually.
[00:02:44] Karen: Right? We joke about it, but it was, you know, for lots of folks who are really empathic, who live in the world of emotion, we often don't feel like we really fit in, and so [00:03:00] it was this like collection of folks who wanted to get uncomfortable and talk about emotion.
[00:03:05] Mike: Well, okay, since you already mentioned it I think one of the things, and we have a lot of practitioners and therapists who listen to this right, and have them on, but one of the things we all noticed, I think during and after the pandemic is a lot of folks seem to have a pretty low tolerance for almost any emotion. And it's fascinating, but I think is that part of the genesis of starting this is people were isolated and depressed.
[00:03:32] Lynn: Absolutely. And it's interesting because that question is really two-fold in nature. First of all, we are a society that doesn't welcome emotion.
[00:03:43] Mike: Mm-hmm.
[00:03:44] Lynn: you know, it's minimized and dismissed or get over it, or you know, there's all kinds of ways that we avoid being with emotions. So I think that was present before the pandemic even hit. And then you have this life altering [00:04:00] thing happened that tells you you need to learn how to navigate life in a different way, and it brings up all kinds of emotions. So I think it really amplified it. It's always been there, but it definitely amplified the discomfort with emotion and the impact people were feeling of suppressing emotion. So it was really kind of two-fold in nature. But yeah, it definitely amplified it.
[00:04:26] Mike: Well, yeah. And Karen, when people started experiencing difficult emotions, what we've noticed, and especially in the field that I'm focusing on, is people began to use substances. Which, as Lynn just said, I think further muted their feelings.
[00:04:43] Karen: Yeah. So, you know, when we talk about emotions, emotions are biological responses. Just like all of the other biological systems that work within our body, emotions are our biological response, and so understanding that emotions give us [00:05:00] important information about ourselves and the world around.
But they can often be uncomfortable. That's just part of it. And so we do all sorts of things. We use the term defenses, we do all sorts of things to avoid that discomfort. It could be substance use, it could be sarcasm, or like humor to deflect. It could be shopping, it could be sleeping, it could be all sorts of other kinds of distraction, right? And what I wanna say about defenses is they are brilliant and creative strategies that have helped us survive.
And I will always talk about substance use in that way, right? For a lot of folks, substance use happens as a result of trauma or as a result of suppressed emotion. And those defenses sometimes help us survive, right? But where it gets us into trouble is as a biological response. If we continue to suppress and [00:06:00] repress emotion and stuff it down and stuff it down and stuff it down, there's amazing emerging science that's telling us that this has a tremendous effect on our whole health and wellbeing. Mental, physical emotional.
[00:06:16] Mike: And it also seems, Lynn, like we have the ability, or at least we express one feeling at a time. Like Karen said when we started, there's one response to "how are you": fine? Right? Well, without going too much into detail I woke up this morning at the worst time possible, three minutes before the alarm went off, right? Right? And I, anybody listening to this knows exactly where I'm going. So I woke up in an irritated state right away because there's no way you can power sleep the next minute and a half. But within the next half an hour to an hour, by the time I left the house, I went from irritated to feeling calm, to laughing to feeling cold when I got outside - so we [00:07:00] experience tons of emotions every day, right?
[00:07:03] Lynn: That is correct, and we hold multiple emotions at one time as well. You know, we talk often about a really good metaphor for emotion is the weather. Well, if you live in Wisconsin, you know that you can have thunder, snow, and sunshine and hail, and that happens with emotion as well.
And the part that always blows me away is emotions literally lasts only 90 seconds. That's how long an emotion lasts. But how long do we spend trying to avoid it, which is when it lasts a really, really long time right? And when you talk about things like grief, I mean, you might have sadness come up like, you know, 20 times in a day when you're in the middle of grief.
So, yeah, they are all over the place and like I said, how much time do we spend trying to avoid them, which [00:08:00] actually makes 'em last even longer.
[00:08:02] Mike: So when you say 90 seconds, you mean experience it in 90 second bursts and then we can get it over again? It's like running sprints?
