I first came across this poem by Rumi (translation by Coleman Barks) about 10 years ago when it was posted on the wall of an exhibition at Baltimore’s Visionary Arts Museum.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
What initially struck me about this poem was that all emotions were accepted and welcomed. This is certainly not the message that my parents had for me when I was growing up in the 80s and 90s. In fact, up until I read this poem, emotions weren’t really something discussed or thought about much at all, except when it came to figuring out how to “get rid of” or “manage” the negative ones and temper the rest (you may have gotten a similar or different message, depending on your age, race, gender, sexuality, culture, and more!).
In recent years, the perception of emotions in our society seems to have shifted, though. It’s generally more present and focused on how to identify and accept emotions and see them as “guides” or signals for our bodies and minds. We’re starting to accept that understanding our own emotions is now key to deep, authentic connection with ourselves and with others.
There are so many resources now, too. There are about a million kids’ books about feelings (here is one short list). Dr. Brené Brown’s most recent book, Atlas of the Heart, systematically categorizes and explains emotions and their similarities and differences (and so much more) and was subsequently turned into an HBO special. I personally like Permission to Feel by Dr. Marc Brackett; he lays out a clear, easy-to-follow system for identifying, labeling, communicating, and processing emotions. One-page emotions wheels or lists abound online and are helpful for quickly identifying more nuanced emotions. Meanwhile, Burnout by Dr. Emily Nagoski really digs into negative emotions, talks about how they are important signals to pay attention to, and offers concrete strategies and methods for accepting and processing them.
As part of my ongoing learning, I recently made a calming basket for myself. “Calm down corners” or “calming spaces” include tools and strategies, all in one, safe place. You will usually find these in schools or childcare spaces; they are one way that teachers and childcare specialists help children learn self-regulation. It sounded like something that would be a good idea for a person of any age, though.
I put my calming basket in my office, a place I love that is filled with plants and light and comfy cushions, and where I can go for quiet and privacy when I need some space to work through a particularly strong emotion of some kind. Here’s what is inside my basket:
- Coloring book and a brand-new pack of coloring pencils
- A deck of mindfulness / self-care cards
- A print-out of the 5 Senses Grounding Tool
- Dark chocolate
- A print-out of an emotions wheel
- A very soft new stuffy and a well-loved, familiar stuffy from my childhood
- A list of check-in questions (e.g., Am I tired? Am I thirsty? How is my body feeling and where am I feeling it? What do I need?)
- A journal and a favorite pen
- Aromatherapy spray
- A sand art picture
- A copy of I Am Love by Susan Verde (borrowed from my kid’s bookshelf!)
- A list of helpful coping strategies that won’t fit in the basket (such as using my yoga app, taking a walk or a shower, listening to music, etc.)
Once I had made my calming basket, my 8-year-old, Helena, had to put one of her own together (hers has very different stuff!). I love that I was so enthusiastic and excited about mine that she couldn’t wait to create hers. I also love that she is growing up with much more positive messages about feelings and emotions than I had at her age and that she’s also learning concrete strategies to understand and process them.
The deep dive I’ve taken to learn about emotions and feelings has been a critical part of my personal growth as an individual and as a parent. I have spent several years working to be more mindful of my emotions, then labeling, accepting, communicating, and processing them. It has taken a lot of work to rewire (some) of the ingrained habits and patterns and I make lots and lots of mistakes all the time. I know that I will likely always be learning when it comes to emotions and feelings, but I’m finally starting to accept what Rumi shared so beautifully in “The Guest House.” Emotions of all kinds are normal and special. They are a part of what makes us “this being human.” And it is worthwhile work to learn to “treat each guest honorably” so that we may forge deeper connections with ourselves, others, and our world.