[00:08:09] Karen: Something like that. Yeah. Yeah, so when we talk about emotion and we use the word embody emotion, we talk about it like a wave, right? It starts, you start to feel it, you start to feel it, it gets real intense, it gets real intense, it crests, right, goes down. If we sit and really embody, sit in the emotion and really feel it - and this is where the trip comes in - because we often try to think our way out of emotion.
Why am I feeling this way? How can I get rid of this feeling? How can I think about this feeling and evaluate it or judge it or pile some shame on top of it that I'm feeling this way, right? And so this wave, that 90 second wave, if we really sit with it and embody it, 90 seconds, [00:09:00] which isn't that long, but it might feel like forever if you're in the middle of an emotion that feels uncomfortable.
But the idea of sitting with that wave to just feel it, to notice where we feel it in our body, to notice the texture of it, some people might describe it as a color or a warmth or a cold, but to really feel. It takes practice to do that.
And it also takes being willing to pause. You know, Lynn mentioned that weather exercise. We do that as an intro to a lot of our trainings. And lots of times when we do that, people are like, I don't even know how I'm feeling.
[00:09:36] Mike: Right.
[00:09:37] Karen: Like, I haven't checked in with myself. I don't even know.
[00:09:41] Mike: I had a woman one time I was working with and I walked into her house. I was doing in-home family therapy, right?
And, and I said, how are you? And she goes, I don't know. And I said, what do you mean you don't know? And she goes, well, my son's not home from school yet. I said, what does that have to do with how you're feeling? And, she goes, well, if he comes home in a bad [00:10:00] mood, I'll be in a bad mood. If he comes home in a good mood, I'll be in a good mood.
And I said, what if your husband comes home in a bad mood? She goes, and I thought she was, her brain was gonna explode at that. She said, well, all of my son's bad moods trump, all of my husband's good moods so depends on who's in the bad mood. Then I thought my brain was gonna explode. Lynn, people have trouble or they don't wanna sit in those negative emotions, right? Like shame and guilt and jealousy. But in order to deal with trauma, we have to sit there sometimes.
[00:10:33] Lynn: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I would even categorize it, I would take off the labeling of positive or negative.
[00:10:41] Mike: Hmm. Okay.
[00:10:42] Lynn: They're just emotion. And I think we see that so often in community, right? Where people are looking for the happy people. And the reality is human beings, it's the full range of emotion. And I know for me personally, part of my story is lived experience with substance [00:11:00] use, been in recovery a long time, but also looking at those patterns of emotion. There were certain emotions that were okay and other emotions that weren't, which is where I think that labeling comes from. But when we can embrace the full spectrum as human and not good and bad and really sit with the discomfort of it, right. That's the part that's really hard.
[00:11:23] Mike: Well, that's part of what I wanna talk about. Where do we get those messages? That this is okay, and this one isn't, and this is bad, and this one is great.
[00:11:34] Karen: Ooh, that's a good one. So some of it comes from our individual family and collective cultures, right? Some of this is cultural messaging, and I say it that way because culture is a very individual experience based on the intersection of all of our identities, right? All the ways we identify in the world. So individual culture, our own experience, what we've [00:12:00] experienced in our family, what we've been told explicitly or implicitly. And a lot of those implicit messages, like if you never saw an adult model anger in a way that allowed the feeling but didn't result in something bad happening. I would just like maybe categorize it that way. So what happens in our family.
In my family, for example there is a narrow band of emotion that's okay. Like we're come from good Scandinavian roots, like right in the middle, not too much up here, and certainly not down here. Okay, so comes from family, right? And, and that was just my experience.
[00:12:44] Mike: How many of us have heard from family? You shouldn't feel that way.
[00:12:49] Karen: Yeah. Yes. And as a parent, this is a practice that is really difficult to practice, but feels really important and that is [00:13:00] validating my kids' emotion. Even when I'm like, it's not a big deal that we had a little meltdown the other day because I took my little one who loves chicken to KFC and he thought we were going to Kentucky Fried Chicken, and he like just had a - and I'm like, dude, it's the same thing, right?
But validating the emotion that comes with that.
[00:13:26] Mike: Well, and Lynn, you talked about being in recovery and long ago, and I should copyright this, a couple of us put together a feelings chart and we had it on the wall of the treatment center I was working in, and it was, how do you feel today? And you know what I'm gonna say - and the feelings were mad, sad, glad, ashamed, afraid, hurt, which is like the primary colors of feelings. That's like Roy G. Biv, right?
Well, we feel a lot more than just those six. But when somebody is experiencing substance use, I [00:14:00] had so many people over the years, I don't know, I'm just variations of angry without going anywhere other than that.
And so people get a lot of solutions like anger management, and it's not anger management, it's other feelings as well. How do you, then, separate those out, figure out which emotions you're having and figure out how to cope?
[00:14:22] Lynn: So, the most important piece is slow down. Slow down. I know for me, like when my daughter left for college I was devastated and very much went into what could have been diagnosed as depression, like full-blown depression.
And when I allowed myself to sit with it, or I should say when she moved, when I allowed myself to sit with it, there were all kinds of emotions underneath there. And this was actually her move to Salt Lake City. There was fear, is she gonna be [00:15:00] okay? There was, you know, excitement, she's starting a new job, graduated from college.
There was sadness that we're gonna be so far apart. There was guilt. Did I give her enough as a mom to survive? I mean, it was just so much was going on inside of me, and had I not taken that opportunity to slow down and go, whoa, Lynn, what's going on? And really sat with it, I don't know that I would've had all that awareness around what was underneath there.
[00:15:33] Mike: Do, do you find that if you're able to find a, for lack of a better word, a solution to one of those feelings that the others just fall into line as we begin to cope with that?
[00:15:46] Lynn: I don't have an answer for that because it's very individual. For me, I did writing on it, I did a lot of talking on it, I talked about the fear piece as a mom. I talked about, you know, [00:16:00] just the incredible sadness of her being so far away. So there was acknowledgement of every feeling, I don't know that it was very structured. Yeah I was just a mess.
[00:16:15] Mike: How can you structured with a shotgun blast like that, right? You know, I think you used a word that I hear a lot, and Karen, it's fear, I think. We, experience that and we run from that big time, but there's all sorts of variations of fear. When you talk about in your blogs, two things, one is the change triangle and the other is Emotional CPR. Talk about those a little bit.
[00:16:40] Karen: Yeah. So first I'll talk a little bit about Emotional CPR. So Emotional CPR is a public health community education program that teaches folks how to assist someone in emotional distress or crisis. It provides a really powerful framework that anyone can learn how to better connect with [00:17:00] themselves and with others.
That's really what it's about, is connection. We talk about the outcome of eCPR is connection. And why that's so important is because so many folks feel disconnected right now. Disconnected from themselves and disconnected from community or others. And as human beings we're wired for connection. We are wired for connection. And when that disconnection happens, it leaves us feeling all kinds of things, right?
And so the idea is really with eCPR with folks examining and thinking about how to build deeper connection with themselves so they can also connect with others.
[00:17:43] Mike: Well, I was gonna say, and healthy connections with others, right?
[00:17:46] Karen: Yeah, yeah, yeah, absolutely. Because the framework of eCPR, which I find really powerful, talks about how we can hold space. We use the term hold space. Like, kind of like a [00:18:00] container for someone else's feelings and emotions. But eCPR is a human to human mutual connection. So that means it comes without roles. So we take off our hats of helper and healthy, or well and sick, and it becomes a mutual human connection where we can both share of our own experiences. Really powerful, and that vulnerability of sharing of ourselves in connection is something that enhances connection.
[00:18:32] Mike: And that's done with just the outcome being we're gonna share without a linear outcome that we're going somewhere and have to resolve.
[00:18:40] Karen: That's right. That's right. Because so many times we enter into an interaction with someone and somebody else already has an agenda or a goal in mind. And when that happens, we usually stop listening. You come in and we're like, yep, we're gonna set up this goal, and then you're like, oh, I'm done listening to what you have to [00:19:00] say because we already have this thing to do.
[00:19:01] Mike: Yeah. I'm chuckling cuz we're in the middle of the holidays and my mind goes to holidays and family right away and geez, there's no agenda in either of those.
[00:19:10] Karen: Right, right, right. And coming into an interaction without fixing, without judging, right, with leaving all of those things and these are, this framework is real simple on its face, I would say, and really challenging in practice because I can say from my own experience the way I was taught to help and putting that in quotes, "help people", was very different than the help that I found helpful. The help that I found most helpful was when I really felt seen and heard just as I was and someone held space for what was going on with me. It wasn't the, like, we came up with goals and this whole treatment plan, right? It was those times when I really had real connection with someone.
[00:19:59] Mike: Well, and [00:20:00] we all are different people, so, you know, if you and I are brother and sister having a conflict, you may need to vent and talk it out, and I may need to get in my car and go to Kwik Trip.
[00:20:11] Karen: Right, right.
[00:20:12] Mike: So, you know, so the connection and talking is the important part. Well, Lynn, what is the change triangle that you all use?
[00:20:19] Lynn: So the Change Triangle was created by Hilary Jacobs Hendle, and she has a book that's called, It's Not Always Depression, and the Triangle helps you sit with your emotion and kind of do what I was describing when I felt depressed to really sit with it and allow the uncovering of what's underneath it to start to recognize all those defenses that Karen was talking about, whether it's, you know, I can think of scrolling through your phone all of the ways that we avoid being with the emotions. So it provides a framework of [00:21:00] recognizing the emotion, recognizing defenses, and then looking at secondary emotions like guilt and shame and kind of unpacking those to see what's really underneath, because those are a result often of suppressed emotion. So to unpack all of that, and I think about that in my own life, my own trauma, when I look at the shame that I carried for many, many years, all of the emotions that were part of that, that I had nowhere to go with, you know, and that's when my substance use started.
[00:21:34] Mike: Yeah, and you know, like you're saying, if I show anger and people give me, and I use anger reduction techniques to deal with that feeling, but what's underneath it is something like shame, well, the anger techniques aren't gonna do a darn thing about shame, are they?
[00:21:54] Lynn: Right, right. Because the shame is, the best way to describe it, is a ball [00:22:00] of yarn. That's all knotted and there's threads all over, and we start to pull them out. You know, again, looking at some of my trauma, the anger that I wasn't allowed to express showed up as shame. The sadness, you know, and there's so many different emotions around trauma, but oftentimes the trauma impact happens when we're not giving that space to fully express how it affected us and have someone to listen without judgment and without dismissing it and without saying, you know, that's not trauma.
Well, I get to define that, right? And each of us gets to define that for ourselves. What was traumatic or not.
[00:22:41] Mike: Yeah. And for those of you who can't identify with a ball of yarn, think of your Christmas lights and putting those on.
[00:22:47] Karen: Yeah. Yeah. Same. Yes, well done for the holidays. On on trend.
[00:22:52] Lynn: Perfect. Perfect. Perfect.
[00:22:54] Mike: So what I'm hearing then, Karen, and its should seem obvious, but I don't think it necessarily is [00:23:00] a given, all emotions have value.
[00:23:03] Karen: All emotions have value. Yeah, absolutely. And I don't think that's a given. Because, of all the messaging that we get around emotion, right? Whether it's judgment messaging of good or bad, or whether it's, I shouldn't feel this way, right, as resulting of something that happened.
All emotions have value. Those are biological responses that are giving us important information. And so you had asked a question earlier about, you know, kind of like, what's the solution or what's the end game, if you will, in doing this. In taking on this practice myself, of taking time to pause, to check in with myself, and it's just like a couple minutes at a time, this isn't like 15 minutes a day, it's like a couple minutes throughout my day where I really check in, like, how am I feeling?
And the interesting part about this practice is [00:24:00] my anxiety is less as a result of doing this, I think I'm sleeping better. I mean, I can like anecdotally say this from my own life, from doing this, and I feel just more grounded. Just more grounded in this practice of saying all emotions have value and in saying that all emotions have value, there's also some self-validation that happens to say it's okay that you feel this way. It's almost like kind of like parenting your inner child a little bit, right? It's okay that you feel scared. It's okay that you feel sad, even though all the conditions around you tell you you should be feeling happy right now. It's okay. And there's an interesting thing that happens with that self-validation.
[00:24:45] Mike: And it sounds like then that if you feel comfortable with the range of emotions that I think I just heard you say, that eventually leads us to that little happy zone.
[00:24:58] Karen: Yeah. So I love the way [00:25:00] that Hillary Jacobs Hendel phrases it, she calls it an open-hearted state. I don't know that it is saying like, the end, the end goal is that I'm happy all the time. That's just not real. The end goal is that I'm in an open-hearted state, meaning that I'm welcoming emotion.
There's a beautiful poem by Rumi that's called the "Guest House". And it talks about, in this poem, welcoming each emotion as a visiting guest that's coming to teach you. And when you think about how you welcome a guest, right? You welcome them in, you give them a cup of coffee, my family's from Western Wisconsin, you give them, we call it a little lunch, right? You give 'em a little snack, right? So there's this concept of treating emotions like welcome guests that are there to teach us, to give us information about ourselves. And so this idea of open-hearted state of saying, I'm going to welcome these things in, I'm gonna validate them, [00:26:00] I'm going to feel them. And with that, being in that open-hearted state, there is this, I mean, she talks about it in her book, I've experienced it myself, a decrease in anxiety, a better sleep feeling, just better in my body would be the way I would describe it.
[00:26:20] Lynn: I would even add there's a peace about it. Peace and presence, I'm no longer carrying around the emotion from a week ago that pissed me off, or, you know, when I allow myself to feel it all the way through, there's a presence and a peace that everything's okay. I don't know how to describe it other than that.
[00:26:42] Mike: Well, and then, just like the guests, the relatives, you invite in for a little bit of lunch. We can also invite them to leave.
[00:26:50] Karen: That's correct.
[00:26:51] Mike: Yeah. If you're uncomfortable in emotion, you can cope with it and deal with it. And that's empowering, isn't it?
[00:26:58] Karen: Yeah. Rumi [00:27:00] says in the poem, they may be clearing you out for some new delight, right? Like leaving this space for something else to emerge out of that.
[00:27:11] Mike: Better relatives. Better... well this has been great. Yeah, obviously I told you before we started recording this, that we could make this into about a nine-hour podcast. And maybe, we'll, you know, if you're open to it, maybe we'll do a part two because we could do a deep dive into all of this.
[00:27:28] Karen: Yeah.
[00:27:29] Mike: But I wanted to do this around the holidays because we get all of these messages about happy and joy, and it's a mix, right? It's stressful, it's anxiety producing. We sometimes relive trauma during this time. And the message that you're giving us is really healthy that we can sit in all those. We have all those. And that's necessary for a healthy mental health for all of us.
Ladies, thank you so much for joining us today.
[00:27:57] Lynn: Absolutely. This was fun.
[00:27:59] Karen: Thank you for [00:28:00] having us and we say during this time of year, we wish you happy holidays or not. It might not be happy. And that's okay.
[00:28:10] Mike: Maybe I'll use that as the title. That would be great. See if that passes muster. As always, you know, listeners, that the contact information for Lynn and Karen is at the bottom of this podcast for Ebb & Flow Connections. Explore it, they have a blog, they have a bunch of different articles, and I'm sure they would love it if you make a connection with them. For the rest of you, please listen in next week when we discuss more issues around mental health and addiction.
Until then, stay safe, pause and be whatever you are.
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